This past week, there have been a number of debates that have drawn critical attention to the centralisation of power in London, as opposed to the regions. In Leicester, the Mayor has complained that the Government eased the local lockdown faster in Conservative-voting areas than in Labour-voting areas. In Scotland, fierce debate continues to rage around proposals to quarantine visitors entering Scotland from other parts of the UK. Likewise, Boris Johnson announced plans for a ‘government hub’ in York in an attempt to diversify Government activities away from the capital and raised the prospect that Parliament could decamp to the city while restoration work was carried out on the Palace of Westminster.
A majority of respondents (52%) agreed that too much political power is centralised in Westminster, with only 15% of respondents disagreeing. However, a fairly significant proportion (26%) of respondents neither agree nor disagree, indicating that sections of the public do not have strong feelings about the issue. London and the South East are the only regions where those in agreement with the statement did not form a majority (45% and 43% respectively), which could be explained by the benefits they derive from their proximity to the country’s centre of power. At 61%, Scottish respondents were the most likely of any region to agree with the statement, perhaps revealing their desire for further powers to be devolved to the Scottish parliament, especially after Brexit.
However, it appears that the majority’s belief that the UK’s political system is too centralised does not translate into majority support for adopting a more devolved federal system, which would take significant powers away from Westminster and give them to regional authorities. When asked the extent to which they would support or oppose the UK switching to a federal system similar to Germany or the United States, where various regions would become equal states with their own parliaments under a federal UK Government, opinion was much more split. 35% of respondents said they would support a move to federalism, while 31% said they would be opposed. 24% of respondents say they would neither support nor oppose such a change. These findings suggest there is no clear consensus among the public about this particularly alternative, even if a majority of respondents find the current system too centralised.
Interestingly, there is stronger opposition to a federal system in the UK among 2019 Conservative voters, 41% of whom would oppose the move. By contrast, only 22% of 2019 Labour voters say they would oppose such a change.
The current lack of broad public support for shifting to a federal system renders it unlikely that this Government would be tempted to propose the reforms necessary to move to such a system. Indeed, the Prime Minister’s own preferences for an unfragmented UK were made clear by his recent intervention in the increasingly heated debate in Scotland on quarantining visitors. Federalism therefore does not quite appear to be the desired answer to the UK’s centralisation problems.