In defence of devolution: a response to Polly Toynbee

Prospect’s column on centralisation was fallacious at best. At worst it was simply anti-democratic

April 19, 2021
Yon Marsh / Alamy Stock Photo
Yon Marsh / Alamy Stock Photo

In the most recent issue of Prospect, Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee urges readers to be careful what they wish for when it comes to devolution. In her piece, she defends England’s centralised status quo and sets out a range of arguments against decisions being made at local levels.  

In our highly centralised country, there is no shortage of people who want to limit power to SW1, but these beliefs are usually tacit. Politicians are careful to pay lip-service to the need for more regional control, while doing little to disperse power. Toynbee is rather more forthright.  

Toynbee’s argument itself is unusual because she contends that progressive political ends would be better served by a centralised system than by a more devolved one. It’s an argument that misses the mark on her own, progressive, terms—as well as neglecting the wider case for sharing power.

The success of the UK vaccination programme, argues Toynbee, has been a recent sign of centralism’s advantages. But while it is true that the NHS has done a remarkable job here, a great deal has depended on local expertise and infrastructure. GP practices have been instrumental in organising vaccinations. Local authorities have helped decide what to do with unused vaccine stock, while many are also running test-and-trace systems previously mishandled by private contractors. The vaccines themselves, though centrally procured, have been developed and manufactured by a mix of local, national, and indeed international actors in the public and private sectors.

Toynbee also fails to take a broader look at the pandemic, where the UK’s status as the most centralised country among those of comparable size and wealth is part of the reason that we have faced such negative outcomes up to this point—of which the chaotic centralisation of test-and-trace is only one example. Failure through most of the pandemic was nationally uniform, but is this uniformity what voters want? 

But Toynbee doesn’t seem to mind what voters want. Devolution, according to Toynbee, “sounds” more democratic than it is, when it would actually just shift power from one bureaucratic elite to another. Of course, a poorly designed process of devolution carries this risk. There are growing calls for power-sharing built around principles of democracy and community power, which would give local people—and not just councils—more control. It is not clear that Toynbee thinks that local people should be trusted with such control, however—because she thinks they might choose to do the wrong things.

Toynbee writes: “progressives always point to councils they like, forgetting the mass of authorities that tax and spend as little as they can.” This is a genuinely anti-democratic logic—and carries with it serious implications. If people can’t be trusted to vote for the right sorts of things, why should they be trusted with power at any level? Devolution, indeed democracy in general, makes it harder to bulldoze local interests with central ideologies. Sometimes this will be ideology that we agree with, and sometimes not—that’s democracy for you.

Toynbee is right to highlight the cuts that local government has endured over the last decade, and the ways in which austerity was effectively “devolved” for councils to implement. However, rather than serving as evidence that devolution is bad, this actually demonstrates that devolution needs to go further—so that councils cannot simply be enlisted as a smokescreen for unpopular Westminster agendas. Think of it this way: if councils were more powerful, would austerity have been enacted so easily? Or is it more likely that an empowered local government sector would have acted as a bulwark against bad fiscal policy coming from the centre?

Voters certainly do, as Toynbee points out, “object to ‘postcode lotteries’ in standards and services.” But localised failures are driven not by devolution, but by one-size-fits-all policymaking that can’t possibly do the trick in every corner of our brilliantly diverse country. Instead, efforts to homogenise risk a levelling-down effect: the public services of the lowest common denominator. 

Progressives can do better than wait for the Westminster pendulum to finally swing back toward them again. We badly need an ambitious new approach to devolution. It would be a bad mistake to shrug that opportunity off just because it will empower councils controlled by different parties. The online headline to Toynbee’s article warns us to “be careful what you wish for”—but if you’re serious about sticking with the status quo, be careful what you end up with.