When the flood comes, the survivors will be found on the higher ground. Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram have joined Sadiq Khan on the new peaks of Labour politics, as metro mayors of major English conurbations. Their former colleagues in the House of Commons will be scrabbling for local boats to lift themselves above the Conservative tide that is about to wash through the country.
In England, the metro-mayors bring a new structure to sub-national government. It is more than simply a functional reform to deliver public policy at an appropriate spatial scale. In London, Greater Manchester and the Liverpool City Region, the new metro mayors give expression to strong civic identities; in time, the same may be said of Tees Valley and the West Midlands, which has Joe Chamberlain’s Birmingham at its core. Civic identity will prove a firmer foundation for sub-national government than the regional artifices of the former nine government offices for England, which were in turn the basis for the now defunct Regional Development Agencies. Lacking popular attachments shaped by history and urban cultures, regional bodies were easy targets for the incoming Coalition government to abolish in 2010.
Civic attachments are evidently weaker in the West of England and Peterborough-Cambridgeshire, where the mix of county and city, and a smaller scale, means that there isn’t an existing popular identity to which the mayors can give political expression. The West of England combined authority brings back memories of Avon County Council but these are seldom fond ones. Bristol has a strong identity but it already has a mayor. The more inchoate, though tangible, green-liberal character of the West of England runs through the region on ley lines, not the boundaries of a public authority.
The fact that the Conservatives won four of the six metro mayor elections up for grabs in 2017 will nonetheless help cement their place in the governance of England, particularly now that their main patron in Westminster has decamped to the Evening Standard. Whether they will join forces to represent the interests of the English cities in the Brexit negotiations is moot. Each of the new mayors represents areas with strong interests in one or more of the aerospace, automotive and aviation sectors, as well as leading universities – and each would be seriously damaged by a hard Brexit. But the sweeping up of the UKIP vote into the Conservative bloc will pull at least two of the Tory Mayors towards more eurosceptic government-friendly positions, while Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram are likely to prioritise the demands of the wider North over the metropolitan interests they share with their fellow mayors.
In the West Midlands, the Labour candidate Sion Simon wrapped himself in the flag of St George and harnessed the Brexit discourse of “taking back control”, but it wasn’t enough to get him over the line against the UKIP collapse and Labour’s national weakness. Labour thinkers will now debate whether his embrace of Englishness helped or hindered his campaign.
Whatever the verdict, the debate on England’s future in the union will not go away. The revival of Scottish conservatism does not signal the return of a strong unionist British identity of the kind that once shaped Conservative political loyalties in Scotland, and which the English also took for granted. Its foundations in empire, Protestant loyalism, and later, the strong post-war national state, are not coming back, even if the rise of Scottish nationalism and the decline of working class Labour identities have sharpened the importance of political unionism north of the border (in passing, I suspect there is a reason why some electors voted for the unionist party in Shettleston and it is not because they have been reading Iain Duncan Smith pamphlets on social justice).
The SNP will still return a phalanx of MPs to Westminster after June 8th and they will govern in the Scottish Parliament and is major cities. They will not cede their political leadership of Scotland’s aspirations to a Conservative-Unionist government in Westminster. The SNP may exhibit greater tactical caution but a Scottish Conservative revival will not dispense with the question of whether the UK can hold its constituent nations together. Paradoxically, the election of metro mayors in England will make the federalist case for the UK that little bit harder to answer, since they take off the table the idea that the English regions can be partners with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in a new federal constitutional settlement. For that, England will need national recognition to go alongside devolved city and county governance.