woman in blue dress standing near building during daytime
Photo by Matthew Waring on Unsplash

In a crisis the country needs to come together. The desire to do so was shown by the way in every region and nation people applauded the NHS and its dedicated staff every Thursday. But around the country people are fed up, feel they have not been listened to or consulted when decisions about lockdowns, tiers, quarantines, and furloughs have been made. Too often we have seen local lockdowns imposed without local consultation, communities discovering their Christmas has been cancelled through leaks to the press, letters from the Welsh First Minister left unanswered and regional tiers announced without even the courtesy of a phone call in advance to regional leaders.

And the pandemic – and now the recession – have brutally exposed many divisions in our country – with insensitivity on the Government’s part pitting the UK’s regions and nations against an inflexible and dismissive centre, widening the economic divide within our country and communities, laying bare the gaps in living standards and even life expectancy between the rich and poor.

These divisions tell us what we have long known to be true: either we reform and renew, creating something fairer and more inclusive, or we resist and refuse and return to a broken status quo. It is abundantly clear that not to act will risk the jobs and futures of too many people in this country. And inaction also risks the unity of our United Kingdom.

Times of crisis require us to be imaginative, farsighted and driven from the bottom-up, drawing on the best practice and insight of local leaders rather than imposed by an out-of-touch and over-centralised Whitehall.

And the devolution – to the nations and to the regions – we have is all too often undermined by too centralist a mindset, with ministers often paying only lip-service to localism. If we are to deal with pandemics, pollution and poverty, the voices of the regions and nations have to be listened to and the centre has to show it will work with them.

To build belief that we are all in this together, we must develop solutions together. Our co-operative movement offers up many of the answers, and that we achieve more through co-operation than we achieve alone. That shared values are the foundation of strong communities and that sustainable economies require a fair distribution of wealth and power. Mobilising the resources and campaigning power of the co-operative movement, which has always believed in community power, devolution and creative solutions to the challenges which face us, will be crucial in rebuilding trust and turning the tide of recession.

Citizens’ assemblies were a unifying force in Ireland, and more recently are being deployed by co-operative councillors to address the difficult choices that will be required in tackling climate change with the urgency it requires. Convening citizens’ assemblies to be part of a post-Covid resolution of our future will have this same unifying effect.

Where co-operation between the centre and localities has been exposed as wholly deficient, we need to take steps to rebuild a stronger United Kingdom and consider changes which will unite our divided country.

First, we need to consider how to deliver a redistribution of resources, opportunities and power, based on needs – and whether there is a case for a new Barnett-style needs-based formula for allocating resources across the regions of England. What’s clear is that the era of one-size-fits-all is over, and there can be no unity without recognition of diversity.

Secondly, we need to consider how we can improve co-operation between all layers of government. It is extraordinary that, to this day, there is no body that brings together the leaders of the regions and nations in one forum. The Joint Ministerial Committee that was to be the bridge between the centre and Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has now broken down. Not once has it met, other than on Brexit, during Johnson’s 16-month premiership. ‘Devolve and forget’ should be replaced by ‘devolve and include’ with a robust process for bringing metro mayors and local councils into national decision-making.

Thirdly, we should consider how to advance national integration through greater political inclusion. For example, we need to consider whether the outdated House of Lords should be replaced by a Senate of the Nations and Regions.

But one thing we know for sure: any new settlement must be built on the foundations of shared values. Britain cannot have a shared future without setting out what we agree on. Indeed, we must forge a modern story about the values we have in common, the shared experiences of people and communities in every part of the country, and the diverse cultural bonds that bind us together.

The co-operative movement has always been about the best of human values. It is through a focus on the sentiments that inspire co-operation and reciprocity – solidarity and empathy – that we expose narrow nationalism for what it truly is: an ideology that sees the world in terms of a never-ending struggle between ‘us’, the insiders, and ‘them’, the outsiders. Rather than a nationalism which seeks to divide us, we can demonstrate that our future lies in empathy across nations, not enmity, and that we succeed through solidarity and sharing.

This article was first published in the Spring/Summer 2021 edition of The Pioneer, the Co-operative Party Members’ Magazine.