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Devolution in the UK$

James Mitchell

Print publication date: 2009

Print ISBN-13: 9780719053580

Published to Manchester Scholarship Online: July 2012

DOI: 10.7228/manchester/9780719053580.001.0001

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A chaos of areas and bodies: the English dimension

A chaos of areas and bodies: the English dimension

(p.92) 5 A chaos of areas and bodies: the English dimension
Devolution in the UK

James Mitchell

Manchester University Press

Abstract and Keywords

England presents the greatest challenge to advocates of devolution in the UK. There is little evidence of support for a separate English Parliament or for regional government in the English regions but devolution to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland has implications for England and these implications have been significant in blocking Irish, Welsh and Scottish demands in the past. Unions with the other components of the UK meant that these others were no longer threats to England and thereby were no longer the ‘other’ which shaped England's identity. A notable part of the rhetoric of Englishness in the twentieth century was the sense of cohesiveness, a refusal to countenance any significant political role for regions within England.

Keywords:   devolution, England, English Parliament, UK, Englishness, Scotland, regional government, Wales, Northern Ireland

England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality … It is a strange fact, but it is unquestioningly true, that almost any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during ‘God save the King’ than of stealing from a poor box. (Orwell 1941: 48)

There is no English nationalist movement. This is hardly surprising, since England is already governed from its capital city by people who are themselves mostly, though by no means exclusively, English. Indeed, the English tend to use the terms ‘England’ and ‘English’ when they mean ‘Britain’ and ‘British’, often to the annoyance of the Scots and Welsh. (Kilbrandon 1973: 58, para. 185)


England presents the greatest challenge to advocates of devolution in the UK. There is little evidence of support for a separate English Parliament or for regional government in the English regions but devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has implications for England and these implications have been significant in blocking Irish, Welsh and Scottish demands in the past. There are, of course, English regional problems and issues. The functional reach of the state requires some regional tier of government. In other words, the regional questions which face England are those associated with the implications of accommodating the demands of other parts of the UK and the pragmatic issues associated with a developed interventionist welfare state. The need for a regional level of administration, at the very least, followed from increases in the activities of central government in the post-war period, particularly economic and land use planning. Regional tiers of administration have always existed but they existed on an ad hoc basis and historically the boundaries for one function have not corresponded with those for another. In large measure, this has made English regionalism less popular than devolution elsewhere, exciting the interest of elites rather than publics. Nonetheless, the issue of English or regional identity has been in the background of political debate throughout the twentieth century.

(p.93) England and Englishness

The fact that there are far fewer studies of English nationalism and English national identity than Scottish, Irish or Welsh nationalisms does not mean that England and Englishness have been less important. English nationalism conforms with the nationalism which is ‘reproduced in a banally mundane way’ (Billig 1995: 6). It is a function of the strength of English nationalism, not its weakness, that there has been little attention paid to it by scholars and commentators. It is so pervasive that it is taken for granted. English nationalism has been the nationalism that need not speak its name. Yet evidence of it exists in abundance and is widely acknowledged outside England. As the authors of a book on Englishness wrote in its preface in 1986, ‘The English do not need nationalism and do not like it. They are so sure of themselves that they need hardly discuss the matter’ (Culls and Dodd 1986: Preface). An advisor to the Conservatives in the late 1990s remarked on the problems created for the party as a consequence of its anti-Europeanness: ‘pragmatic England, a country whose identity is so profound that it does not need the consolations of obtrusive nationalism, was doubful when Euro-sceptics asserted national identity so vigorously and vulgarly’ (Williams 1998: 44).

Politicians in late twentieth-century England have generally been loath to talk about their nationalism. This was not always the case. Stanley Baldwin, Conservative leader from 1923–37, addressed the Royal Society of St George in 1924 ‘On England and the West’. He began by remarking that, given the occasion, he had, as a public figure, a ‘profound thankfulness’ that he could use the word England ‘without some fellow at the back of the room shouting out “Britain”’. He went on to remark that for him ‘England is the country, and the country is England’ and explained what this brought to mind:

The sounds of England, the tinkle of the hammer on the anvil in the country smithy, the corncrake on a dewy morning, the sound of the scythe against the whetstone, and the sight of a plough team coming over the brow of a hill, the sight that has been seen in England since England was a land, and may be seen in England long after the Empire has perished and every works in England has ceased to function, for centuries the one eternal sight of England. (Baldwin 1926: 7)

Even the notion that there was too much diversity in England to allow for the existence of a common sense of nationhood was incorporated into Baldwin's sense of belonging: ‘in no nation more that the English is there a diversified individuality. We are a people of individuals, and a people of character’ (Ibid.: 5). The romantic notions tied up in Baldwin's England were echoed in a passage in George Orwell's The Lion and the Unicorn, written at the height of the Second World War, some of (p.94) which was repeated by British Prime Minister John Major fifty years later:

When you come back to England from any foreign country, you have immediately the sensation of breathing a different air. Even in the first few minutes dozens of small things conspire to give you this feeling. The beer is bitterer, the coins are heavier, the grass is greener, the advertisements are more blatant. The crowds in the big towns, with their mild knobby faces, their bad teeth and gentle manners, are different from a European crowd. Then the vastness of England swallows you up, and you lose for a while your feeling that the whole nation has a single identifiable character. Are there really such things as nations? Are we not 46 million individuals, all different? And the diversity of it, the chaos! The clatter of clogs in the Lancashire mill towns, the to-and-fro of the lorries on the Great North Road, the queues outside the Labour Exchanges, the rattle of pin-tables in the Soho pubs, the old maids biking to Holy Communion through the mists of autumn mornings - all these are not only fragments, but characteristic fragments, of the English scene …

Yes, there is something distinctive and recognizable in English civilization. It is a culture as individual as that of Spain. It is somehow bound up with solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar-boxes. It has a flavour of its own. Moreover it is continuous, it stretches into the future and the past, there is something in it that persists, as in a living creature. (Orwell 1941: 10–11)

In recent years, English nationalism became more obvious and more discussed as a consequence of perceived threats. Like all nationalisms it responds to an Other. Some of these threats have come from within the UK, some from outside. The prospect of ‘ever closer union’ with Europe provoked a backlash, as has the establishment of the Scottish Parliament and, to a lesser degree, the Welsh Assembly. This form of English nationalism is to be found on the left and right of politics. Enoch Powell was its most notable voice in the post-war period. Powell's speech to the Royal Society of St George in 1961, reproduced in the Daily Telegraph after his death challenged Kipling's famous words, ‘What know they of England, Who only England know?’. His interpretation of the past is significant:

… the unity of England, effortless and unconstrained, which accepts the unlimited supremacy of Crown in Parliament so naturally as not to be aware of it; the homogeneity of England, so profound and embracing that the counties and the regions make it a hobby to discover their differences and assert their peculiarities; the continuity of England, which has brought this unity and this homogeneity about by the slow alchemy of centuries.

For the unbroken life of the English nation over a thousand years and more is a phenomenon unique in history, the product of a specific set of circumstances like those which in biology are supposed to start by chance a new line of evolution. Institutions which elsewhere are recent and artificial creations (p.95) appear in England almost as works of nature, spontaneous and unquestioned. (Powell 1998)

Others have indulged in this millenial nationalism. Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell railed against ‘the end of Britain as an independent European state … It means the end of a thousand years of history’ in 1962 (Brivati 1997: 414). More recently, John Major warned that the Labour Party would ‘vandalize a thousand years of British history’ by seeking closer union with Europe (Major 1996). Even though Britain is mentioned, the thinking is unmistakably the pervasive notion of England as an ancient, continuous nation. As a state, Britain did not exist before union with England's neighbours. Most notably, there appears a relationship between the assumption that England has traditionally been ‘one and indivisible’ and England as a unique, almost non-European state.

Recently, however, the terms ‘England’ and ‘English’ have been used more consciously and deliberately as distinct from Britain or the UK. Simon Heffer, Powell's biographer, has taken up the baton in a polemical essay (Heffer 1999). Heffer noted the role of football in promoting an English national identity. The use of the Cross of St George by football fans was like ‘bringing a long-forgotten ornament out of a long-closed room. That flag has been somewhere in the collective memory; we all knew it was up in the attic somewhere, but we could not quite remember what it was for, or what its point was’ (Ibid.: 33). An English nationalism which is both anti-European and sometimes anti-Scottish is emerging on the right. However, an alternative English nationalism might develop. In the conclusion of his history of Europe, Norman Davies suggested that the Scots ‘possess the power to destroy the United Kingdom, and thereby to deflate the English, as no one in Brussels could ever do. They may make Europeans of us yet’ (Davies 1996: 1134). More than Scottish, Welsh or Irish nationalism, English nationalism is currently a creature of the political right but has potential to be harnessed for other ends. The distaste, noted by Orwell, which English liberals and socialists have for nationalism, at least so long as it is found outside the Third World or Ireland, has given the right free rein.

England and the Irish Question

Finance and representation were the two throny issues confronting supporters of Irish home rule in the nineteenth century. Prime Minister Gladstone was always suspicious of the financial demands Ireland made on the Treasury (Hammond 1938). In line with his initial support for the removal of Irish representatives from Westminster, he proposed to devolve customs and excise to Ireland but then changed his mind. Determing Ireland's fair share of the Imperial burden, and how Ireland should raise its own revenue, presented problems (Kendle 1989: 47–49). But it was the (p.96) issue of representation that proved most contentious. Gladstone wrestled with this in each of his home rule bills. In his speech in the Commons on his first home rule bill, Gladstone maintained that there ‘cannot be a domestic legislature in Ireland dealing with Irish affairs, and Irish Peers and Representatives sitting in Parliament at Westminster to take part in English and Scotch [sic] affairs’ (Hansard, Commons, vol. 304, 8 April 1886, col. 1055). His answer was to exclude Irish representatives altogether but this would have resulted in taxation without representation. Decisions affecting Ireland would still be taken in Westminster but without any Irish input. Gladstone's second home rule bill, presented in 1893, included a provision (clause 10) which would have given Ireland seats in the Commons but allowed them to vote only on Imperial affairs and matters that affected Ireland - the ‘in-and-out’ system. But this was criticised because of difficulties in distinguishing between Imperial and Irish matters. It would also have created considerable problems for parliamentary government with competing majorities for Imperial and non-Imperial affairs. The clause was removed at committee stage and the final version of the bill involved a reduction in the number of Irish MPs at Westminster. This was not so much a solution as a compromise. Irish representation became a proxy for opposing home rule, as it would a century later. Joseph Chamberlain, who left the Liberal Party over his opposition to home rule, conceded this when he agreed that he had used the issue to kill Gladstone's first home rule bill (Hammond 1938: 493).

In responding to a Scottish home rule bill in 1913, A.J. Balfour, the former Conservative Prime Minister, articulated the classic argument against devolution:

A Parliament which really adequately represented England, would be a Parliament which would hardly sit side by side in a position of admitted inferiority to another assembly sitting within these walls. A collision with an Irish Parliament would be bad enough. A collision with a Scottish Parliament is not a desirable thing to think of. But conceive a collision with an English Parliament! I believe that directly you face the question of England's position in your ideal federal system, you will see the utter absurdity of it. To cut up England would be greatly unfair to England, on your principles … Therefore England will remain as a unit, I presume. A system of four provinces, of which England is one, is so lopsided, so top-heavy, and so unequal a system, that it is impossible that it should retain its equilibrium for any great length of time, and your whole federal system would fall into the grossest absurdity. (Hansard, Commons, 5th series, 30 May 1913, vol. 53, p. 538)

The issue was again addressed after the First World War. Once more the backdrop was Irish home rule and also the perceived need to relieve parliamentary congestion so that on this occasion there were calls for ‘home rule all round’. A Speaker's Conference on Devolution was set up following a two-day debate. The debate had been significant not least (p.97) because unlike previous demands for devolved government, the ‘weightiest speeches were made by Englishmen’ (Coupland 1954: 320). This was only one of a number of constitutional commissions and special conferences established by the coalition Government between 1916 and 1922. The Speaker's Conference was presided over by House of Commons Speaker T.W. Lowther. Sixteen members of each of the Houses of Parliament were appointed but, as The Times noted at the time, its membership was ‘undistinguished and unrepresentative’ (Tanner 2006a: 247). They agreed that the national components of the UK should form the basis of devolution but, ‘with regard to the question whether England should form a unit or should be subdivided, considerable doubt arose, and the Conference decided to see whether any light would be thrown upon this question by an examination of the powers which might appear suitable to be devolved’ (Lowther 1920: 3). Ultimately, the Conference agreed that England should be treated as a unit. After considering a list of over a hundred subjects of legislation and administration, the Conference agreed on a list of matters that could be devolved. It also managed to agree on a scheme for financial arrangements between the UK and local exchequers and the division of the judiciary.

It divided on the ‘character and composition of the local legislative bodies themselves’ (Ibid.: 6). By one vote, it favoured the proposals that became associated with the Speaker over those associated with Murray MacDonald, a Scottish Liberal MP. The Speaker's scheme was more limited, with devolved bodies consisting of Westminster representatives with ultimate power retained at Westminster to block proposals from the devolved bodies. Murray's scheme involved directly elected parliaments in Ireland and Scotland. However, devolution had receded in significance by the time the Conference reported and key figures at Westminster - Lloyd George, Balfour and Curzon - opposed the proposals (Tanner 2006a: 246). Though relieving parliamentary congestion had been one of the motivations behind the establishment of the Conference, the Irish Question had been the main driving force. Irish affairs had taken a distinct turn removing the pressure for change. This proved to be the nearest that devolution all round, dealing with the English problem in a comprehensive way, came to being implemented and even then it was far from reaching the statute book.

Regional policy, regional administration and regional government

The absence of a regionalist movement even remotely comparable to the national movements elsewhere in the UK has meant that English regionalism has been a matter of elite preoccupations. There may well be clear regional cultures in England but these have had only sporadic or very limited political consequences. As the Royal Commission on the Constitution noted, the way in which England is divided up ‘depends on the (p.98) purposes for which the division is made’ (Kilbrandon 1973: 65). The distinction between regionalism, regional government and regional administration is particularly relevant in the case of England. Regionalism within England, that is bottom-up social and cultural movements articulating the interests of parts of England, has been politically weak. The cause of elected regional government has failed to become a serious issue. Regional administration, on the other hand, has been a necessary consequence of an interventionist welfare state.

As noted in previous chapters, pressures arising from the growth of government functions have regional implications. Local government had evolved in the nineteenth century but was unable to cope with the demands placed upon it by new acts of parliament, especially those focusing on the cities and large towns. As one classic study of local government in the UK commented, the development of English local government up to the eighteenth century was ‘slow and mainly connected with poor relief but this changed following the Industrial Revolution which ‘created in modern times the necessity for increased activity in the sphere of Local Government’ and the ‘social evolution’ - the ravages of diseases, the growth of scientific knowledge and changes in political life (Clarke 1948: 52).

Responses to these new pressures were ad hoc. New authorities were created for each new problem. Local government became a ‘chaos of areas, bodies, and rates’ with a plethora of Town Councils and Vestries, Boards of Guardians, Commissioners of Sewers, Improvement Commissioners, Lighting Inspectors, Turnpike Trustees, Highway Boards, Nuisance Commissioners, Local Boards of Health, River Conservancy Boards, Port Sanitary Authorities, Burial Boards and School Boards (Ibid.: 54). Legislation was passed in the nineteenth century attempting to make local government more rational and to move from the ad hoc approach towards an ad omnia approach, i.e. from the specific to the general with fewer authorities with more functions. Alongside these developments, there was the related development of central government. The relationship between Parliament and the local authorities was important, especially as subventions or grants were increasingly paid to local authorities to provide services. The nineteenth century was also a period of provincial strength and vitality. Cities other than London produced great leaders who used their local base to launch national careers. London's political dominance was not in doubt but there was, both economically and politically, a more pluralist form of politics in operation in England. As the Royal Commission on the Constitution noted, the need for politicians aspiring to national status to be London-based is a twentieth-century phenomenon (Kilbrandon 1973: 58, para. 186). These changes were slow, evolutionary and marked as often by exceptionalism as by symmetry. The problem was that changes in society and politics were moving faster than (p.99) the changes in the structure of government. As the twentieth century progressed, larger areas for purposes of administration and government were believed to be required than those provided for in most units of local government. The National Health Service, for example, could not be provided for by local government.

Reforms of local government in England from the nineteenth century seemed to point in the direction of ever-larger units. A prize-winning essay published in 1929, reflecting on reforms in English local government, noted that there was a ‘definite line of development: the deliberate adoption of the larger unit’ (Ashby 1929: 365). The author insisted that regional government would become a matter of ‘paramount importance in the near future’ (Ibid.: 368) and listed four principles in the design of such a structure. There should be an equitable combination of urban and rural areas; the structure should anticipate the future needs of the country as a whole with regard to town planning and service provision; there should be an equalisation of the burden of local rates in regions having densely populated industrial townships, wealthy residential districts and depopulated countryside; and there should be a progressive draining of densely populated areas into rural districts and the restoration of contact between ‘masses and mother earth’ with the consequent opening out of unhealthy areas of the towns (Ibid.: 368). This was an idealistic proposition but it was indicative of a type of not uncommon thinking that was emerging around that time. The need for regional government was part of a wider movement which was tied up with notions of greater state intervention, planning and notions of progress. It was also a response to problems associated with industrialisation and urbanisation.

Regional government was sometimes proposed during discussion of reforming local government, whether this was an overhaul of the entire system or just concerned with one part of England. The Royal Commission on the Local Government of Tyneside which reported in 1937 produced a majority report which recommended a regional council covering an extensive area north and south of the Tyne, including county boroughs and the whole administrative county of Northumberland, and a substantial part of the county borough of Durham, which would have responsibility for public health, mental hospitals, education, public assistance, police, the fire service and highways. A minority report, written by one Commissioner, recommended a greater county borough of Newcastle-on-Tyne to include areas north and south of the Tyne which would nearly double the population and almost treble the acreage of the existing county borough (HMSO 1937a). However, the reaction of many officials was typified in comments made by Sir Gwilym Gibbon, a senior civil servant, that advocates of regional government are ‘usually found more among those of academic mind than among men of wide practical experience’ (Gibbon 1938: 416–417).

(p.100) During the First World War, regional offices of central government were established to control food and the distribution of labour. But just as war has been important in creating a strong sense of national identity, war is a ‘great centraliser’ (Parsons 1988: 49). After the war was over, these offices continued to operate as they were found to be useful in emergency planning to meet housing shortages and administering social services (Kilbrandon 1973: 62, para. 199). Between the two wars, a number of industries went into decline affecting the areas in which they were based. Coal-mining, iron and steel, shipbuilding and cotton were located in Central Scotland, South Wales, West Cumberland, County Durham and Lancashire. Other industries grew, including chemicals, electrical engineering, motor vehicles, aircraft and distributive trades but, for the most part, these did not grow up in the areas which had suffered from industrial decline. Central government's response was to encourage workers to move with their families to the more prosperous areas through the Industrial Transference Board set up for this purpose in 1928. Between 1921 and 1937, 650,000 people were involved in this upheaval (Prestwich and Taylor 1990: 115). It was ‘more a labour policy than a regional policy’, as one of the leading scholars of regional policy has noted (McCrone 1976: 92). Half a century later, the policy was revived but without government assistance when Employment Minister Norman Tebbit urged the unemployed to ‘get on their bikes’ to look for work as his father had done in the 1930s. It was not a policy which helped poorer areas. Indeed, it did great harm as those most likely to move, both willing and able to find work elsewhere, were usually young and fit. It was an early and extreme example of a policy designed to take account of regional economic pressures but which further undermined poorer areas and took little account of the views of those living in these areas.

In 1934, the Special Areas Act was passed, designating four special areas: South Wales, North-East England, West Cumberland and Clydeside-North Lanarkshire. Two Commissioners were appointed, one for England and Wales and one for Scotland. However, this proved a ‘feeble approach to the problem’ (McCrone 1976: 95). Reports produced by the English Commissioner, Sir Malcolm Stewart, highlighted the inadequacies of the legislation. In one report, Stewart remarked that there had been ‘no appreciable reduction in the number of those unemployed’ (quoted in Ibid.: 100). According to McCrone, the most important factor explaining the failure of the policy was the low level of aggregate demand in the economy as a whole (Ibid.: 102). There had been no attempt to integrate regional and general economic policies, a failure which would be repeated again later. That is not to say that such integration would be easy as the special areas did not exist in isolation from the rest of the economy. So long as there was little control over the latter it would be difficult to assist the special areas. Sir Malcolm Stewart argued that this should be tackled by limits on the congested and more economically prosperous areas into which the population was moving, especially London.

(p.101) In 1937, the Government appointed a Royal Commission under Sir Montague Barlow to examine the Distribution of Industrial Population. The Barlow Commission reported in 1940, making a number of recommendations in favour of action. It was split on the question of regional government and administration. The majority favoured the creation of a National Board with research, advisory and regulatory functions over the location of industry. Three members of the Commission proposed in addition that regional or divisional bodies should be set up related to the Board. A further three wanted a central government department to take responsibility for the distribution of industry and population and proposed that regional boards, through which the department would act, should be established. Elected regional government found no support in the Commission. The differences which existed were between different models of centralised administration, two of which explicitly proposed regional field administration but emphatically under the control of the centre. However, Barlow did not have much impact after the war. The approach adopted then was based on central demand management.

During the Second World War, England was divided into ten regions, each headed by a Regional Commissioner with extensive powers especially to co-ordinate civil defence. Regional boards were set up consisting of industrialists, trade unionists and central government regional officials. When this structure was dismantled after the war it was because it was seen as an aberration necessitated by the peculiar circumstances of war and because they were unpopular with local authority figures who feared that they would lose power at the expense of the regions. A regional structure for purposes of civil defence and emergencies was maintained but played a minor role in English government.

From 1945, regional offices of different departments were set up according to perceived need in Whitehall. The result was, to borrow Clarke's description of local government development in the previous century, a chaos of areas and bodies. Standardisation was attempted when nine standard regions were created by the Treasury in 1946 with which other central government departments were expected to conform. These nine were based on the ten civil defence regions with some adjustments including the amalgamation of London and the South-East. Nonetheless, the chaos persisted. At its establishment in 1971, the Department of the Environment incorporated thirteen separate regional structures from those departments whose work it had inherited (Kilbrandon 1973: 64, para. 203).

Consensus and expansion

There was remarkable consensus on regional affairs in the early post-war period. This consensus was rooted in inter-war thinking. Hugh Dalton's role as President of the Board of Trade in Churchill's wartime coalition (p.102) Government was important in the development of regional policy (Pimlott 1986: 400–407). Dalton was MP for Bishop Auckland in County Durham in the North of England where levels of unemployment had an impact on him (Tomaney 2006: 166). Dalton became interested in the redistribution of resources after visiting the Soviet Union and though repelled by many aspects of the Soviet system, he saw this geographic redistribution as directly relevant to Britain (Pimlott 1986: 211). In a book published in 1935, Dalton wrote that the location of industry needed to be given a high priority: ‘Such a policy should guide new industries away from London and its outskirts, and away from the larger cities, to selected smaller towns, to garden cities, both new and old, and into depressed areas. And it should check the present drift from North to South’ (quoted in Ibid.: 218). Dalton's thinking in coalition continued to influence the Attlee Government, in which he served for a period as Chancellor of the Exchequer and continued when the Conservatives came back to power in 1951. The Distribution of Industry Act, 1945 was the ‘foundation of British regional policy’ from 1945 to 1960 (McCrone 1976: 107). This Act replaced the pre-war Special Areas legislation though the boundaries of the areas remained broadly the same as before. The main responsibility for policy was given to the Board of Trade which took over responsibility from the Special Areas Commissioners. It was empowered to build factories in Development Areas, buying land by compulsory purchase if necessary; to make loans with the consent of the Treasury to industrial estate; to make provision for basic public services; and to reclaim derelict land. In addition, the Treasury could provide grants or loans (Ibid.: 110). This was also the period when new towns were developed. Largely a response to urban congestion, they too had a regional development function, though this latter role became more important in the 1960s. It was an era of top-down management.

Minister for the North-East

The degree of consensus was remarkable. Differences of emphasis beween the two main parties might even be explained by the different economic contexts rather than ideological differences (Parsons 1988: 103–104). Relative economic stability and growth in the early to mid 1950s meant that policy instruments created by Labour were thought unnecessary by the Tories. However, the downturn in the economy in the late 1950s resulted in more intervention by the Conservatives. Harold Macmillan was Prime Minister from 1957 to 1963 and had been on his party's left wing with strong sympathies for depressed areas in the 1930s. He had represented Stockton, in the North-East of England, in Parliament during the inter-war depression and this had left its mark. In 1958, the Distribution of Industry Act was supplemented with the passage of the (p.103) Distribution of Industry (Industrial Finance) Act which extended the areas and type of industry eligible for assistance and increased the level of assistance. Ted Heath's appointment in 1963 to the office of what had been called the President of the Board of Trade symbolised the change. Heath adopted a new title, ‘Secretary of State for Industry, Trade and Regional Development, and President of the Board of Trade’. He used the language of ‘growth points’ and regionalism and ‘for the first, and possibly last time’ a British Government attempted to ‘integrate the physical and economic aspects of distribution of industry policy within an economic ministry’ (Ibid.: 120).

Further developments under the Conservatives before they left office in 1964 have been characterised as the ‘regionalisation of policy’ (Ibid.: 114). In late 1962, discussions on appointing someone, whether a politician or some ‘public figure’, responsible for the development of the North-East of England were held at the most senior level in Whitehall against the backdrop of concern about high levels of unemployment. The main ministries involved were Housing and Local Government, Labour, Trade, Transport and the Treasury (TNA T 330/100). However, it was agreed that ‘decisions will have to be taken in London’ as the key issues could ‘only be resolved there’, with local authorities to give approval for investment, the choice of ‘growth areas’ and communications networks. The civil servants’ preference was for a ‘suitable local man’ rather than a Westminster politician who might be called ‘the Government's Adviser on North-East Development’ (Ibid.). A note to the Prime Minister set out the case in favour of a non-ministerial appointment. However, by early January, the view that a minister should be appointed had gained support and Harold Macmillan sent a minute to Lord Hailsham, the Lord President, inviting him to become Minister for the North-East, with similar oversight responsibilities to the Secretary of State for Scotland, the Home Secretary for Northern Ireland and the Minister of Housing and Local Government for Wales. The first act ‘should be to visit the North-East in order to acquire first-hand experience of the local problems and to acquaint yourself with the personalities involved’. The Cabinet could then ‘weigh the claims of the North East against the claims of other areas’ to reach an ‘informed judgement on the proper priorities’. It was to be a temporary post and Macmillan asked Hailsham to consider whether ‘some similar action is required’ for Merseyside (Ibid.). The Times noted that Hailsham already had a wide range of responsibilities. As well as a Cabinet Minister as Lord President of the Council, ‘almost tantamount to being a Minister without portfolio who undertakes special tasks’, he was Leader of the House of Lords, Minister of Science and a month previously had been given responsibility for co-ordinating sport and recreation (The Times, 10 January 1963).

The context of this appointment was wider discussion of regional (p.104) planning and the machinery of government. Studies were being conducted in various regions - Central Scotland, South-East England, North-West England, the Midlands and Wales - leading to proposals for the Ministry of Housing and Local Government becoming responsible for regional development matters in close collaboration with others, especially the Board of Trade. Regionalism and ‘growth points’ had become part of the vocabulary of politics, influenced by planning, around this time (Parsons 1988: 134–136).

A White Paper on the North-East was produced against this backdrop. In September, Hailsham reported back to the Prime Minister, listing both positive and negative consequences of bringing his appointment to an end. On the one hand, the appointment was ‘on balance popular and its termination would correspondingly be criticised’; the Government would be criticised for the ‘incompleteness of our achievement’ rather than any plan that emerged; and transfering responsibilities to the Minister of Housing and Local Government raised difficulties given that it already had special responsibility for Wales. On the other hand, Hailsham recognised that this was the ‘only natural moment’ before an election; there was a need for machinery to deal with these matters; Hailsham did not have permanent staff and as such would likely be ‘increasingly defeated by departmental resistances’; the machinery made sense; and ‘I would rather go out with a bang than a whimper’ (TNA T 330/100). He proposed that the publication of the White Paper was the appropriate time to end the ‘arrangement of a Minister with special responsibilities for the North East’ (Ibid.). Within a fortnight, Hailsham informed Macmillan that he had discussed these matters in the Cabinet's Economic Policy Committee and was ‘surprised by the unanimous dismay and hostility’, apart from the President of the Board of Trade, to bringing the office of special minister to an end. Three ministers thought it would be ‘politically disastrous’ including Sir Keith Joseph, Minister of Housing and Local Local Government, who said his position would be made impossible in the North-East. Hailsham expressed concern that his earlier advice had been wrong. Within a month, Macmillan had resigned on health grounds and Hailsham was making his unsuccessful bid to succeed to the premiership. The consensus would appear to be that his term as Minister for the North-East contributed to increased acceptance of the need for a regional diemnsion to English public policy and government if little else (Tomaney 2006).

In his memoirs, Hailsham acknowledged that there was an ‘emotive content’ to the appointment (Hailsham 1990: 337). His reputation as a politician prone to gimmickry did not help, especially after he appeared in the North-East wearing a flat cap instead of his usual bowler hat. Neither did his high-flown rhetoric. Describing himself as a ‘Minister for the twenty-first century’ (Parsons 1988: 116) merely added to suspicions that his main objective was to capture headlines rather than help develop an (p.105) economically depressed area. His duty was to ‘take a sort of Domesday Book or bird's-eye view of the whole area without regard to local-authority boundaries’ but with only a ‘temporary team of youngish civil servants’ to co-ordinate a regional plan (Hailsham 1990: 337–338). When the task was done, the office would disappear. In one respect the office was comparable to the territorial departments. It had a significant symbolic quality. Hailsham was later to complain about the failure of English public opinion to ‘harness regional patriotism into coherent regional institututions and policies subject to the sovereignty of Parliament’ (Ibid.: 34). In opposition in the 1970s, he argued for a form of federalism (Hogg 1978) but made no effort to pursue this when he was Lord Chancellor from 1979 to 1987.


The old London County Council (LCC) was created in 1889 and is generally seen as having contributed to the capital's success in the period leading up to the First World War (Davis 1988). It was the first metropolitan council with a wide range of public responsibilities. The Conservatives would have preferred a more limited territorial remit but their Liberal unionist allies preferred the larger area. Twenty-eight borough councils were later created below the LCC. These bodies replaced smaller parishes and the Metropolitan Board of Works (MBW) which were deemed to be either incompetent or corrupt. The MBW, set up in 1855, had been responsible for providing infrastructure to cope with London's growth including sewage, slum clearance, streets and bridges, the Thames Embankment and fire services. The geographic remit of the LCC was limited to inner London. In 1906, County Hall housed the council's headquarters.

The LCC assumed the MBW's responsibilitities but also gained responsibility for city planning, housing and education. Over time, in common with other public institutions, it gained responsibilities both through increasing regulation and powers of intervention in its existing areas of responsibility, and also through additional powers. For the first three decades of the twentieth century it was responsible for the expansion of London's tramways. The main parties contested LCC elections but under different labels: Liberals as Progressives and Conservatives as Moderates, later the Municipal Reform Party. The LCC's first meeting was chaired by the Earl of Rosebery who had, as we have seen, been instrumental in the establishment of the Scotish Office. Amongst the leaders of the LCC was Thomas McKinnon Wood, from 1898–1907. He later became Scottish Secretary, from 1912 to 1916, after becoming a Glasgow MP in the Liberal landslide of 1906. This was still the era when municipal leaders could forge a career on the UK stage.

(p.106) Labour controlled the LCC from 1934 when Herbert Morrison became leader of the Council until 1940, becoming Home Secretary within six months, while serving as MP for Hackney South. Morrison created an informal leadership, his ‘Presidium’ (Donoughue and Jones 2001: 191). Housing was given greatest prominence and under his leadership the LCC set out on a massive low-rent council house building scheme with accusations from the Tories that Labour were building council houses in Tory strongholds to undermine Tory support (Ibid.: 199). In 1935, a scheme was introduced by the LCC to introduce a green belt, the ‘first attempt since the days of Queen Elizabeth to stop the expansion of London’ (Ibid.: 202). This successful initiative led to Morrison being known as ‘Mr London’ (Pimlott and Rao 2002: 25). Morrison was not averse to fighting with central government across the river from City Hall. He forced the Government to support a new bridge over the Thames in preference to reconditioning an existing one in a dispute that lasted through a number of years in the 1930s.

Inner London was Labour's heartland while the Conservatives prospered in the outer areas, leading them to support a larger territorial authority. In 1957, the Conservative Government set up a Royal Commission on the Government of London, under Sir Edwin Herbert, which reported three years later (Herbert 1960). There was intense debate on how London should be governed with William Robson, an authority on public administration at the London School of Economics, and colleagues arguing for an area-wide London authority while other academics at University College, London proposed a less cohesive ‘patchwork quilt’ approach (Pimlott and Rao 2002: 25). A factor complicating analysis of London's needs was the rapid growth of the city outwards combined with a decline in its innner core's population.

The Royal Commission recommended the establishment of 52 borough councils and a weaker, strategic authority for Greater London. This was the era of strategic planning but partisan interests had also intruded. The Conservatives passed the London Government Act, 1963 creating the Greater London Council (GLC) and 32 London boroughs. An Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) was also set up with councillors elected in the old LCC innner London area as ex officio members. The GLC had reponsibility for strategic planning including main roads and transport, refuse collection, fire and ambulance services and, for a short period, education. Other responsibilities would be shared with the London boroughs which were deemed the primary units of local government. Notably, the GLC preferred to refer to itself as a ‘regional’ rather than a ‘local’ authority (Ibid.: 29).

London was always likely to be treated as a special case by virtue both of its size and as the capital city of a highly centralised state. But themes are evident in its evolving politics common to territorial politics throughout (p.107) the UK. The importance of party politics in influencing its territorial remit and responsibilities, its sometimes difficult relations with the centre and the constant need to take account of both changing population needs and expectations of its populace have been as evident in debates on its structures of government as anywhere else in the UK.

From planning to crisis management

In 1964, Sir Keith Joseph, Conservative Minister for Housing and Local Government, gave a lecture in which he argued: ‘Regional plans, yes; regional development, yes; but these do not necessarily involve regional government in the sense of regional representative councils. What they do involve is strong regional arms of central government and a reorganised more effective local government’ (Mackintosh 1968: 110). This remained the dominant view. There was an expectation, in some quarters, that regional planning machinery, shortly to be set up by Harold Wilson's Labour Government, might alter that.

Some effort to produce a more rational regional order was attempted in the 1960s under Wilson. This was the era of planning already hinted at under the Conservatives. A new central department was established, the Department of Economic Affairs (DEA), which was to have the job of economic planning. Eight planning regions in England were set up under it, with regional economic planning councils appointed by the Secretary of State. Once more, the main change in the boundaries of the new structure came about in the South-East, with two regions replacing three standard regions. The councils took their members from local government, industry and trade unions and drew up long-term strategies for their regions. Regional economic planning boards of civil servants shadowed the councils. However, the National Plan which was produced by the DEA had little regional input (Parsons 1988: 167).

The Department of Economic Affairs proved unable to cut out a role for itself in British central government, especially one distinct from the Treasury, its main rival, despite (or perhaps because of) the appointment of Deputy Prime Minister George Brown as its first Secretary of State. The department had been seen by Wilson as the ‘dynamo of change’ (Pimlott 1992: 278). Jim Callaghan, Chancellor of the Exchequer, saw the department as modelled on French indicative planning, a notably centralist, top-down model of economic development (Callaghan 1987: 153). Douglas Jay, Wilson's first President of the Board, was an avowed centraliser and had a different conception of economic development and machinery of government from George Brown. Brown envisaged the regional planning councils and boards evolving into something more than consultative bodies, ‘something that could become a new form of regional government’ (Brown in Parsons 1988: 156). More than thirty years later, (p.108) there were echoes of the same tensions in Tony Blair's Cabinet with his Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, who had responsibility for regions, being the most ardent supporter of regional government while other senior members were unenthusiastic.

There were many problems with the approach to regional government, administration and policy in the 1960s. The Regional Economic Planning Councils and Boards were responsible for drawing up and overseeing the implementation of regional plans to carry out the National Plan of central government. The failure of the National Plan effectively killed off this experiment. In addition, there was an unwillingness to integrate economic and regional policy. The latter was secondary to the centralist outlook in Whitehall. Those concessions which were made involved a deconcentration of central government efforts to the regions, not redistribution of power. This amounted to field administration, not devolution. A related criticism was voiced by McCrone. The English Regional Councils were expected to represent their regions and fight for their interests, yet they had ‘neither money, executive power or electoral legitimacy’ (McCrone 1976: 237). They were in a weak position in relation to central government which could ignore them if it wished. McCrone noted that the chairman of the Northern Council had to threaten to resign to attract the attention of central government and that the Southern Council had not been consulted on the issue of London's third airport. The rather ‘nebulous advisory role’ required reform but ‘if it is decided to strengthen them, this may involve making them electorally responsible and perhaps giving them some executive powers. This would put them on the way to being a form of regional Government’ (Ibid.). As in so many other respects, the Wilson Governments in the 1960s offered a false dawn as far as regional matters were concerned.

A Royal Commission on Local Government in England, chaired by Lord Redcliffe-Maud, had been established by the Labour Government in 1966 and reported in 1969. A comparable Royal Commission under Lord Wheatley met in Scotland, and the Welsh Office was actively considering local government reform at this time. However, ‘resistance to major reorganisation was greater in England’ (Alexander 1982: 6). Amongst Redcliffe-Maud's recommendations was a proposal for indirectly elected (chosen from local authorities) provincial councils operating at the level of the Economic Planning Regions to co-ordinate the work of local authorities. The logic behind the recommendation was explained:

As population, mobility and the involvement of local government in economic questions increase, there will be a growing need for a representative body capable of devising a strategy for the future development of a very large area. Provincial councils are required which can settle the broad economic land use and investment framework for the planning and development policies of operational authorities, they should be rooted in local (p.109) government and should work in closest touch with central government. They would replace the present regional economic planning council. (Redcliffe-Maud 1969: para. 238).

It left the issue of whether such councils should also assume the work of over-burdened central government departments to the Royal Commission on the Constitution, set up in the year in which Redcliffe-Maud reported. The report was issued towards the end of the period of Labour rule in the 1960s and its proposals for provincial councils were neither unanimously accepted by the Commissioners nor were they central to its recommendations. Indeed, they were not implemented in the legislation reorganising local government in the 1970s but they were an indication of the direction of some thinking associated with an interventionist welfare state at a time before economic crisis hit the UK.

From disillusion to abandonment

The return of the Conservatives in 1970 brought a different approach to regional questions. Heath's Conservatives resolved not to support ‘lame ducks’ and maintained that regional problems could not be solved by increasing expenditure. The previous Labour Government's failure to tackle regional problems seemed to have discredited all forms of intervention but the free market rhetoric did not last as the Government was forced to intervene to help ailing industries in some of Britain's poorest areas. One consequence of the U-turns and the later defeat of the Conservatives in elections in 1974 was a reaction against interventionist, including regional, policy amongst right-wing Conservatives. The Industry Act, 1972 introduced a ‘whole new apparatus of regional intervention’ (Parsons 1988: 181) but this was very much top-down regional policy.

As economic recession hit the UK economy in the mid-late 1970s and the Labour Government signed up to a deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) which involved public spending cuts, regional policy initiatives were curtailed and existing policies cut back. Regional policy, which had been part of the Keynesian economic policy agenda, was now under attack under Labour and, with greater vehemence, under the Conservatives. Elected regional government looked at best to be a remote possibility as an active regional policy went into decline.


Unions with the other components of the UK meant that these others were no longer threats to England and thereby were no longer the ‘Other’ which shaped England's identity. Though the classic descriptions of England and Englishness articulated by a series of twentieth-century politicians and polemicists ranging from Baldwin and Orwell to John (p.110) Major may not have resonated with publics in Scotland, Wales and Ireland, these benign descriptions could not mobilise a strong enough sense of Englishness. The ‘Other’ in twentieth-century England was to be found outside the UK. Two world wars generated a sense of Otherness towards the rest of Europe. After Ireland was removed from Westimister's agenda, though it continued to be a matter of some significance for some of the elite, the prospect that England would be defined in contradistinction to other components of the UK was limited.

A notable part of the rhetoric of Englishness in the twentieth century was the sense of cohesiveness, a refusal to countenance any significant political role for regions within England. Regional government was important in the provision of public services but this developed piecemeal. Occasional calls to recognise economic disparities allowed for the mobilisation of elite opinion but this was rarely linked to the case for elected regional bodies.

However, economic difficulties in parts of England, combined with fears that Scotland might gain a comparative advantage in the 1970s, provoked a wave of regional identity in the North-East, neighbouring Scotland. It proved an almost entirely negative movement, opposed to Scottish devolution, rather than one combining with the Scots and Welsh in arguing for more resources or autonomy. This negative regionalism would make a significant contribution to blocking Scottish and Welsh devolution. But it would also mean that regionalism had a base in the years ahead.