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From Brexit to the break-up of Britain?
From Brexit to the break-up of Britain?

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3 Devolution as a response to uneven development

The process of devolution in the UK is generally understood through the experience of the three devolved administrations of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Each of these takes its own distinctive form. It is, in other words, presented as a political process – a response to demands generated from those territories and nations. But devolution may also be understood as a means of challenging some of the underlying tensions associated with uneven development across the UK (which is potentially of relevance within all of the UK’s territories and nations as well as between them). Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales have historically been defined through their particular roles in an imperial Britain, within which England was a continuing core. The end of empire has undermined the dominance of England within the UK and left the UK’s other territories and nations to find new roles, even as England itself has become less confident and coherent. London has moved from being imperial capital to global city and financial centre.

Doreen Massey never directly engaged with the political geography of Brexit and what it might mean for the UK. The vote took place some months after her death. But her work was highly prescient, indeed almost prophetic, in the context of that vote. One of the issues she identified, which has also been noted by others, concerns the relationship of London and South East England to the other regions of England and the other nations of the UK. And what matters is that this is a continuing relationship, not just a fact of life in which one area is identified as prosperous and dynamic while others are somehow backwaters, or even simply ‘left behind’. She focuses on this in a book published in 2007 – World City. This is a book about London, but it is also about uneven development. Rather than celebrating London’s position, it sets out to explore the contradictory, ambiguous and often negative role that London plays in shaping the UK’s economic, political and social geography, as well as positioning it in the context of a particular form of globalisation.

Activity 3 Thinking about devolution in England and across the UK

Timing: Allow about 15 minutes

Before the Brexit referendum Diane Coyle, who is a professor at the University of Manchester, wrote a blog post setting out the case for thinking more critically about the political and economic geography of the UK, and suggesting that greater devolution would not only encourage more even development across the country, but also generate more economic growth.

Read Diane Coyle’s blog post by clicking on the link below and then return here to answer the following question.

What does Diane Coyle see as the barriers to economic growth and how does she suggest overcoming them?


Diane Coyle recognises that there are real advantages of concentrating economic activity in urban areas and she also acknowledges that London is thriving. But she believes that the economy should not be run on the basis of a ‘single engine’. She sees this is a particular issue because over-centralisation and the pressures of concentration bring their own problems. In the case of London, the additional costs of housing and transport make it difficult to provide jobs for those on ‘normal’ wages.

But Diane Coyle’s arguments go beyond these concerns about what she calls ‘the diseconomies of agglomeration’. Concentration in one place makes it impossible for a wider range of specialist industries to develop. For that to happen effectively, other cities need to be able to grow existing (and develop new) areas of specialism. She argues that the existing UK economic model, which tends to favour the financial services industries, is at the root of the geographical imbalance you have been exploring in this course. And that geographical imbalance, with its focus on London, ensures that the economic imbalance is maintained as ‘people and activity’ are sucked back into the city. To overcome these barriers, Diana Coyle proposes a comprehensive approach based around the UK’s cities, one which is underpinned by significant infrastructural investment in those cities.

The point here is not that it is necessary to agree with the approach being presented or the solutions being put forward. But Diane Coyle’s arguments are important because they require us to think more carefully about current arrangements – and current development patterns – rather than accepting them as simply a necessary outcome of wider and uncontrollable economic forces.