Moving Westminster into a multi-parliament world: the Commons takes a fresh look at devolution

The UK’s devolved institutions in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales celebrated their twenty-first anniversary this year. Their powers have changed several times since their creation, but much of this has occurred in an ad hoc way, without deep consideration at UK level of the overall devolution framework. Paul Evans explains how a new Procedure Committee inquiry into how the House of Commons should adapt to the ‘territorial constitution’ presents an opportunity to give some key devolution issues the attention they deserve.

Devolution in the UK turned 21 this year, and watching it grow has been a fascinating study in making up the constitution as you go along. The Scotland Act 2016 and the Wales Act 2017 (each of them the third major reworkings of the statutory basis of devolution in those nations in less than 20 years) declared the devolved legislatures there, along with their governments, to be a permanent part of the UK’s constitutional arrangements, which could be abolished only with the consent of the people in a referendum. 

In both those nations 16- and 17-year olds have been newly enfranchised and will participate in the elections of their parliaments next year. The Northern Ireland Assembly restarted (once more) in January after a three-year absence, and in May the Welsh Assembly renamed itself the Welsh Parliament (or Senedd Cymru if you prefer to use the UK’s – so far – only other official language). 

All in all, the journey towards a pragmatic form of de facto federalism in the UK has been a remarkably peaceful and generally good-natured velvet revolution. So perhaps it’s not so surprising that the House of Commons Procedure Committee has not felt the need to have a major review of the implications of devolution for the workings of the Commons since 1999.

Watching its progeny develop their own values and make their own decisions has, nonetheless, been a challenging learning experience for Westminster. The assertions of devolution’s permanency and its implication of equality of esteem between the four legislatures of the UK has often appeared more rhetorical than real. Whitehall seems never to have fully come to terms with the loss of centralised control which devolution necessarily entails. But, collectively, the elected members of the four legislatures have done little better in opening up and sustaining channels of communication – though some good work has been done at the margins. 

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What does the election result mean for territorial representation in the House of Commons?

jack_sheldon.1We have a new parliament, a new majority government and a significant number of new MPs. As Jack Sheldon explains, the distribution of MPs by party is not even across the UK, which could have a significant impact on how the Commons handles key matters related to Brexit and the devolved administrations. 

The general election result has underlined that there are substantially different patterns of electoral competition in each of the four territories that comprise the United Kingdom. For the third consecutive election, a different party secured the most seats and votes in each of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Moreover, the large majority secured by Boris Johnson’s Conservatives relied overwhelmingly on an exceptionally strong performance in England – of the 365 seats won by the Conservatives, 345 are in England.

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The territorial divergence that the UK’s politics has experienced over recent decades has important implications not just for election outcomes, but for the substantive activity of representation performed by MPs in the House of Commons. MPs often seek to act as ‘territorial representatives’, focusing on the specific concerns of their nation or region. This has not so far received much attention from academics, a gap which my PhD project is seeking to fill by examining the parliamentary behaviour of MPs from Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and two English counties, Cornwall and Yorkshire, between 1992 and 2019. Early findings suggest that substantive territorial representation is particularly prevalent among members of nationalist parties and other parties that run candidates only in one territory, but that it is also a relatively common feature of the parliamentary contributions of many members of the UK-wide parties, at least in more recent parliaments. It can take various forms including representation of the material interests, public opinion and culture and/or identity of the territory in question, or of sub-state political institutions. With crucial questions pertaining to the future of the Union set to be up for discussion, how can we expect MPs from the different parts of the UK to go about representing their territories in the new parliament?

England 

Despite being drawn so overwhelmingly from English constituencies, there are few indications that the enlarged group of Conservative MPs will explicitly focus on England as a unit. While the Conservatives introduced English votes for English laws in 2015 and some prominent Conservative MPs have called for an English Parliament in the past, the ‘West Lothian question’ has slipped down the political agenda over the past few years as Brexit has emerged as the dominant issue for the right. That seems unlikely to change now, despite some interest from external commentators such as Nick Timothy, Theresa May’s former special adviser. Conservative interest in the constitutional English question was always motivatived to a significant extent by concern that a Labour-led government might be able to force through policies applying only to England even though a majority of English MPs were opposed, as happened on a few occasions in the New Labour years. With the Conservatives now having a large majority overall, the political incentive to focus on the English question just isn’t there at the moment. Continue reading

The next PM’s territorial challenges

jack_sheldon.1The next stages of Brexit are now set to happen under a new Prime Minister. The chosen candidate will have to work with governments in Wales and Scotland that are openly critical. Northern Ireland may be without a government and the English regions may lack a unified voice, but neither can be taken for granted, especially as the new PM will rely on the DUP for confidence and supply. Leaving the European Union therefore cannot be separated from the challenges of maintaining the domestic union, as Jack Sheldon explains.

Following the announcement of Theresa May’s imminent resignation, the long-anticipated contest within the Conservative Party to succeed her has begun.

The campaign will inevitably be dominated by Brexit. But events over the past three years have shown that the future of relations with the EU cannot easily be separated from the future of the domestic Union. The candidates will thus need to give careful thought to how they will approach the major statecraft challenges presented by territorial politics across the UK if they become Prime Minister.

Renegotiating the Northern Ireland backstop will be popular with Conservative MPs – but a new Prime Minister might soon face the same dilemma as Theresa May

The Northern Ireland ‘backstop’ has been the main driver of opposition to the Withdrawal Agreement within the parliamentary Conservative Party and their confidence-and-supply partners the DUP. Consequently, there are strong short-term incentives for leadership contenders to commit to renegotiating it, in the hope that it might yet be possible to get a deal that doesn’t cut across Brexiteer red lines on the Single Market and customs union through the House of Commons. Pledges to this effect have already been made by Jeremy HuntBoris JohnsonEsther McVey and Dominic Raab.

In reality, substantive changes to the backstop will be extremely difficult to deliver. It remains the position of the EU27 and the Irish government that the Withdrawal Agreement will not be reopened.  Keeping an open Irish border has become highly salient in Ireland and the EU, and the new Prime Minister will need to appreciate that this means there is next to no chance that they will be open to trading the guarantees provided by the backstop for the loosely-defined ‘alternative arrangements’ envisaged by many Conservative MPs. The same dilemma Theresa May faced might thus soon confront her successor – whether, as an avowed unionist, to recoil from a no-deal scenario that would undoubtedly have disruptive effects at the Irish border and strengthen the case for an Irish border poll, or whether the delivery of Brexit trumps everything else.

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Unionism and the Conservative Brexit deal rebellion

jack_sheldon.1image_normalThis week, MPs voted in favour of renegotiating the parts of the Withdrawal Agreement that relate to the ‘backstop’. The backstop and the land border between the UK and Ireland has been one of the most divisive Brexit issues for the Conservatives. Jack Sheldon and Michael Kenny discuss what this tells us about the party’s attitude to the Union.

‘Something ghastly called UK(NI) has been created. Northern Ireland will be under a different regime. That is a breach of the Act of Union 1800’. Owen Paterson MP

I am concerned about the prospects of a Northern Ireland that risks being increasingly decoupled from the United Kingdom, and about how that could undermine the Union that is at the heart of the United Kingdom’. Justine Greening MP

‘I would really like to support the deal of this Prime Minister and this Government, but the issue for me is the backstop. I served in Northern Ireland and I lost good colleagues to protect the Union. I will not vote for anything that does not protect the Union’. Sir Mike Penning MP

Concerns about the implications of the Irish backstop for the integrity of the domestic Union contributed significantly to the scale of the 118-strong backbench rebellion that led to Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement being defeated on 15 January, by the extraordinary margin of 432 to 202. Following a debate and vote on 29 January, the Prime Minister has now committed to seek legally binding changes to the backstop, in the hope that this might win over at least some of the rebels before the next vote.

What do the arguments that have been made about the backstop tell us about the nature of the ‘unionism’ that prevails in the contemporary Conservative Party? This is a pertinent question, given that the sincerity of professed support for the Union from Conservatives has regularly been called into question by academic and media commentators in recent years, with increasing numbers of critics suggesting that leading figures from the Tory Party have harvested ‘English nationalist’ sentiments and are willing to put the future of the Union at risk. Continue reading

Intergovernmental relations: a blueprint for reform

downloadSince the Brexit referendum in 2016, the case for an overhaul of the management of intergovernmental relations has become much stronger. Jack Sheldon explains that in a new report, he and his colleagues have advanced the first detailed proposals for reform of the existing arrangements. These include formalising and restructuring the current ad hoc system, implementing a method of consensus decision-making, and increasing the transparency of the system.

It is widely agreed that the ad hoc and under-developed arrangements for relations between the UK government and the devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are in urgent need of an overhaul. Even before the vote to leave the EU, several parliamentary committees, leading politicians and a number of constitutional experts called for reform. Since 2016 the case has only become stronger. Brexit-related ‘IGR’ has been marked by sharp disagreement over policy and process, against the background of low trust between governments. And it is envisaged that IGR will assume greater importance in the coming years, given the need to implement, govern and review ‘common frameworks’ in devolved areas currently covered by EU law.

In a new report Professor Nicola McEwen, Professor Michael Kenny, Dr Coree Brown Swan and I advance proposals for reform of the Joint Ministerial Committee (JMC) structure – the primary forum within which formal IGR takes place. While the need to renew the JMC has frequently been recognised in recent years, few detailed proposals have been made. We seek to fill this gap, setting out 27 conclusions and recommendations. Our report is also distinctive in drawing heavily on experience of IGR in five broadly comparable multi-level political systems – Australia, Belgium, Canada, Italy and Spain. We were invited to produce the report by officials in the UK and devolved governments who are currently working on a review of IGR commissioned by the JMC itself, and hope that our conclusions will help to shape thinking as the review proceeds.

Principles of IGR

Existing principles underpinning intergovernmental relations, as articulated in the Memorandum of Understanding on devolution, are broadly stated and prone to being interpreted very differently by the various parties involved. For example, what amounts to ‘good’ communication and what is ‘practicable’ with respect to information exchange are matters of (often diverging) judgement. Continue reading