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  • William Tyler

Centralised v Decentralised Government

There has always been a bias in England towards Centralised Government; based on London. However, there has always been too, a long history of pressure for Decentralisation, normally relating to the northern half of the country. This pressure for northern decentralisation long predated The Industrial Revolution; yet it was that revolution which witnessed a starker division grow between the great industrial cities of the north and midlands and the more rural south, and between greater poverty in the north as compared to greater prosperity in the south.


One political solution which has never found favour in England has been that of Federalism. It is true that Blair's reforms set up a proto Federal state of The United Kingdom, but this has never been introduced or favoured, save by a small minority of people, in England. The Wessex Regionalist Movement led by the late Marquess of Bath is merely an example of English eccentricity. More serious has been the growing support for Mebyon Kernow in Cornwall and it now boasts four elected Members of Cornwall's County Council.


England's position contrasts with that of The United States, where during the current Presidential election we have all seen how individual states, and even parts of states, have their own electoral laws. You might be forgiven, therefore, in thinking the American system is very un-English, emphasising the rights of the states as against the central Federal Government. In fact it couldn't be more English. Hence the full title of the State of Pennsylvania - The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The word Commonwealth being the one used in Cromwell's Britain and simply meaning 'providing for the common good/wealth of the people'. It represents the views of the early English Puritans who sailed to New England in the search for freedom and to escape from the centralised and tyrannical rule of Charles I. That idea of freedom both fuelled the break with Britain in the 1770s, and the subsequent adoption of a federal constitution. It also, of course, over the issue of slavery, was at the heart of The Civil War conflict between the States in the 1860s.


In England, historians point to the unification of the country under The House of Wessex in the 10th century and the re-affirmation of this centralised system of government under William of Normandy. In fact William made a centralised state, based on the crown, the central plank in his governance of the country. The Norman version of the Feudal System made the Norman kings far stronger than their Saxon predecessors; no longer could a regional nobility challenge the king, as was always a possibility under the Saxons. Indeed, Harold II himself gained power not through heredity, but through being recognised by The Council, The Witenagemot, as the strongest man available to face the twin enemies of Scandinavia and Normandy,


But this story of centralisation obscures the fact that during the time of Roman Britain, although starting out as one Province, Britannia, the Romans subsequently divided it into two, and then finally into four. After the rebellion of the Governor of Britain, Clodius Albinus, was defeated by the Emperor Septimus Severus around 197 AD, the victorious emperor divided the Province into a southern province, Britannia Superior, capital in London, and a northern province, Britannia Inferior, capital at York. The adjectives Superior and Inferior had a different meaning to that which they have in modern English. They simply meant Upper and Lower Britain. The reason for the split was to prevent any future Governor, based in London, withdrawing troops from Hadrian's Wall in order to enhance his chances of challenging the Emperor in Rome.


In 296 AD Emperor Diocletian made a further, and final, division. Britannia Superior was divided into Britannia Prima (capital probably at Cirencester) and Maxima Caesarensis (capital probably in London), whereas Britannia Inferior was divided into Britannia Secunda (capital probably at York) and Flavia Caesarensis (capital probably at Lincoln).


The next attempt at decentralisation came under The House of York (with, of course, its personal connection with The North). In 1472 Edward IV established The Council of The North (eventually with an HQ in York). He put his younger brother, Richard Duke of York (later King Richard III) in charge, It was reformed under Henry VIII, who used it to control Catholics in the region, but was finally disbanded in 1641 by The Long Parliament who feared that the Council itself was becoming a tool of northern Catholics.


The next attempt at decentralisation was the creation of two cabinet offices, one for the north, and one for the south The Northern Department and The Southern Department respectively. Both rather strangely had specific foreign affairs roles, the North for Northern Europe and the South for Southern Europe, as well as domestic roles within their region. They were set up in 1660 and closed down in 1782, when their various responsibilities were divided between The Home Office and The Foreign Office.


So far, I have not mentioned Local Government in England as opposed to Regional Government. From Saxon times there was a clear system of Local Government based on the Wessex division of the kingdom into Shires, literally a bit sheared/shired off from the main kingdom. Note carefully that the word county is a nasty Norman/French introduction and as a West Countryman from the heart of Wessex it is not one of my favourite words! Why do you think Tolkien chose the name Shire for the home of The Hobbits?


In 1189 we see the post of Lord Mayor of London established. A post which you achieved by election not by appointment of the king. One of the issues debated around Magna Carta in 1215 was the independence of the Lord Mayor and Corporation of London, and this was written into the final version of the Charter.


As the population increased in the 19th century and as society became more complex the Government passed The Municipal Corporations Act of 1835. The Act required elections to councils to be open to ratepayers and for their accounts to be published. 178 Boroughs were immediately reformed and others in the ensuing years, the last happening in 1886 (never let it be said that the English do reform hastily!). And, very English, we are still left with one unreformed council, namely that of The Corporation of London.


The most recent wide ranging reform has been the creation of directly elected Regional Mayors, the first being the Mayor of The Greater London Authority (never to be confused with The Lord Mayor of [the City] of London).


I am not alone as an historian in warning of the dangers of such regional decentralisation. The present pandemic has thrown up the very problem that William I had succeeded in dealing with, namely a clash between regional leaders and national leaders. In our times made infinitely worse if the two sets of leaders belong to different political parties, and worse still if the regional authority is in the north, as has been the case between the north-south, Labour-Conservative clash of Burnham and Johnson.


In the early 14th century a monk from Chester (although thought to be a Westcountryman), Ranulf Higden, explained the problem perfectly, when he wrote ' All the language of the men of Northumberland, and especially of Yorkshire, soundeth so that the men of the South country may scarcely understand the language of them, which thing may be caused by the proximity of their language to that spoken by barbarians, and also by the great distance of the kings of England from [the North], since those kings mostly frequent the South, and only enter the North when accompanied by a large number of their retainers'.



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