If the union is still here when Covid is over, devolution needs another look

If social disparities are at the top of the list of national ills that the pandemic has exposed, the defects of the UK’s constitutional arrangements for devolution cannot be far behind, says Mary Dejevsky

Thursday 22 October 2020 19:51
Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, was clapped for defying Westminster
Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, was clapped for defying Westminster

n Wednesday evening I was taking what was once called our permitted daily exercise in the direction of Parliament Square and noticed an unfamiliar crowd of demonstrators gathering. It turned out that the flags they were waving were Nigeria’s and their cause was police brutality in Lagos. But it crossed my mind – indeed, let me admit, I almost hoped – that it was exiled Mancunians standing up for their rights against Westminster.

The previous day, the spectacle of Greater Manchester’s mayor, Andy Burnham, being clapped for defying an edict from Westminster had elements of the inspiring and the disturbing. On the one hand, was this not what new-style mayoral posts had been created for – to represent a city and a region and bring government closer to the people? This is surely what Burnham intended when he stood for election in 2017, and what he believed he was doing during this brief revolt.

At the same time, that act of defiance held out a prospect of chaos. What if every big city mayor rejected an order from central government in a public health emergency – or indeed any emergency? The country would, quite simply, become ungovernable. We don’t yet know how far, or indeed whether, Burnham’s defiance will be translated into non-compliance with the new anti-Covid regulations, but some elements of resistance will surely endure.

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