Speaking to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Professor Kenny warned that England’s system of government has become one of the most centralised in the developed world and advised that, for future reforms to succeed, the mind-set in central government will need to change.
A parliamentary inquiry into the ‘evolution of English devolution’ was held on Tuesday 20 October 2020 to hear oral evidence from several leading academics who called for further reforms to England’s system of government.
Michael Kenny, professor of public policy and inaugural director of the Bennett Institute, said that England’s current governance arrangements are among the most centralised of any large democracy in the developed world and are increasingly opaque from a citizen’s perspective (09:31:56).
When asked what the future of devolution in England might look like, Professor Kenny argued that future reforms may benefit from building on elements of the current system, including the clear mandates presently enjoyed by the metro mayors. However, he also suggested that the powers of regional authorities are weak in comparison with those of subnational governments in other countries (09:38:28). For future reforms to succeed, central government will need to be prepared to relinquish more control. Moreover, Professor Kenny argued that future reforms will struggle to take root if they do not take seriously the importance of deeply-held local identities, whether those operate at the county, city or town level.
Professor Kenny was also asked to comment on the extent to which the Conservative and Labour parties may be able to reconcile their divergent views on devolution. Drawing on his recent research into contending attitudes to devolution and English identity, Professor Kenny explained that the difference of opinion on devolution between the two main parties reflects a deeper rift in the way that England itself is understood (10:31:11). Where politicians on the centre right have tended to understand Englishness as a meaningful identity and England as a collective community with its own interests, those on the centre left have been more prone to emphasise the importance of regional identities, while interpreting claims about Englishness as illusory or reactionary. In the absence of a “richer interchange” between these two perspectives, devolution reforms in England are likely to “ping pong” between conflicting approaches, he said.
Finally, the committee asked what impact the witnesses thought the Covid-19 pandemic was likely to have on English devolution. Professor Kenny responded that the crisis has shone a light on the relationship between central and local government in two ways (11:26:40). Firstly, it has triggered a “centralising reflex” in Westminster which contrasts starkly with the more decentralised approaches of countries like Germany. Secondly, the recent negotiations between central government and local leaders over proposals to place Greater Manchester under stricter restrictions has demonstrated that metro mayors do enjoy some meaningful political power and a clear mandate. Given the highly visible role of local leaders in these negotiations, the pandemic may inaugurate a new phase in the evolution of devolution, Professor Kenny said.
Professor Kenny was invited to attend the session alongside Professor Sarah Ayres, Dr Arianna Giovannini and Professor Richard Wyn Jones. The inquiry is accepting written submissions until Monday 23 November 2020.
Edited from the full evidence session, watch Professor Michael Kenny deliver his oral evidence on the Government's English Devolution White Paper.