The problem with UK

Unbalanced and undemocratic union
UK unbalanced and undemocratic

The problem seems to be about decision-making

Whether it’s the lack of regional decision-making, the lack of Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish input into UK’s decision-making or the way UK sees itself in relation to EU decision-making, there certainly seems to be a common theme.

Relative to these issues, there are other aspects of the UK political system that present as problems, such as the absence of a written constitution, the existence of the House of Lords, and the dominance of only two political parties.

Regional Inequality

The UK ranks as one of the worse – by a long way – Western countries for regional inequality. And while the idea of being left behind and ignored is common to communities in many democracies around the world, the actual quantifiable differences like general funding, transport funding, average GDP underline this massive problem.

A chart showing the differences in average GDP per person of the poorest and richest regions in selected countries.

A chart showing the differences in average GDP per person of the poorest and richest regions in selected countries.

As you can see, already in 2000, Britain had the largest disparity by far. Fifteen years later, it was wider still. Of course, if we consider that it’s London as the richest region we would expect the increase in wealth to have happened so much there, with the increase in property prices demanding that this region’s residents are wealthier. But this is the problem: With no regional capital cities, London will always be a wealth magnet leaving everywhere else in England, especially, struggling.

So let’s take a look at cities in general, not just two regions per country. This graphic from IPPR North compares the relative economic performances of the major cities in a selection of countries.

The interesting thing is that the two large countries with little significant regional devolution, France and UK, show a very large disparity. And the three large countries that have much more significant regional devolution, have a much more equal economic performance.

Since 2019, the talk, of course, has been about levelling up the English regions, very often specifically in relation to public spending. Such a right-wing idea to think it’s about money rather than the democracy to decide how it is spent.

But the information is again clear; the differences between regions is massive and even the South East England region attracts far less spending than London.

National Inequality

It is often said that UK should be a union of equals. But when the population of England is ten times larger than Scotland, and larger still for Wales and Northern Ireland, that can’t really be the case because it would then mean an English resident has much less democratic power than anyone else. So then, what happens is that the UK government becomes the English government and the other governments get ignored.

This breeds resentment on all sides. The Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish feel like second class citizens, while the English tend to reject the idea that those nations should get more competency over policy areas for themselves, such as education or transport policy, while continuing to have the right to vote for legislation that only affects England.

English Votes for English Laws (EVEL) was a good example of this; By and large Scottish MPs didn’t want to participate in Westminster debates or voting for issues that only affected England, that is, for issues that their own Holyrood MSPs had competency over. The problem was they felt they had to, because many of those decisions affected the way UK calculated the funding for Scotland even if they had no direct implication.

The whole situation is just a lop-sided, hot mess, and has fuelled calls for independence in Scotland and to a lesser extent in Wales – even if most of the people in those nations don’t quite agree that independence would be a good idea.

Disregarding the EU

UK’s relationship with the EEC then EC then the EU has always been a bit iffy. The French vetoed Britain joining twice, in 1963 and 1967. Britain was just too different – strong ties to USA and the Commonwealth and a different way of doing things from agricultural polices to the legal system.

As new members, first Labour were not really fans of the EEC, then came Thatcher’s criticisms and Black Wednesday and the Maastricht Treaty; events that strengthened Conservative feelings against the “European project”.

Into the New Labour period, Britain signed up to the Social Chapter and opened the doors to immigration from the new members from Central and East Europe – but still UK was “semi-detached”. Not in the Euro, not in the Schengen Zone, both Blair and Brown failed to really sell the idea of the EU to an apathetic and semi-hostile British public.

That apathy can be seen with the failure of the British to turnout for EU Parliament elections. As low as 24% in 1999 and never higher than 40%, almost half of the turnout for general elections, when all of the other large nations were easily north of 50% and much closer to their turnouts in domestic contests. Ironically, the anti-EU Brits were more engaged with the possibility of having their views made known to Brussels – and UK was sending anti-EU MEPs to the EU Parliament by the dozen, mostly from right-wing parties that never did very well in domestic elections.

Defunct UK Politics

Whether it’s the lack of formal, written constitution, the medieval-style house of lords with hereditary members and seats reserved for religious leaders or the electoral system that writes off millions of votes, UK politics is pretty unique.

Unique and defunct. We basically have a choice between two parties and it seems half of any government have all gone to the same school. Very little progressive policy ever happens these days and UK politics seems to be about preserving the status quo.

Capacity to react to important events or the ability to carry on doing politics despite everyone’s attention focused on a single issue is a massive problem too. Whether some external disaster or an internal government scandal, a country as large and important as UK should always have a functioning administration. For the Scottish and Welsh, this happens, even if, say, the Westminster government is in turmoil over something or other. But for the English, it means 55 million people have to wait until things are sorted out before politics can be done (Don’t put all your eggs in one basket).