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  • Writer's pictureIan Ritchie

The strange case of 'levelling up' is surely an affront to democracy

Updated: May 13, 2022

Ian Ritchie Scottish Business Insider - February 2022

AT THE LAST UK ELECTION the Conservatives succeeded in winning a substantial majority of former Labour-held 'Red Wall' seats in the north of England. The party achieved this by stating that not only they would 'Get Brexit Done' but by also promising a ‘levelling up’ of the more economically deprived areas where most of these constituencies are located; England disgracefully being the country with the largest divergence between its richest and its poorest regions in the whole of Europe.

Two years on, Boris Johnston having failed to explain what his slogan ‘levelling up’ actually means, has handed the task to Michael Gove, but there is a problem.

After the huge economic costs of the Covid-19 pandemic, there is little chance that the Treasury will be able to splash the cash in any meaningful way. Certainly nothing like the €2trn or so that Germany spent in recovering the depressed economy of the former East Germany after reunification in 1989.

Gove has expressed a renewed interest in devolution -- he wants to create more city region mayors to which economic regeneration activities can be devolved. He hopes that voters have forgotten that one of the first acts of the new Conservative coalition government back in 2010 was to close down all England’s regional economic agencies which were then responsible for strategic regional economic development.

But the UK government’s concept of devolution is a dog’s dinner compared to the federal systems of other countries where the powers of regional states are well defined.

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have different levels of local powers over administration, laws and taxes. At an English level, the various mayors of, say, London, Manchester, West Midlands or Cambridge all have very divergent powers over their own area in control of things like social care or public transport.

The effect of all this is they are not really devolved in any meaningful sense as it is still Westminster that effectively decides what they are allowed to do.

It also transpires that if some of the ‘levelling up’, using funds formerly allocated from the EU, was to work across the UK, it seems a junior minister in the Lords was required for the Scotland Office to assist with this process. Oddly, existing peers such as Annabelle Goldie and Ruth Davidson didn’t qualify for this task even though they had been previously been elected and had led the Tories in Scotland, developing a deep knowledge of Scottish politics and it’s economic and regional issues.

Step forward Malcolm Offord who, after a successful career in finance in London, returned to his native land in a ‘salmond-like’ instinct a few years ago. He set up an investment company, Badenoch, in Charlotte Square and has invested in the likes of Cashmaster International, based in Dalgety Bay, and the Borders Distillery in Hawick. Fair enough, he's backing business in Scotland. However, he stood as a conservative candidate in the last Scottish elections but failed to get elected.

No matter, as a significant donor to the Conservative party he was a prime candidate to be elevated to the peerage, and so, Lord Offord was appointed to the Scotland Office as a kind of unelected ‘viceroy’ to help with this ‘levelling up’ process.

Viceroy Offord has been really busy already, awarding funding to what must be vitally neglected projects such as the development of the B714 in Ayrshire, the Pollock stables in Glasgow, and the Granton gasometer in Edinburgh.

You might think that, under the devolution settlement, it’s the elected Scottish Government that should be making such investment decisions rather than an unelected peer who, until recently, knew little about Scottish affairs; but we obviously don’t understand what ‘levelling up’ actually means, or indeed what devolution actually means, or even… what democracy actually means.

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