The future of the union: It’s about politics, stupid!


On Friday 5 June, the Constitution Unit and the Wales Governance Centre jointly sponsored a conference of politicians and academics on ‘Devolution and the Future of The Union’ at the British Academy. It followed up a series of separate reports by them and by the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law and the Institute for Government, urging an end to the UK’s government’s piecemeal approach to devolution. But the Scotland Bill’s second reading in the House of Commons on Tuesday made it clear that the political parties are not rushing to heed the academic advice. Brian Walker reflects on the differences between the two agendas.

The two rival victors in the general election have made opening moves over the future of the United Kingdom. After the second reading debate, government sources let it be known that the Scotland Bill based on the Smith Commission report was all Scotland was going to get this session, while the SNP played down full fiscal autonomy as one of its early aims. But this still leaves plenty to dispute. SNP demands for ’Smith plus’ – in the shape of further powers on job creation, taxation, welfare and wages – were left hanging. No clue was offered as to how the balance would be negotiated between pooling and sharing at UK level, and the extensive new fiscal powers being awarded to Holyrood. While the Barnett formula which disproportionally benefits Scotland remains in place, the government’s position contains the implicit challenge: if you want to take public service provision further, pay for it yourselves.

Fiscal devolution: Barnett and other issues

At the conference, it was the English local government expert Tony Travers who put his finger on the issue likely to feature more prominently than purely constitutional matters. ‘The Conservative aim of shrinking of the state to 36% of GDP raises big questions of how to sustain public services’. It is hardly shock news that there will be no increase in subvention levels from Westminster for further devolution under the Chancellor’s latest programme of fiscal consolidation. In his much-vaunted ‘Northern powerhouse’ plan, budgets will be concentrated for maximum effect, not increased. Fiscal tightening has already aggravated the stand-off between Westminster and Cardiff Bay over the ‘unfairness’ of Wales’ Barnett deal, and it has produced an anti-austerity rebellion at Stormont which could threatened the survival of the power sharing institutions. From the start of the parliament, political tensions over devolution seem set to rise, with unpredictable results for the future of the UK.

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Can David Cameron call a second election? How does that fit with the Fixed Term Parliaments Act?

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Robert Hazell outlines how the Fixed Term Parliaments Act restricts the new government from calling a second election. He writes that if Cameron wanted to take a gamble to boost his slender majority, he would have to work within the confines of the Act given the likely complexities of any attempt to repeal it.

This is the third in a series of posts based on the Unit’s latest report, Devolution and the Future of the Union, published here.

Now that David Cameron has won, but only with a slender majority, speculation will turn to whether his government will last a full five years; and whether he could improve his numbers by calling a second election. In the run up to the election there was talk of the new government calling a second election after a year or so, as Harold Wilson did in 1966 and again in 1974. This kind of speculation is wild. It is no longer possible for the Prime Minister to seek an early dissolution, because the prerogative power to dissolve Parliament was abolished by the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011. It is now up to Parliament to decide whether there should be an early election. Under the Act there are only two ways in which Parliament can be dissolved early:

  • By a motion ‘that there shall be an early parliamentary general election’ passed by at least two thirds of the House of Commons (s 2(1))
  • By a formal no confidence motion, in the statutory form prescribed in the Act (that ‘this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government’), passed by a simple majority of those voting (s 2(3)). If no alternative government can be formed within 14 days which can command confidence, Parliament is dissolved and an early election held.

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Scotland has voted for the union and for distinctiveness. Delivering both could present acute challenges


After a dramatic referendum and UK general election, the Scottish remain divided on both independence and on whether to increase tax and public spending, while the English are becoming increasingly vocal in the devolution debate. Jim Gallagher considers the possibilities of a constitutional relationship that will satisfy Scottish aspirations and also be acceptable to the UK as a whole.

This is the second in a series of posts based on the Unit’s latest report, Devolution and the Future of the Union, published here.

Within the last year the Scottish people have said two apparently contradictory things. They want to stay in the United Kingdom, and they want to be represented by the SNP. In Holyrood, the SNP exercise dominant control over both Parliament and government. In Westminster, they will be the overwhelming Scottish voice, but will control nothing.

The partisan politics of the general election have been extraordinary. The Labour vote collapsed, and the SNP showed remarkable skill in building a coalition of voters, some for independence, others perhaps against austerity. But this tells us less about overall Scottish attitudes on either question than meets the eye. Scotland remains divided on both independence and on whether to increase tax and public spending, and not on the lines you might expect. Many independence supporters are anything but high spending socialists.

Constitutional challenges

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Will plans for a British bill of rights be reduced to a bill for England only?

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Opposition from Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales could pose a serious challenge to Conservative plans to scrap the Human Rights Act. Robert Hazell and Bob Morris write that if the new government tries to push ahead regardless, it may only be able to create an English bill of rights, with potentially negative consequences for the UK as a whole. 

This is the first in a series of posts based on the Unit’s latest report, Devolution and the Future of the Union, published here.

The Conservative manifesto, building on pledges in previous manifestos, contained these statements about replacing the Human Rights Act with a British bill of rights:

  • We will scrap Labour’s Human Rights Act and introduce a British Bill of Rights which will restore common sense to the application of human rights in the UK. The Bill will remain faithful to the basic principles of human rights, which we signed up to in the original European Convention on Human Rights (p.73)
  • The next Conservative Government will scrap the Human Rights Act, and introduce a British Bill of Rights. This will break the formal link between British courts and the European Court of Human Rights, and make our own Supreme Court the ultimate arbiter of human rights matters in the UK (p.60).

We have not yet seen the detail, and the draft bill which the Conservatives promised to publish before the election never materialised. The plans are likely to raise a whole series of difficulties, with the judiciary, with the House of Lords (where the bill will have a very difficult passage – see here and here), and with the Council of Europe, if the UK tries to remain in the ECHR but somehow leave the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights. But this blog concentrates on a further difficulty closer to home, which is opposition from the devolved governments and assemblies.

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