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Decentering the Nation
A radical approach to regional inequality

By Ash Amin, Doreen Massey and Nigel Thrift


1. Introduction

  • One of the most persistent characteristics of the geography of Britain is the wide inequality that exists between its constituent regions. In the present period, in spite of many stated intentions and much government rhetoric to the contrary, it has on many measures grown considerably worse. Our argument is that it will continue to do so unless there is a more serious engagement with the power dynamics that underlie this fundamentally unequal and undemocratic geography: dynamics that continue to return London and the South East as the centre of the nation.
  • Two particular threads of change are important to our critique. One is the issue of the very conceptualisation of regions in an era of increasingly geographically extended spatial flows and an intellectual context where space is frequently being imagined as a product of networks and relations. The other is an understanding of the integral relation between inequalities of power and economy, and the ways in which the UK's highly centralized geographies of power condition the construction of the national space.

2. The geography of British power

  • British political life has a distinctive spatial grammar which lies at the heart of its unequal distribution of power. A structure has been allowed continually to re- assert its will to centralisation, repeating over and over again what might be called a "courtly" structure. Social differentiations have tended to ossify around this geographical structure, providing spatial refrains that echo down the ages.
  • Today this is seen in the small and introspective space around Parliament and Westminster which constitutes a modern version of the court structure. It is a structure that is profoundly exclusionary; relating chiefly to itself and, insofar as it relates to other parts of the country at all, chiefly doing so as a means of bringing information back "home". All events are described in terms of their relationship to this centre, rather than the other way around.

3. The production and reproduction of regional inequality

  • This concentration of political power is a crucial force in the production, in turn, of regional economic inequality. As a result of this geography, significant elements of "national" policy making effectively function as an unacknowledged regional policy for the South Eastern part of England.
  • The frequent implication that London and the South East "succeed" somehow by their own intrinsic qualities while the other regions of the country are somehow inadequate also ignores the relational space in which these interdependent regions are set. The virtuous circle of growth in one feeds off and perpetuates the decline of the Rest of the Country. The only serious way to tackle the issue of regional inequality is not to adopt post-hoc policies of compensation but to intervene in the dynamics of its production.
  • In order adequately to address "the regional problem", the problem of the South East - the nature of its growth and the nature of its relation to the Rest of the Country - must be confronted. We would argue that London itself could be a more "successful" city if it were set within a more regionally equal national economy. London needs there to be a strong national regional policy, and a regional policy which focuses on those dynamics and those sectors which are producing the tension within the city itself.

4. Rebalancing the economy

  • The government's approach to regional inequality requires "underperforming" regions to compete their way out of disadvantage through bootstrapping reforms aimed at mobilising endogenous potential. Locally-orchestrated regional development has replaced nationally orchestrated regional policy. Our argument is that this approach fails to grasp that regional inequality/disadvantage is the product of a long history of imbalanced inter-regional relations and the profound spatial concentration of power.
  • A reconsideration of the geography of the national economy signals multiple geographies of organisation and flow that transcend and disrupt regional territorial boundaries. Current regional policy thought and practice seeks to perfect the economics of sequestered growth, and because of this it will fail to reduce regional inequality.
  • Our alternative rejects the assumption that regional failure is a regional problem and recommends a less sequestered economic regionalism and a strengthened national commitment to decentre the economy. Regional-level action should work with an economics of circulation and global linkage, that, besides, does not reduce the problem of capacity-building to competitiveness goals. Thus, externally-oriented, demand-led, and needs-based growth strategies should be given greater prominence.
  • At the national level, it is clear that no re-imagination of regional economic strategy will succeed without sustained action from the centre to combat regional inequality and the London-bias of the national policy framework. This includes a commitment to new ways of dispersing economic activity to the regions, as well as comprehensive decentralisation of government and public sector bodies and projects.

5. The politics of dispersal

  • The new economic regionalism will not be effective without a serious attack on the centre-periphery structure of British politics. Such a change requires more than a simple devolution of powers, but a radically new way of imagining the spatiality of the nation; no longer the norm of a centred nation with tributary obligations, but the promise of a multinodal nation. This amounts to a cultural shift that, within the regions recognises the deficiencies of supplicant politics, and within the nation at large worries about the utter abnormality of national power and control so centralised in and near London.
  • We are not against devolution to the English regions in its own right, but against its use as a tool of bureaucratic efficiency and elite power. We also believe that it will simply place the politics of centre and periphery on a different register, by allowing the bigger and more general affairs of the nation to be resolved elsewhere and by reducing pressure on the state itself to resolve the regional problem. The debate on English devolution has sidetracked the need to find ways of dispersing the nation and state power and of extending democracy throughout the fabric of British society in every available spatial and institutional configuration. A new regionalism requires a more open spatial template, which would include more representative Assemblies, greater civic voice, active debate of preferred ways of life in the region, and a non-parochial sense of regional belonging.

6. Conclusion

  • The regional question goes far beyond the little concessions on offer in the current debate on devolution and region-building. Indeed, in the absence of both a systematic attack on the spatial concentration of power and a radical re- imagination of the nature of regions, the concessions will amount to little more than a pin-prick in tackling the alarming regional inequality and political centrism that currently exists in Britain.
  • Modern democracies are getting better at providing solutions to certain aspects of the problem of valuing all equally. But on other aspects it is possible to argue that they are farther away than ever. The disenchantment with the centre, which is at the root of the new localism, is a response to the current nature of that "centre". We are arguing for a wholly different geography of the national, which is not so spatially confined; that is, for a dispersed centre rather than a spatial centre. It is time finally to get rid of the spatial relics of monarchy. The nation does not need to speak from one place.


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