Everywhere I travel in Britain, I find creative talents waiting to be tapped, entrepreneurial flair ready to be unleashed and outstanding young people impatient to be given their chance. All are being held back by our broken economy and broken politics. Twelve years of Conservative government have made the United Kingdom the most regionally unequal economy in Europe, and its most centralised state. And 2022 ends with our country in a doom loop: the more the economy fails, the more people lose trust. And despite the promise of 2016 that the people would take back control, millions feel ignored, neglected, forgotten and invisible to the powers that be, all too often feeling they are being treated as second-class citizens.
So we need to change who governs but we also need to change the way we are governed. And to bridge the gap between the Britain we are and the Britain that we can become, the Commission on the UK’s Future, which reported to Keir Starmer this week, is demanding a new economic and political settlement to ditch a century of centralisation, end the over-concentration of power in Westminster and call time on the long era of “the man in Whitehall knows best”.
It is, of course, a tale as old as time that constitutional commissions take minutes and waste years, only to see their reports written off within seconds of publication. With good reason. They usually fixate on abstract, out-of-touch, legalistic remedies, at the expense of addressing the everyday lives and challenges faced by ordinary citizens fed up with poor government.
This was the criticism that has been levelled at our own commission. It is a criticism I reject. For our key insight is that in order to build economic prosperity across the United Kingdom and alleviate fast-rising poverty, political reform is a necessity. Any economic plan will fail unless the right powers are in the right places in the hands of the right people. The goal of an irreversible transfer of wealth, income and opportunity to working families across the United Kingdom is dependent upon the irreversible transfer of political power closer to the people. The two go together.
That’s why our commission started by asking the basic question all of Britain is now asking: how can we ensure a permanent rise in our country’s standards of living? We know doubling growth, increasing productivity and creating the new well-paid jobs of the future will not come from trying to win a race to the bottom to attract low-paying jobs from abroad, just as it will never again come from old British monoliths such as British Steel, British Coal and British Telecom.
Instead, we have identified nearly 300 employment hotspots across our towns and cities, in every region and nation, where the best combination of homegrown inventions, entrepreneurship and workplace skills can create world-beating products and internationally competitive companies in the digital, environmental, life sciences, advanced manufacturing and creative industries.
But what these firms – many built out of our universities and the NHS – need is a supportive local environment: a commitment to train skilled workers, fund pathbreaking research, open up access to investors and build good transport links and modern infrastructure. So instead of running them from Whitehall, we propose to transfer all of our country’s 630 job centres and 200 colleges of education to local control. The mayors and local authority economic partnerships will oversee local bus and train services, as well as planning and housing. We will revamp the British Business Bank with a mandate to end the long-term equity shortage faced by growing firms in the regions, and we propose to seek joint ventures with the European Investment Bank, among a series of measures, to invest in local infrastructure.
But we must also prevent the wrong powers from being hoarded in the wrong places. Because past devolution programmes have left the centre unreformed, a new Britain needs a new Westminster and a new Whitehall. About 50,000 civil servants and a host of agencies will be dispersed out of London. But we need to do much more than that if we are to reform an out-of-date, out-of-touch centre that is out of sync with local needs, out of its depth – trying in vain to micro-manage decisions best made locally – and all too often out of control; exposed daily (as has been happening this week) for cronyism and conflicts of interest amid allegations of political corruption, the misuse of power and the abuse of patronage.
Britain is no longer an empire, and the people of Britain are not subjects but citizens. Yet our institutions do not reflect this. The starting point of a new politics is clarity about what the UK is for and what our obligations to each other are. Our constitution should state that these include the guarantee of free, universal healthcare, an end to poverty and the creation of a sustainable environment, as well as the defence of our security.
Cleaning up our politics starts with ending all foreign funding of it, banning MPs’ second jobs, stopping the prime minister from being the judge and jury of their own behaviour, and setting up an integrity and ethics commission backed up by an anti-corruption agency to uphold proper standards in public life. But it also means a final end to the era of self-regulation. A citizens’ jury should have the power to scrutinise standards in public life. A new second chamber would lose its right to delay ordinary legislation for a year, but once it becomes a democratically elected body it should assume a new function to protect the constitution.
Scandals in our politics, such as we are seeing repeated yet again with the Baroness Mone case, should produce new standards. In 1925 the Honours (Preventions of Abuses) Act was passed after David Lloyd George had openly charged upwards of £50,000 for a peerage and £10,000 for a knighthood. The 1990s’ “brown envelopes of cash” scandal brought the Nolan principles for the conduct of public life. The 2009 MPs’ expenses scandal, which led to prison sentences for some MPs, brought a new independent commission to root out wrongdoing.
In a few days, Rishi Sunak will have to approve yet another tainted honours list from Boris Johnson, and no one should doubt that from Greensill to Partygate we have witnessed the most scandal-ridden political decade in living memory. This may yet lead to criminal prosecutions. But much more radical surgery is required. The time is overdue not just for a clear-out and clean-up, but for the new constitution we propose. We can only become the fair and prosperous Britain of the future if we free ourselves from the ossified, centralised and tainted politics of the past.