Constitutional unchoice in Manchester

How the choice between city devolution or evolution is false and new regional constitutions risk being simply bolted on to the existing constitutional mess.

Steve Hanson
16 November 2016

Manchester Town Hall -

'Devolution or (R)evolution?', a panel discussion held at Manchester Metropolitan University, was the culmination of a series of events on city devolution in Manchester. This series was underwritten by the need to 'consult', but the history of consultation in Manchester is wrapped in a thick layer of Mancunian cynicism.

For once, this is justified. Manchester didn't vote for city devolution, but got it. Manchester was asked if it wanted a Mayor and said no, but got one anyway. But the roots of the cynicism run much deeper. For instance the public 'consultation' after the 1996 bomb is still seen by many as being completely token.

The first event I went to in this series was only significant in that everybody talked about everything except devolution. Nobody really seemed to know what it meant. The big hole was made a little smaller by dumping the usual ideological Manchester landfill into it, about the music scene, culture and 'radicalism'. Why every event about the city has to mention Joy Division at least once is completely mystifying.  

Two larger events in between the first one and this last one included discussions with Sir Richard Leese and others. They seem to have made the need for definition much more urgent in the meantime. 'Devolution or (R)evolution?', then, joined the debate some miles further down the road. It had a clear set of pre-supplied aims for devolution, the final outcome being to make Manchester 'self-reliant'.

Manchester has been relatively devolved since 2011, but, like the relationship of the individual with early industrial capitalism, full devolution means that the city fends for itself, or dies. Like the 'freed slave' of wage labour, 'freedom' means the freedom to do business or drown.

This isn't Marxist hyperbole. Full city devolution already means payment by results, and this is partly why Gateshead is trying to veto it. The city gets a new tie and shoes and 'does business', or it finds itself in the gutter in its own Detroit. This is 'self-reliance.' The Northeast has been lying there long enough through no fault of its own to have strong opinions on such things.

But judging by some of the noises made at this event, Manchester is still arrogant: 'We are pioneering in Manchester', the wooden words fell noisily out of mouths onto the floor, the tropes and doxa piled up. Phrases like 'stronger together' rolled out easily as though they actually meant something.

The history of 'working together' in Manchester really means the practice of public-private partnerships, created out of sheer desperation in the 1980s, which then became the model for New Labour before New Labour, and then the default model of neoliberal governance in the UK, which congealed into a neoconservative glot after 2008.

This model is now cranking into higher gear. The idea of 'getting into bed with' in Manchester has shifted from accepting flings with local players like Peel Holdings, to new romances with China or Deloitte in the U.S. The whole game has shifted up one global scale.

But where this final event got really interesting was in the discussions around how the new Manchester constitution might take shape.

The history of the British constitution is already complex, precisely because it isn't an 'it'. 'It' is the Magna Carta, which was always about the upper middle classes fighting among themselves, via an appeal to the 'greater good'. The historical add-ons, the Bill of Rights in 1689 and two further acts of parliament, do contain significant advances. That we cannot be detained without charge, that royal privileges are not abused, by whichever Charles we might be talking about, in whatever decade.

This assemblage, like the supposedly 'settled' King James bible of 1611, is a collage concealing the politics behind its stitching.

Salford already has a constitution of about 400 pages, as does Manchester. The Constitution Unit, in 2016, defined a 'constitution' as something that organises, distributes and regulates state power. But when the mist clears what all this really means is that the Queen enacts power via parliament through the prime minister, whom she 'invites' to form a government. The unspoken yet still present figure above this is 'God', who confers divine entitlement on Her/His Majesty.

All of this is a neat trick. The city is ‘freed’ but still ruled. This is the Northern Powerhouse.

Ties with Europe are breaking apart. The Manchester city region relationship with London is becoming distanced and therefore so is its relationship with all the other regions in the country.

Localists continue to entrench themselves and declare this entrenchment 'radical'. They are a theatrical microcosm of the wider landscape. They blindly mirror the Brexiteers just one scale up. At every level there is a turn inwards and each in turn thinks this is noble.

There is a total crisis of constitution, but this new Manchester city constitution will be added on to all the other bits of constitution, with their sprawling, dust-covered caveats, amendments and interminable interpretative slippage. A constitution for Manchester will not mean the people will decide a new polity that will overwrite and suspend the existing national one.

'Devolution or (R)evolution?' is a question as well as an event title. But it is a non-question, another meaningless trope flirting with radicalism. 'Devolution', when analysed alongside the emerging city region constitution, is already merely 're-evolution'.

Neither amount to a 'Revolution', because parliament is always sovereign, and sovereign under the Queen, but sovereign in this constitutional mess.

It became clear during this event that the possibility of radical governance in Manchester is a non-starter, as it would be made illegal by parliament, as were Liverpool City Council's rebel budgets under Derek Hatton and Militant.

To try to pre-empt some of the criticisms that will doubtless follow below, I think city devolution presents all kinds of positive opportunities. A Police Sergeant spoke clearly and urgently at the event, about her difficult task and how joined-up governance at city region level, with an active rather than a symbolic mayor, could make a big difference.

We were asked, during the event, to vote on whether devolution was good or bad. The answer to that question, I said, was 'we can't know if it will be good or bad.'

No, the point I am making here is much bigger: That the constitutional 'innovations' of city devolution are so far not going to solve the emergency of sovereignty, politics and therefore the legitimation crisis that plagues the land at every level.

As I sat in this event I noticed Zizek light up on a Twitter feed in front of me, animatedly saying he would vote Trump because it is better than further inertia.

In my head I translated this warning onto the event I was in. I saw messy constitutional inertia spiraling away into the distance. Changing, but always the same. Devolved, but not really. ‘Freed’ but actually ruled much more ruthlessly by money. All followed by the same intolerably high-pitched screaming that arrived after the High Court ruling on Brexit the same day, but this time from the right and the left.

If the whole constitutional crisis is not addressed with real substantive change, people will seek it through other means, at a city and national level. Surely then, Zizek is right, all the main paths forward are marked 'Danger'.


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