• Nick Vlahos


This concluding chapter of the book draws insights from the key findings of the study and reflects upon the primary objectives laid out in the introductory chapter.

The Political Economy of Scale and Devolution in Britain

The critical social science epistemology this book builds on seeks to uncover the mechanisms of macro-structural change associated with governments, states, economies and democracies. It recognizes the role that class plays in informing the structuring of political and economic institutions, relations and processes at different scales. Yet, the connection between class, political partisanship and sectoral contestation is not primarily used when examining decentralization and devolution as mechanisms of macro-structural change in advanced industrial countries. As Alex Law and Gerry Mooney argue, particularly in the current historical period, class appears to be the name we dare not speak, not with respect to the social location of people, in analysing how governments distribute resources and design policies, nor in how political and economic structures are (re)designed.1

I have attempted to address this by revisiting and challenging the historical lineages of research that have defined our thinking about the British government, state, economy and democracy. As discussed in the previous chapter, this largely connects to postwar modernization and democratic theory. What commonly stands out is how distanced these analytical approaches are from the social contexts with which processes develop and change. Moreover, there is a tendency to omit the scaled relations and partisan struggles within the British capitalist and democratic system. One way to understand what a system consists of is to study when, how and why it has changed over time. This is relevant to challenging past theories because it recognizes that systems are not static, whereas previous research has often focused on fitting case studies into universal categories to be used for comparing analytical taxonomies.

A methodological privileging of certain scales and institutions as the definitive features of the British system is exactly what this book speaks against. Focusing on change additionally allows us to specify the criteria by which change is to be assessed, and this allows us to reflect on the continuity and discontinuity of political structures. Colin Hay argues that we can do this by appreciating the relationship between structure and agency, namely that human intervention, however mediated and unintended its consequences are, occurs within a structured environment.2 I have argued that we cannot remove social contexts from systems and conduct parsimonious comparisons between the parts of a whole, not if the goal is to explain the connection between structure and agency.

Modernization and democratic theorists of the postwar era took for granted the progressive extension of democratic citizenship simultaneously with capitalist transformation, and considered democracy largely about electing representatives to build a national welfare state. Yet, by dissecting how the political engagement of diverse actors at different scales of the state was invested in challenging the national level, I have been able to nuance commentary about what democracy also consisted of in terms of decentralized institutions and their partisan relations. Not only was this so-called low politics extremely important because it spoke to why the national level was not able to fully mobilize subnational change unilaterally whenever it pleased and without resistance, but because it was also actively part of defining what politics, economics and democracy meant to the encompassing political system.

Hence, democracy consists of a more complicated web of relationships between political and economic scales, institutions and actors. The simultaneous examination of national and subnational levels together uncovered several problems with how decision-making processes factored into public involvement. There were issues with formal democracy, i.e. the maintenance of voting qualifications into the postwar period at the local level, and the denial of regional democracy until the end of the twentieth century. At the national level, property and privilege were qualifications for the House of Lords, and Members of Parliament were not representative of the population. Beyond simply formal democracy, other avenues for engaging the public in urban planning for example, a very important part of building and reinvigorating cities, jobs and industry, were very limited. More broadly, social democracy was concerned with capital-labour relations at a corporatist level; it did not guarantee shop floor democracy within industry, nor the public’s determination of how policy was made or implemented in the public sector or at the legislative level. Moreover, democracy at different levels of the state has been gendered and racialized through various exclusionary policies and practices, and much of this affected citizenship by reinforcing barriers to political participation. In response to perceived democratic deficits, mobilization has occurred among multiple publics and counter-publics against different scales of the state’s decision-making institutions and even against the organizational leadership mechanisms embedded in capital-labour relations.

This book challenges assumptions about the British political system and democracy by applying and adapting some of the core elements of critical democratization research. To be sure, analyses of conflicts of interest in the political arenas of Western nations as part of democratic class struggles are decades old. Critical democratization analyses have argued against the idea that the unceasing development of industrial technology was the most important driver of societal change; rather, the state is not seen as a neutral arbiter between different groups as the new technologically advanced and democratic system does not provide all groups roughly equal opportunities to mobilize. Instead, politics is an expression of socio-economic cleavages in society, and the struggle over the distribution of power resources is central to politics.3

The extent to which governments provide social protection and redistribution thus hinges, in this interpretation, on the ability of unions and left parties to mobilize workers politically. Such a proposition is not self-evident, for several theoretical traditions (and perhaps even segments of the public) downplay the significance of who governs in making society more inclusive.4 Nonetheless, cross-national qualitative and quantitative research documents the importance of working-class mobilization as a condition for early welfare state and democratic consolidation and for explaining national differences in subsequent expansion.5 This suggests that in contrast to postwar paradigms, the focus should not be on the characteristics of various democratic institutions or social programs but the ways in which different nations arrive at their peculiar public-private sector mix.6 Dennis Pilon notes that:

with this in mind we can see that institutions themselves are neither democratic nor undemocratic but only ever just potentially a means to democratic ends. What is important is the democratic substance they produce. Think of democracy as a relationship amongst people for their own collective self-governance. But the effort to introduce and sustain that relationship has always been contested by those who would prefer things to be organized in a different way (e.g. by status or wealth), as well as by the broader social relations of inequality – e.g. class, race, gender, etc. – that exist in any given locale.7

Working our way through historical research paradigms by revisiting social, political and economic phenomena also connects to current research. Although studies within the critical democratic class struggle paradigm have focused on how class-based left parties appear to have played a significant role in the development of social rights, there have been calls for research to analyse the multidimensional aspects of the development of welfare states and democracies.8 Comparative research has studied how social expenditures, the development of social citizenship and social democratic rights are correlated with leftist parties. That research focuses on the relative strength of left parties in the electorate, the left’s share of seats in the legislature and participation in cabinets, as well as the density of unions. For Walter Korpi, drawing on this quantitative data is advantageous but not without its limits. He states that at best, regression analyses can give a relatively objective basis for interpretations of the presence or absence of effects of potential causal variables, but it does not determine the relative roles played by different factors in historical processes.9

Building on the critical epistemology just described—which simultaneously incorporates perspectives on democracy, political institutions and the welfare state—this book examined how decentralization is the result of investments of power resources and involves selectivity in the opportunities and constraints for action by what they introduce. The pursuit of decentralization in nearly every European state in the latter decades of the twentieth century offers an opportunity to examine how decentralization is mobilized by considerations of class. I provided an historical examination from the postwar period to the present and found that, in the British case, decentralization is inextricably linked to class conflicts arising from the contradictions of capitalism. This finding diverges from the four groups outlined in Chapter  1, i.e. pluralism, functionalism, centre-periphery struggles and the rational actor model, which make claims about why decentralization occurs. Thus, decentralization was at one and the same time a mechanism that allowed national political actors to reconfigure the social bases of class power in subnational spaces, while simultaneously serving as a mechanism by which regional and local coalitions sought to reconfigure scales to redistribute power and assist with class-based economic objectives. Sectoral relations across different scales of the state influenced the course of these decentralized structures, and ideology was important in distinguishing how actors influenced the way in which they were sought after, used, reformed or dismantled.

Though a focus of this study was to explain why decentralization happens, it was simultaneously about connecting the struggles over decentralization to big structures and processes. I approached this by providing a detailed examination of devolution in Britain. I relied heavily on the politics of scale literature as the main way to visualize how different actors at different scales of the state were part and parcel of the struggle for and against devolution. The politics of scale takes its starting point from the failure of the state concept and specifically how it has conditioned the ways in which the core problems of modern political science have been phrased.10 Building upon class-based analysis, scholars in this approach presume that the activities of the state can play an important role in shaping class relations: the latter are not simply given by structures established at the level of production even though they are the starting point. There is an initial distinction between two ways in which state economic interventions impact class structure: the first is that interventions alter production itself, while the second is that they both give expression to and shape the political organization of the classes. Yet as Gough explains, it is misleading to regard these as separate, i.e. material/economic and political/ideological.11 This approach12 uniquely argues that neither the state’s spatial form nor historically specific forms of state spatiality are ever structurally given.13 From this, the objective should be to explore the complex connections among the institutionalization of political activity, the changing role of the capitalist state and the importance of territorially embedding continued capital accumulation within the context of economic competitiveness.14 It also notes that the examination of scales must include how actors not only engage in action within a given institutional matrix but reflexively reconstitute institutions and their resulting matrix.15 In other words, scale both expresses and helps to constitute the social, economic and political power of class actors.

The above raises the question: What do political actors intend to accomplish by implementing devolution? There are at least three clusters of perspectives concerning what devolution accomplishes. First, devolution is about empowering the marginalized; it grants those who have been excluded from participation in national power increased access to decision-making opportunities.16 In this perspective, devolution changed the institutional architecture of Scottish politics, including the formal machinery and operation of democracy and government, which are different from the old Scottish Office model.17 Second, devolution accelerates the evolution of the constitutional principles governing the state; it involves the transfer of legislative functions to a subordinate elected body on a geographical basis. In this way, devolution is concerned with reconciling two conflicting principles, the supremacy of Parliament as well as the grant of self-government in domestic affairs to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.18 Third, devolution augments legitimacy and democratic accountability; as a response to the public’s increasing distrust of formal political institutions, the intention of devolution is to design more collaborative and transparent approaches to developing and administering public policy. For example, it has been stated that the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament represent a distinct break with Westminster because the devolved systems do not use the first-past-the-post electoral system.19 At the same time, there is the claim that devolution did not create a new tier of government, but rather added a democratic element to an already existing administrative tier.20 I have argued that devolution contains elements of both substantive change but also path dependency, and notably a mix of competing objectives attached to decentralization, economic modernization and democratization.

Ultimately, a nuanced perspective is needed to grasp the (political, fiscal and legal) complexities of enacting devolution. To be sure, Martin Jones has recently stated that ‘a geographical political economy framework for grappling with [devolved governance] is desperately needed’.21 In thinking about contributing to such an analysis, this book brought together various processes and sites of struggle at the urban, regional and national levels. Building on Gough, it showed how British devolution was more broadly connected to the struggles over decentralization and democracy because of how they were simultaneous expressions and re-articulations of the spatial contradictions of capitalism and its associated class tensions.22

The juxtaposition of the ideological design of decentralized and devolved policy-making provided in this book indicates how exactly the political right and left differ when it comes to managing the national and subnational levels of the economy. As a result, I found that the left was a strong advocate for decentralization, devolution and democratic expansion. The left consisted of coalitions nationally, regionally and locally. At the same time, the left was not—as many scholars who focus on national-level comparisons argue—always enthusiastic or even willing to pursue very progressive forms of decentralization, devolution and democratic expansion. This varied according to scale, to time period and to the pressures of other actors. By way of contrast, the right was almost always opposed to political devolution and democratic enhancement until very recently, but it was willing to reconfigure scales of the state and implement decentralization as a mechanism to facilitate the private sector’s control of economic development. The political economy of scale therefore ebbs between the support of government institutions or private sector-led initiatives, and discretion is constantly being manipulated to alter the balance of power between political and market actors.


  1. 1.

    Law and Mooney, “We’ve Never Had It So Good,” 542.

  2. 2.

    Colin Hay, “Continuity and Discontinuity in British Political Development,” in Postwar British Politics in Perspective, ed. David Marsh et al. (Malden: Polity Press, 1999), 35.

  3. 3.

    See Walter Korpi, The Democratic Class Struggle (Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1983), 4, 8, 21. If this appears all too familiar, it is because we can relate to how in the modern context there are similar views about the world, as changes to society are caused by rapid technological advancement. We hear about the collapsing of class and the opening of opportunity to everyone in the new deliberative, digital, open government age. Yet, in the context of Britain there are still those who remind us that its society remains divided by class; the gap between the richest and poorest is wider than in any period in the twentieth century, and technology has not simply led to universal enrichment of the least well off. See Selina Todd, The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class (London: John Murray, 2015), 267.

  4. 4.

    Kwon and Pontusson, “Globalization, Labour Power and Partisan Politics Revisited,” 254.

  5. 5.

    John Myles and Jill Quadagno, “Political Theories of the Welfare State,” Social Service Review 76, 1 (2002): 38.

  6. 6.

    Gøsta Esping-Andersen, Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), 2.

  7. 7.

    Dennis Pilon, “The Struggle over Actually Existing Democracy,” Socialist Register 54 (2018): 5.

  8. 8.

    Walter Korpi, “Power, Politics, and State Autonomy in the Development of Social Citizenship: Social Rights During Sickness in Eighteen OECD Countries Since 1930,” American Sociological Review 54, 3 (1989): 325.

  9. 9.

    Korpi, “Power, Politics, and State Autonomy in the Development of Social Citizenship,” 316.

  10. 10.

    Jens Bartelson, The Critique of the State (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 4.

  11. 11.

    Jamie Gough, “Class Relations and Local Economic Planning,” in Politics, Geography and Social Stratification, ed. Keith Hoggart and Eleonore Kofman (London: Croom Helm, 1986), 168–169.

  12. 12.

    I do not delve into the differences among scholars concerning the politics of scale but rather draw on the similarities some of them share with respect to studying scales in relation the spatial geographies of capitalism and how class conflict is embedded in such spaces.

  13. 13.

    Neil Brenner, New State Spaces: Urban Governance and the Rescaling of Statehood (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 84.

  14. 14.

    Mark Goodwin, Martin Jones, and Rhys A. Jones, “The Theoretical Challenge of Devolution and Constitutional Change in the United Kingdom,” in Territory, Identity and Spatial Planning: Spatial Governance in a Fragmented Nation, ed. Mark Tewdwr-Jones and Philip Allmendinger (Abingdon: Routledge, 2006), 37.

  15. 15.

    Jessop, “Institutional Re(turns) and the Strategic-Relational Approach,” 1226.

  16. 16.

    Allan Cochrane, “Devolving the Heartland: Making Up a New Social Policy for the ‘South East’,” Critical Social Policy 26, 3 (2006): 685.

  17. 17.

    McGarvey, “Devolution in Scotland: Change and Continuity,” 25.

  18. 18.

    Bogdanor, Devolution in the United Kingdom, 1.

  19. 19.

    Moran, Politics and Governance in the UK, 178–179.

  20. 20.

    James Mitchell, “Evolution and Devolution: Citizenship, Institutions, and Public Policy,” Publius 36, 1 (2006): 165.

  21. 21.

    Jones, Cities and Regions in Crisis, 16.

  22. 22.

    Gough, “Changing Scale as Changing Class Relations,” 186.

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  • Nick Vlahos
    • 1
  1. 1.TorontoCanada

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