As devolution has progressed the centre has failed to imagine a new rationale for the union

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In 1999 The Constitution Unit produced a book which set out to forecast what the UK’s constitution would look like in ten years’ time. Sixteen years on, Charlie Jeffery tests the predictions and uses them to assess the direction of devolution in the UK today.

This is the fourth of a series of posts adapted from presentations at the Unit’s 20th anniversary conference, held on 23 June 2015.

Constitutional Futures: A History of the Next Ten Years, a book edited by Robert Hazell, was published in 1999. It set out to predict how events would unfold following the initial stages of Labour’s constitutional reform programme. The question is, how fares that history sixteen years on? On page seven of the book there is a table which outlines ‘mini’ and ‘maxi’ versions of constitutional change, which I will draw on in order to assess where we stand now with respect to devolution.

Turning first to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the mini version predicts that the devolved institutions will stay as they were founded. The maxi option is a move towards legislative and tax raising powers everywhere and the possibility of an independent Scotland. We are headed towards the maxi version in Scotland certainly, in Wales increasingly and in Northern Ireland less so.

Mini v maxi

The process of change and improvisation connects to a second theme that the book explores, namely change at the centre. Here the mini version comprises a strong Joint Ministerial Committee, while the maxi version would see a formalised Council of the Isles.

Mini v maxi 2

Clearly we are currently stalled in the mini end of that spectrum. I look to a quote from the book to highlight the problem:

‘Left to themselves the forces [let loose in Scotland, Wales and NI] are centrifugal; they do represent a slippery slope which could lead to the break-up of the UK. It will require some imaginative re-engineering of the centre, and a spirit of trust and generosity on both sides, to make the devolution settlement work’ (Constitutional Futures, p.45)

That was a foundational statement, and every year after that it became a ritual in the Constitution Unit’s subsequent State of the Nations book series to bemoan the lack of progress: ‘Absence of any strong sense or vision in the government on how the centre needs to change’ (2000), ‘Westminster and Whitehall carry on much as before’ (2001), ‘the adjustments made have been the smallest possible, both in degree and extent’ (2004).

This is not a question simply about institutions but about the notion of instilling common purpose across institutions. As Robert writing with Brendan O’Leary put it:

‘It is a matter on which the Government needs to give a lead, in its actions and its words, to bind the union together in order to counterbalance the centrifugal political forces of devolution. The Government needs to understand and allow political space to these forces, and the regional and national loyalties which underpin them; but it also needs to understand and articulate clearly a sense of the wider loyalties which bind us together at the level of the nation-state, and to foster a sense of loyalty to the union’ (Constitutional Futures, pp.45-6)

Seen in those terms, we have had a wholesale failure of statecraft since 1999. This was highlighted last year by the UK government’s contribution to the case against Scottish independence, where the ‘No’ side was unable to find a positive message about how Scotland could be even better off than now if it stayed. The only politician who has really tried to give a sustained message about the meaning and purpose of the union is Gordon Brown. For 15 years he has been wrestling with a more principled rationale based on the idea of solidarity and risk sharing.

Unfortunately I think that moment may have gone. More than anything else, Scots voted yes because they believed that if Scotland stayed in the union the gap between rich and poor would get wider. This highlighted that much of Scotland simply doesn’t buy into the idea of UK solidarity any more. Nor, to be frank, does much of England. There is now also a clear sense of English resentment towards Scotland getting a better deal from the union than they do.

So how has what Robert and colleagues wrote on England fared? Well, not very well! The primary focus in the book was regions: the mini model outlined regional development agencies; the maxi option was democratically elected assemblies. Both became redundant in 2004.

Mini v maxi 3

Robert has continued to grapple with the English question, thinking that might be answered by strengthening England’s place in the union with something like English Votes for English Laws (EVEL), or decentralisation. But in an edited collection that I produced in 2006, Robert also wrote that EVEL would be ‘impossible to implement in practice…the difficulties implementing such a policy seem insuperable at both a technical and a political level’ (Publius, p.39).

Technically I would agree, even though I am a co-author on the McKay Commission report, because I think the implementation of EVEL requires more than tweaks to parliamentary procedure. It needs a lot of upstream changes in the way that Whitehall works, and in the way that we distribute public funding across the territories of the UK. But perhaps more interesting is the point about political insuperability.  What did Robert mean? He elaborated that EVEL is:

‘Unlikely ever to be implemented by a Conservative government [because] if they seriously wanted to end the equal voting rights of all MPs, the Conservatives could no longer claim to be unionist, but would have become an English party’ (Publius, p.43)

Ben Seyd’s chapter in Constitutional Futures focused specifically on parties. Here the mini outcome sees GB-wide parties remain centralised, while the maxi allows growing autonomy within the units.

Mini v maxi 4

Today we’re seeing a shift from the mini to the maxi. The Conservatives are probably less an explicitly English party than a party that has abandoned Scotland. Labour, on the other hand, is a party which is debilitated in both England and Scotland, precisely for being a party ‘of union’. Robert said in The Next Ten Years:

‘To compete against the SNP electorally the Scottish Labour Party will have to emphasise its Scottishness, and distance itself sharply from the British Labour Party’

It has failed to do this and its now out of tune with the electorate in England as well. The Conservatives on the other hand are showing that capacity for pragmatism and evolving afresh, recognising that British politics is now comprehensively demarcated by national territory within the UK.

To sum up: mini or maxi? We’re heading towards maxi as far as devolution in Scotland and Wales is concerned. Northern Ireland is static, England evolving and maxi in terms of parties. The centre, however, remains mini. This is where the real fracture in politics of the UK lies because it highlights that the centre has failed to imagine a new rationale for the union can be constructed and embedded in the institutional machinery.

To give Robert the last word:

‘Constitutions alone cannot bind nations together: but constitutions embody values, and to work they need politicians who accept those values and can give force and expression to them’ (Constitutional Futures, p. 247)

We manifestly lack those values that might produce a binding together constitution. The SNP understands and promotes that absence, and the Conservatives are beginning to capitalise on it as well. Constitutional Futures anticipated that the maxi version of the challenge at the centre would be one of UK-wide integration amid the new circumstances of devolution. In fact we are now in a process of disintegration and the main question remaining is whether we have a mini disintegration of looser relationships within the UK, or a maxi one, where we end up with two or more separate states?

Respondent comments

Akash Paun, former devolution Research Fellow at the Constitution Unit and now Fellow at the Institute for Government (IfG), was the first to respond to Professor Jeffery’s presentation. He also emphasised how the Constitution Unit has stayed ahead of the game in anticipating how dynamic forces might test and reshape the initial devolution settlements, recalling how this foresight existed even when he first joined the Unit in 2004. At that time Labour was in power in Scotland and Wales as well as at UK level, there were few serious disagreements between governments about the future of the UK and debate over constitutional change was otherwise limited.

Paun argued the current changes create both a challenge and an opportunity for the Unit, and others such as the IfG. There is a challenge in overcoming a natural caution about radical change as the dynamics of devolution accelerate, and the waves of constitutional reform grow more frequent. But this could also provide an opportunity to be the voice of reason and evidence in the debate, and focus minds on how best to implement those reforms that are agreed.

Sir Muir Russell, former Permanent Secretary to the Scottish Executive responded second. He talked about his role in agreeing the Scottish coalitions in 1999 and 2003, and just how helpful it had been to have the Unit’s friendly, critical, analytical voice, sitting there saying “have you thought?” and testing proposals.

But in the intervening years the discussion has moved from that technocratic and mechanistic discussion of powers. In Scotland the recent debate has been first and foremost about identity, not about the pound, or the EU, or fiscal viability. So the centre should not be solely bogged down in the technicalities. As Professor Jeffery suggested, the challenge has been to answer the question ‘what’s important about being in the Union?’

For more posts in this series based on The Constitution Unit’s 20th anniversary event, click here.

About the Panel

Charlie Jeffery is Professor of Politics and Senior Vice-Principal at the University of Edinburgh.

Akash Paun is a Fellow at the Institute for Government. He was previously a researcher at The Constitution Unit from 2004 to 2008.

Sir Muir Russell was Permanent Secretary to the Scottish Executive from May 1998 to July 2003.

The panel was chaired by Professor Robert Hazell of The Constitution Unit.

 

 

 

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