14 October 2020

Britain needs its own Meiji Restoration


When it comes to fighting Covid, the British response seems to have managed to combine the worst effects both of over-centralisation and excessive devolution.

Between the Home Nations, the Government’s inability to pursue national policies has been laid bare. In the early stages of the crisis, people in Scotland and Wales were repeatedly left waiting for such initiatives as priority home shopping deliveries or a volunteering service. The so-called ‘Four Nations’ approach to lockdown broke down, raising the spectre of internal movement barriers within the UK.

Yet in England, the top-down, highly centralised approach adopted by the Government and Public Health England has also fared extremely badly. Having ordered the first lockdown to buy the time needed to develop an effective track and trace system, much of the nation now faces a second because none has arrived.

The attempt to shift from national measures to more closely targeted regional measures has further exacerbated these difficulties. National government imposing a national lockdown was one thing; national government imposing regional restrictions quite another.

Here, London’s woes echo Edinburgh’s. In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon faces allegations that she was much more prepared to lock down Aberdeen than Glasgow (which is home to her own constituency), even when the latter had a much higher incidence of Covid-19. In England, Boris Johnson stands accused of trying to force the North back into lockdown ‘on the cheap’. In both cases, it is local government figures leading the charge.

Yesterday’s papers report that the Prime Minister, at least, is changing tack towards locally-led track-and-trace programmes, which have been successfully piloted in areas such as the West Midlands. Extra government funding will be made available to local authorities which bring in appropriate restrictions – so-called ‘cash for crackdowns’.

Northern leaders insist it isn’t enough, and have threatened to take the Government to court to get more money. This might be true, although we may also be witnessing a new generation of devocrats acquainting themselves with the battle-hymn of their tribe: “Blame Westminster! Give us money!”

There is political danger here for the Government. On the one hand, it will not do its prospects in the north it it looks like local leaders had to plead for intervention. Ministers should take care to ensure that they continue to be visibly, directly, and pro-actively involved, just as they are now trying to do in Scotland and Wales.

On the other, it will be deeply toxic if the impression sticks of a largely southern party imposing cavalier restrictions on the rest of the nation. This was the idea so effectively (and ultimately, self-destructively) weaponised by Scottish Labour in the 1980s, before they bequeathed it to the SNP. Institutions such as the metro-mayoralties may not have the popular potency of the Scottish Parliament, but they may yet acquire a portion of it. It is an iron law of devolution that new institutions take on a life of their own. 

We might hope that this brutal exposure of the inadequate state of the State might prompt a serious rethink about how Britain is governed.

But the barriers to this are formidable. The current devolution ‘settlement’ has a legion of defenders who would stand to lose out from any streamlining or rationalisation. At the other end, Whitehall’s command-and-control culture stems on health issues is baked into the structure of some of our most cherished institutions. As the famous quote apocryphally attributed to Bevan (“The sound of a dropped bedpan in Tredegar Hospital will reverberate round the Palace of Westminster.”) illustrates, ministerial accountably – and therefore control – was a founding premise of the NHS.

It is easy to look overseas and find other countries (usually Germany, in this context) doing things better. But that doesn’t mean we have the social or political conditions to successfully transplant their solutions. Many of the civil and social institutions to which we might once have devolved power, and the social instincts which gave rise to them, have withered away as the state usurped their functions. These cannot simply be willed back into existence.

Confronted with this patchwork of entrenched vested interests and dysfunctional institutions, it feels almost as if Britain needs its own version of the Meiji Restoration: a comprehensive and clear-sighted overhaul of the state, conducted with an eye to tradition and the power and sovereignty of the nation – complete with a modern-day Iwakura Mission to bring home best practice from overseas.

Alas, this Government does not seem likely to deliver it. So mostly likely we will simply limp on, patching and mending, through the long twilight of the Attlee Shogunate.

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Henry Hill is Assistant Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.