Comment: plan needed to break London’s hegemony

MAINSTREAM academic research has long recognised the dangers and negative impact of uneven economic development.
The Millennium Dome at Greenwich. Picture: PAThe Millennium Dome at Greenwich. Picture: PA
The Millennium Dome at Greenwich. Picture: PA

An overheating capital and core of the economy penalises all parts with accelerating costs of congestion and inflation on the one hand, while other areas, starved of investment and jobs, suffer from unemployment and unused resources.

So, Vince Cable’s depiction of London sucking the life blood out of the rest of the UK is nothing new, but then there is nothing new coming from the Westminster parties that offers a realistic alternative. They are not promising to reverse the gravitation to London of jobs, income, wealth and, most significantly, power, never mind having credible policies or strategies to boost the rest of the UK.

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A fundamental challenge to the over-dominant centre is needed for all our sakes, a countervailing centre of activity and hope.

Far from seeking such a rebalancing of power, over the last decade each London party has privileged London to the detriment of the country as a whole. Labour has retreated from its feeble plans for regional assemblies, which at least would have given the English regions their voice and coherent set of institutions to attempt to slow the drift to London. The Liberal Democrats seem to have forgotten the next step in that process – federalism, but then have never even tried to create a way to make that constitutional model credible. For all their talk of local accountability and the Big Society, the Conservatives are wedded to the market and that inevitably leads to concentration and centralisation to the harm of all: the market fails.

Nordic countries

By contrast, the successful nations of Europe are either small and coherent, like the Nordic countries, or federal like Germany. Together, these are not only the most innovative economies, the most stable, strong and prosperous but also they have not skewed their economies towards domination by banking and finance – with a very few ‘big banks’, a few privatised monopoly utility companies and a capital region that destroys incentives, enterprise and potential across the land.

The persistent inequalities in economic development in the UK are generated and regenerated by this promotion of London, and the drivers for its superficial success create poverty and exclusion in the capital, destroy manufacturing and enterprises elsewhere, and lead to spirals of public and private debt.

The last three decades and more have intensified these forces of concentration and centralisation, destroying firms, jobs and incomes outside London and the South East. The power dynamics that underlie this fundamentally unequal and undemocratic geography and the attendant economic impacts have been taking the UK inexorably into a state of decline and debt dependency.

Populist policies and scapegoating of immigrants, those on benefits and ‘the north’ have been deepening these divides. Without a systematic reversal of the spatial concentration of power, with radical re-imagination and restructuring of the economies and powers across the UK, Cable’s weasel words and crocodile tears will amount to nothing. There is no appetite for such fundamental strategic change, to transfer power to the regions and Wales, nor to attack the underpinning causes of inequality in enterprises and households.

The need for a countervailing power in the north, offering hope and opportunities for workers, entrepreneurs and firms, where they can grow and prosper, is not on the agenda for the parties in Westminster because that would threaten the hegemony of London and capital. Scotland alone can break that stranglehold by mirroring the practices and strategies of our successful neighbours in northern Europe, and that means charting a radically different course from the centralising and concentrating centripetal powers of Westminster and London.

• Mike Danson is professor of enterprise at Heriott-Watt University.

• This comment article was supplied by Yes Scotland