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It’s time for Britain to return to a heptarchy

September 23, 2020 - 5:40pm

The Heptarchy, according to Bartholomew’s A literary & historical atlas of Europe (1914)

Geography is destiny, and there are some good geographical reasons why England became the dominant world power and not France.

England is 50,000 square miles, roughly the size of New York state, while France is four times that, as big as Texas. When England was united by King Athelstan in 927, he created a state ideally suited towards governing by a medieval monarch.

Aside from the need to have powerful barons on the northern and western frontier, itself a source of conflict throughout the later middle ages, it was about the right size to create the infrastructure to collect tax and administer justice, and all the other necessities for governing a successful nation-state. It was also about the right size for a fairly coherent national culture; English regional differences are minute compared to, say, Italy.

France, as anyone who has driven across the place with kids will appreciate, is massive. It was way too big, and too culturally diverse, to create the necessary infrastructure, which is why even in the days of the crusades the King of England could easily raise more tax than his French counterpart. And so England has never needed political devolution, except for the brief Council of the North, even though it has distinctive regional identities.

And so, when in the late 20th century demands for Scottish and Welsh devolution became overwhelming, the Government proposed solving the West Lothian Question by offering regional self-government in England too. The people of the North East were offered the chance — and turned it down, the No campaign run by one Dominic Cummings.

But perhaps it might be time to revisit the idea. Covid-19 has shown serious fundamental weaknesses in the British system of government; this may be just the bubble I live in but many people are dismayed at how badly the country works. The cabinet may be lightweight, and contain people not up to the job, but the institutional rot seems to go deeper.

I don’t know why, but compare how Germany’s federal system has coped with the shock so much better, and you have to wonder if regional governments here would have done a more effective job, too. Transport in some regions is clearly badly served by London, and I imagine in other areas like healthcare or planning regional governments would do better than the capital, which seems to attract so many mediocre people.

There is also still the problem of asymmetric devolution, which as it stands will surely lead to Scottish independence, because the current system sets everything up as a conflict between Westminster and Edinburgh. Were the English regions to have their own government then that would no longer be so much the case, and the Scottish FM would occasionally have to work alongside her counterparts in opposition to London, such as the First Minister of Northumbria.

And yes, of course we should also lose the dull, joyless names we currently give our regions and put Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria back on the map again.

Hopefully we’ll get this done in time for the 1100th anniversary of the Kingdom of England, as commemorated by me and about four other cranks. It looks like we’re well on the way to the ancient kingdom of Kent being restored to greatness, with the new Kent Access Permit. Hengist and Horsa must be smiling in Valhalla.

Ed West’s book Tory Boy is published by Constable


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