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Wednesday 2 October 2019

The Readout

Is London wrecking the UK?

We went to Manchester for a ThinkIn to test the question

 

By Matthew d’Ancona

The thing about arguments is, if you really want to have one, you can always find something to fall out about. Disputes, like fashions, change over time.

I was recently told by a leading pollster that, according to his qualitative and quantitative analysis, the key dividing line in Briton’s political self-identification had shifted in recent years from Left versus Right (or Labour versus Tory); to Remain versus Leave; to London versus non-London.

This was the backdrop to our ThinkIn at Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry, one of the North West’s most impressive cultural institutions. And there was little dissent from the central contention: that the divide between London and the rest of the UK is a fundamental factor in the present political turmoil.

But the political, emotional and fiscal reality is more subtle than it first appears. As Luke Raikes, Senior Research Fellow at the think-tank IPPR North, put it, the real problem is not London in general, but the Treasury as a specific institution.

The UK is entirely subject to the criteria, methodologies and value judgments that a single department of state applies to investment. The prospects of true decentralisation – spreading jobs, money, opportunities – will always be limited until this immense concentration of fiscal power is addressed.

Tortoise ThinkIn at the Museum of Science and Technology in Manchester

To add to the nuance, Alistair Hudson, director of the Whitworth and Manchester Art Gallery, argued that the true divide was between metropolitan culture and non-metropolitan culture – both of which could be found all over the UK. What determined the fortunes of a city were not just the diktats from the governing capital but the broader values that prevailed within its own élite.

How best to tackle this? Edna Robinson of the People’s Powerhouse – which styles itself as a movement to shape the debate around the Northern Powerhouse – made a persuasive case for an investment and regeneration strategy based on genuinely democratic consultation.

Edna Robinson of the People’s Powerhouse

She echoed the argument advanced by Michael Taylor, head of regional affairs at Manchester Metropolitan University, for trust-building exercises among local organisations.

Acting in concert, he said, such bodies had a much better chance of being heard by Whitehall and Westminster. It was also clear that devolution can be patronising if it is not carried out with sufficient local knowledge. The heavy losses seen in the UK’s regional press is intrinsic to this democratic deficit. Can the BBC and social media fill the gap?

Russ from the Co-Op pointed out that it would be of greater use to more people in the region to have a better rail service between Manchester and Preston than to shave 10 minutes off the London-Manchester train journey.

Etched into this debate are profound questions about nationhood and whether the UK wishes to be a single megalopolis with outlying city-branches and a largely neglected countryside – or a genuinely cohesive society.

Many of these issues must await the resolution of the Brexit nightmare before they are tackled with anything approaching seriousness. But they are no less important than our relationship with the EU in determining what sort of country we aspire to be in the 21st Century.

Photographs Steve Morgan for Tortoise & Getty Images

What do you think?

 

How do you feel about London? Is the UK capital a force for good or a source of harm? Send us your thoughts to: Liz@tortoisemedia.com