The shockwaves from Thursday’s earthquake continue to reverberate through the political landscape. The Prime Minister has been toppled, and the existing differences between the UK’s four nations threaten to widen into serious rifts. In particular, the place of Scotland in the UK – supposedly settled for a generation two years ago – is again in question. Akash Paun explains.
Every single local authority area in Scotland voted Remain. Meanwhile, with the exception of London, every region in England voted Leave, as did Wales. Northern Ireland voted narrowly to remain, but with a large minority, mainly from the unionist community, opting for Leave, in line with the preference of Northern Ireland’s unionist First Minister.
The outcome flipped the pattern of the 1975 European Economic Community (EEC) referendum, when England was the most pro-Europe of the four nations, while Scotland and Northern Ireland were more sceptical about the European project. On that occasion, though, EEC membership was supported by a majority in each of the four nations, and a total of two-thirds of all UK voters, so there was no sense in which the outcome was being imposed against the will of any part of the UK.
The situation today is very different and territorial tensions are running high. Nicola Sturgeon, Scottish First Minister, has already announced that a second referendum on Scotland’s independence is now ‘on the table’ – although Westminster’s agreement would be needed for any such poll. The SNP would only be likely to want to hold such a poll if it was confident of victory – not a given, even in the context of Brexit. But placing the issue back on the table will concentrate minds in Westminster.
Today voters across the UK go to the polls for the fifth time since devolution began in 1999. As further powers are devolved to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and parts of England, government at all levels faces a number of challenges. Akash Paun highlights his top seven.
1. Adapting to the new politics of fiscal devolution
A central feature of devolution to date is that the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish governments have little control over the size of their budget. Important tax and borrowing powers are now being devolved to all three nations, although the Barnett Formula also survives for now. Fiscal devolution within England is far less developed, but this may change as the voice of cities and regions grows louder and business rate changes come into effect. The result is that sub-national governments increasingly have to make trade-offs between public expenditure, taxation and borrowing, rather than simply deciding how to spend a grant from Westminster. This creates sharper accountability and strengthens their incentives to take policy decisions that boost the tax take.
2. Building devolved capacity to take on new powers
New systems and institutions need to be built to ensure that new powers are effectively managed. In Scotland, the Government is planning a new Social Security Agency to administer devolved welfare benefits. Revenue Scotland – the tax-collection body – may need to expand as further taxes are devolved. Similarly, a Welsh Revenue Authority is being created. Fiscal scrutiny bodies such as the Scottish Fiscal Commission and the planned Independent Fiscal Council for Northern Ireland are also becoming more important. Within England, devolution in areas such as health, justice and transport will require new policy and operational capacity in local areas too.
The 2015 election is one of the most unpredictable in decades. But last Monday’s dissolution of parliament was the most predictable event of the year and still large parts of the media got it wrong. This does not bode well for how the post-election period will be reported, writes Akash Paun.
Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act (FTPA), passed in 2011 and amended in 2013, Parliament was automatically dissolved last Monday, 25 working days before the first Thursday in May, when the country goes to the polls. Nonetheless, several major news outlets managed to confuse their readers and viewers by reporting that David Cameron had to request a dissolution from the Queen (as was the case before the FTPA was passed).
There are more important parts of our constitution than the precise mechanism used to dissolve parliament. But this is just one of a number of misconceptions likely to confuse voters in the run-up to and days following the election, particularly if there is another hung parliament. Even the Government’s Cabinet Manual, created expressly to clear up confusion about such matters, has not been kept up to date and incorrectly states that the election occurs 17 (rather than 25) days after dissolution (at page 96).
Governing is becoming increasingly difficult as devolution accelerates but a new Institute for Government report has identified ways to make it easier. Here, Akash Paun summarises the report’s key findings.
Even when severe political disagreements come between the UK’s four governments – as during the Scottish independence referendum campaign – civil servants can and do communicate and co-operate in good faith. But our new report finds evidence of weaknesses in the systems by which these governments co-operate, negotiate and compete. There have been disputes over legislation, money, welfare and energy policy, and failures to consult or share information. And constitutional thinking remains fragmented – Westminster and Whitehall deal separately with each part of the UK, insufficiently reflecting on how the different settlements relate to one another.
This is the final report of a major, 10-month study of devolution in the UK, carried out in partnership with the Centre for Constitutional Change in Edinburgh, and focusing on how to provide effective government in the context of an increasingly complex and fluid constitutional settlement. Our conclusion is that systems for managing relations between the different parts of the country are coming under strain as a result of political divergence between the governments, financial pressures in the context of austerity, and the growing complexity of the country’s ‘territorial constitution’.
Akash Paun considers the potentially transformational constitutional implications of the Smith Commission Report.
The Smith Commission report on further devolution to Scotland sets out a package of further powers that the unionist and nationalist parties have agreed should be transferred to the Scottish Parliament. Inevitably this goes too far for some and not far enough for others. The detail of the package – which includes further tax, welfare and other powers – is being pored over across the media. Less commented upon are the constitutional implications of the proposals in the report, some of which are potentially transformational.
Beyond parliamentary sovereignty?
First is a commitment to make the Scottish Parliament and Government ‘permanent institutions’. At present the devolved bodies are ‘creatures of statute’ that could – according to the convention of parliamentary sovereignty – be abolished by a simple majority at Westminster, as Margaret Thatcher’s government did when it scrapped the Greater London Council in 1986.
So the implication is that the devolved bodies will somehow be protected from normal majoritarian rules. Quite how this will be done is another matter. Simply stating on the face of a bill that something is permanent cannot prevent a future Parliament from repealing or amending the legislation. One option is to include clauses requiring a super-majority in the Commons (and/or Lords) in order to amend the legislation in future. This would be unusual and contentious – though these are unusual times. But in any case, such a clause could itself be removed by a later piece of legislation passed with a simple majority.