One question that David Cameron will have to resolve on his first day as Prime Minister (assuming he wins the UK general election) is what to do about the representation of Scotland and Wales (and maybe later Northern Ireland) in the UK Government. Even after devolution in 1999, the offices of Secretary of State for Wales and Scotland were left intact. The Scottish Secretary had famously little to do – remember Helen Liddell’s daytime French lessons? – and the Wales one not an awful lot more. The political sensitivities of abolishing the posts outright were such that neither Tony Blair nor Gordon Brown took the opportunity at numerous reshuffles, despite repeated chances to do so. In doing so, they probably went against internal civil service advice; they certainly went against various outside recommendations, including the Lords Constitution Committee (which I advised).
Instead, they tried to cope with the diminished role in various ways. One was to combine it with other jobs – Douglas Alexander and Alistair Darling both doubled Scotland with Transport, Des Browne with Defence, while Peter Hain combined being Welsh Secretary with representing the UK Government on the European Constitutional Convention, then being Northern Ireland Secretary and Work and Pensions Secretary. Some of these combinations worked better than others. In reality, much of the more routine work – including most of the Parliamentary and legislative business – falls to the junior minister in the Scotland and Wales Offices.
The key to the Secretary of State’s role is doing a small amount of work with great effect. Underlying the understanding of what the role involves that has prevailed since 1999 is the need for a politician with weight both in Scotland or Wales and around the Cabinet table, to intervene when important Scottish or Welsh interests are in danger of being overlooked. At that point, she or he needs to be able to convince their colleagues of the need to ensure Scottish/Welsh concerns are taken into account, but for most of the time it’s holding a watching brief and setting a general strategic direction for officials to follow. For that, it has helped if the Secretary of State has a clear plan for how they think relations between ‘their’ devolved administration and the UK Government should work.
As the Scottish or Welsh interests involved are usually about domestic policy, what’s needed is someone who is already on the main domestic policy Cabinet committees (or more to the point, reading those committees’ papers) to do the job. That’s part of the reason why Des Browne found it hard to get a grip – there’s practically no overlap between the domestic and security/foreign policy committees. But the heavy hitter hasn’t actually had much to do; even Welsh Secretaries have usually committed only 10-15 per cent of their time to the job, despite a more complex constitutional relationship with the UK institutions than Scotland, and in particular much more legislation to get through Parliament.
Since 2007 first the Scottish, then the Welsh Secretary have become ‘full-time’ posts. Perhaps work has expanded to fill the time available, in accordance with Parkinson’s Law. Certainly there has been much activity on the constitutional front in Scotland, after what one comment on this blog calls a ‘phoney war’ for the first eight years. But a lot of what each now does is a campaigning job – in principle, for the UK Government, though when dealing with an SNP government in Scotland it’s hard for it not to assume a clear party-political dimension as well.
The choice Cameron will have to make is whether to keep the separate Secretaries of State or combine them more structurally in some way. Keeping them will appease certain Scottish and Welsh interests, though not the Scottish Government (which has been calling for abolition of the Scotland Office practically since it came to office) – so it would run contrary to the ‘respect’ agenda. As there isn’t that much business for such a Secretary of State to do, keeping such a minister would be at odds with the Tories’ general commitment to slim down government (and Parliament). But there’s also the question of personnel. With, probably, only a small handful of MPs from Scotland, and more but inexperienced ones from Wales, keeping the Secretaries of State would gravely limit the possibilities open to Cameron in making or changing his Cabinet. Finding suitable MPs is clearly problematic; the Herald recently reported that a Secretary of State for Scotland might be a Conservative MSP, who would receive a peerage and sit in the House of Lords, rather than the party’s sole current Scottish MP. Another idea doing the rounds is to appoint an MP of Scottish origin sitting for an English seat, but that would not go down well in Scotland. (Would an MSP give up his or her seat at Holyrood? Given the general commitment to abolishing dual mandates, one would expect so. If not, there could be some interesting debates at Holyrood. But would it be appropriate for a member of the Lords to be Secretary of State, given the criticisms of Peter Mandelson for doing that? If this is the path the Conservatives want to go down, they need to think through such issues.)
So what to do? A single Secretary of State for all devolution-related issues would solve a number of problems. It would give the Prime Minister greater flexibility, and a wider pool of MPs to choose from. It would reduce the problem of a lack of focus in Whitehall – where not just the Scottish and Welsh Secretaries, but the Justice Secretary also and the Prime Minister have direct interests in devolution issues. The job would probably take about half the time of a senior minister (assuming she or he had support from junior ministers), so it would be a good post for a senior figure who combined it with other cross-governmental responsibilities. Junior ministers could deal with specifically Scottish, Welsh or even Northern Ireland issues. As each set of devolution arrangements is quite different from the others, there are strong practical reasons for that. The essential point is that in overall charge is a senior minister with a clear responsibility for devolution, who is untrammelled by departmental functions.
If there were to be a single department supporting that Secretary of State, what form should it take? The best option is probably still that recommended by the Lords Constitution Committee – a separate ‘department for the nations and regions’ or ‘for the Union’. That could bring together the various offices and groups of officials presently scattered across government. On the official side, there are not just the Scotland and Wales Offices to take into account, but also separate teams in the Ministry of Justice and the Economic & Domestic Affairs Secretariat of Cabinet Office. It would be a very small department; the Scotland Office had 65 staff in 2009, the Wales Office 56, and there are about a dozen in MoJ and Cabinet Office combined, so it would have about 130-140 people.
There are hazards in brigading such an office with other departments – certainly, the way the Scotland and Wales Offices have been incorporated since 2003 in the Department for Constitutional Affairs and now Ministry of Justice has not broken down the barriers to a general view of territorial issues. One possibility would be incorporation with Cabinet Office, which might be resisted as it involves work that is different to much of the rest of its work supporting Cabinet and its committees. A parallel, though, is perhaps the Office of Parliamentary Counsel, which has only 85 staff, forms part of Cabinet Office, but whose head has own Permanent Secretary rank. That would resemble what happens in Canada, where the federal government’s Intergovernmental Affairs Office has its own Cabinet minister but is part of the Privy Council Office, which works to the Prime Minister.
Linking devolution to other departments with policy responsibilities is more problematic. Making it part of an engorged Department for Communities and Local Government, for example (as suggested by IPPR a couple of years ago), would risk crowding out one set of complex but strategic issues with the minutiae and detailed mechanisms (of inspection, targetry and so forth) commonly associated with English local government. Departmental cultures and policy techniques tend to spread across the whole of a department, but those used for local government are inimical to building and maintaining good relations with the devolved institutions or handling the constitutional issues devolution now presents. And symbolically it would be very dangerous, as it would imply that devolved government in Scotland and Wales was on the same footing, and of the same importance, as an English district council.
Another option would be incorporation with the Ministry of Justice, which is sort-of what happens now. There is more in common with the MoJ than other departments, given the general constitutional remit of that department – although the MoJ’s operational responsibilities for (English and Welsh) courts and prisons, and their legal system, might hinder that. The essential point is to have devolution at or near the centre of government. On that level, MoJ is a better home for the official side as it’s more of a ‘central’ department than CLG, though it’s far from perfect.
This is an area where Labour Prime Ministers ducked a radical step, preferring to stick with what was known and comfortable even if it had outlived its purpose. Cameron could show the boldness of his approach to managing government by doing something Labour didn’t dare to.