A protest outside parliament the day after the Leave vote. London strongly backed Remain © Getty

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London is not quite as lonely within the UK as it sometimes feels. In June, the capital voted to stay in an EU that Britons as a whole rejected, but then so did Scotland, Manchester, Bristol, Liverpool and Newcastle. To the extent that Europeanism is shorthand for a certain sensibility — open, businesslike, optimistic about change — London has co-conspirators. The country is fragmented, not elegantly split between one city and a lumpen, undifferentiated hinterland. 

As a consolation for liberal Londoners still smarting at the referendum result, this is not much to hang on to. But it may contain a hint as to how a nation of such varying impulses can be governed. 

Britain is one of the most centralised countries in the rich world. Until now, the case for devolving power within it has majored on efficiency. Public services might be better, for instance, if all material decisions were made near the people who use them. If more taxes were raised and spent locally, communities could also make grown-up choices about the proper size of the state. 

The assumption here is that every voter and every town ultimately wants the same thing: only the means are contested. Localism has become a technocrat’s cause, a way of tinkering our way to a smoother-running country. And we wonder why it never takes off. 

The referendum showed that people disagree on what constitutes the good life, not just how to achieve it. Forced to choose, some voters would trade a bit of economic dynamism for greater social stability. National sovereignty was an esoteric concept to millions of people and a point of unshakeable principle for many in the triumphant 52 per cent. 

These divergent sentiments, cloaked for decades under a Blairite-Thatcherite consensus among policymakers, could be the cue for despair. Or they could give the cause of devolution an emotional force it has always lacked. If Britain is a patchwork of beliefs, national policy can never fail to frustrate a large share of the population. Local decision-making is no clean fix — not every Londoner is relaxed about immigration, not everyone in Sunderland opposed to it — but its inherent looseness is a better fit for a society that has grown too complex for its institutions. 

The great giveaway of power should start at the ultimate point of contention. If London (or Bristol, or Manchester, or any other commercial city) is hungry for foreign labour, it should be able to issue its own work visas. Recipients would have to clear security checks at a national level and could not stray to any job in any part of the kingdom they fancy.

Aside from those trammels, however, each mayor or local authority would be free to decide the annual number of visas and the qualifying criteria. Lincoln could retrench while London opens up even more. The nervous-minded would see this as the fragmentation of Britain. It would actually be a case of politics catching up to a fragmentation that already exists. 

Britain’s tight laws on planning and land use could also give way to local fiat. The resulting decisions may confound stereotypes of an anything-goes capital and a deindustrialised north averse to change. It is a region like the north-east that has every incentive to cut planning constraints on commercial property to the bare minimum. Businesses need a reason to set up there and ease of construction is a compelling one. Conversely, it is London, spoilt for choice by high-value planning applications, that can discriminate according to aesthetics and the social good. 

Localism should not be oversold. Some questions can only be decided by national governments and the exact nature of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU is one of them. If the country leaves the single market, there will be no carve-out that somehow keeps the capital and a few other pro-European cities inside. But the referendum exposed irreconcilable differences on matters that go beyond EU membership, including the pace of change and our exposure to markets. These can only be accommodated, if imperfectly, by a looser model of government. 

If politicians have always talked a better game about devolution than they have played, it is because the clamour has been so muted. The divisions illuminated by the referendum might change that, galvanising a think-tank trope into a popular cause — with London at the vanguard.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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