Partition is not the key to devolution

CEG lunch event. An assessment of the future Economic Prospects of Leeds.
Cllr Judith Blake leader of Leeds City Council.
2nd August 2017.
Picture Jonathan Gawthorpe
CEG lunch event. An assessment of the future Economic Prospects of Leeds. Cllr Judith Blake leader of Leeds City Council. 2nd August 2017. Picture Jonathan Gawthorpe

As part of a visit to India a few years ago, I visited Fatephur Sikri, just west of Agra, where the abandoned city founded by Akbar the Great in the 16th century sits overlooking the state of neighbouring Rajasthan, writes Coun Ryan Stephenson.

Built in 1571, the Mughal walled city, with its blend of Hindu and Islamic architecture, reflects the secular outlook of Emperor Akbar.

Though he was himself brought up as a Muslim, he outlawed much of his predecessor’s discrimination against Christians, Parsees and Hindus, and instead recruited men of all faiths into his regime. His secular views stretched far beyond his governance of the Mughal Empire too, his harem included 35 wives and over a hundred concubines of both Islamic and Hindu faith.

This secularised rule of the Indian subcontinent, just one passage in India’s long history, is notable this year as the country marks 70 years of independence.

The independence movement, starting 300 hundred years after Akbar’s rule and enduring control by the East India Company and rule of the British Raj, resulted in the partition of India into two independent dominions, India and Pakistan. India was divided along religious lines and hostility, brought about by the way partition was administered, plagues relations between the two independent states today.

In recent weeks, occasional commentary on partition has drawn reference to Britain’s pending exit from the European Union.

Beyond the obvious comparison of identity politics resulting in people of differing identities refusing to live under the same governmental control, there are few relevant comparisons to be made.

Yet the use of language around partition, division or segregation is becoming a common theme in debate around Britain’s future outside the European Union, as well domestic matters such as devolution to regions within the United Kingdom.

One such example is the ongoing debate over Yorkshire devolution. Regional leaders who are eager to take up the offer of increased powers and responsibilities from central government, but who are careful not to praise the Government for doing so, use the so-called north/south divide as a political cattle prod.

This rhetoric focuses on a desire to pit one group against the other: Scots versus the English; Northerners verses Southerners; us versus them. It’s an example of the politics of envy that fans the flames of division, and it’s from the embers of Brexit that some hope further partition of the UK will result.

On Leeds City Council we often hear those in the ruling administration talk about differential funding between the north and south of England. Dig a little deeper and you realise that reference to ‘the south’ actually means London. This is yet another feeble comparison, discounting the fact that a capital city is always a natural attraction for commerce.

At the end of the second quarter of this year the top five countries to deliver the biggest year-on-year economic growth worldwide were Butan, Ethiopia, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire and India. Dig a little deeper into where this economic growth derives and you will see that their respective capital cities - Thimphu, Addis Ababa, Accra, Yamoussoukro and New Delhi – record greater investment and economic output than their regional economies.

The differential between capital cities and their regional counterparts should be no surprise, and nor should it become the impetus for regional independence. Britain’s economy is strengthened by its reliance on multiple factions distributed across different regions of the United Kingdom. When London wins, UK Plc wins. And when UK Plc wins, Leeds wins too.

When Emperor Akbar brought together men of different faiths into his regime he did so knowing that strength derives from weaving together different factions to make them symbiotic.

As discussions on the structure of Yorkshire devolution get underway later this month, focus should be on how our regional economy can weave seamlessly into the national economy. It is this, not regional partition, which ought to be the bedrock of a collaborative devolution deal.