The Scottish Government response to Calman repays careful reading. Intellectually, most interesting are the Government’s responses to the provisions of the Calman report relating to inter-parliamentary co-operation. Rather than leave these questions to the two parliaments to sort out between themselves, it rejects most of these recommendations. The reasoning underlying this is interesting: the Government favours the use of intergovernmental channels for all such communication and liaison, rather than the extensive interparliamentary liaison that Calman advocated. Similarly, when it comes to recommendations to strengthen the use of the Joint Ministerial Committee machinery, the Scottish Government response emphasises that this is a matter for all four administrations that participate in the JMC, not just a bilateral matter between the UK and Scottish Governments – which is what Calman implies.
There’s an obvious instrumental if not partisan reason for this – the SNP can control what goes on through the Scottish Government and can claim to ‘speak for Scotland’ in an unambivalent way. If these matters are passed to the Parliament, not only does the SNP risk being outvoted by the unionist parties but it also loses its claim to be the authoritative representative of Scottish views. The Government’s standing is weakened as a result.
Underlying this, though, is a more fundamental intellectual difference. The Scottish Government’s position is rooted in a conception of the primacy of the executive arm of government. The model of intergovernmental relations (broadly understood) that they favour is familiar to anyone used to ‘executive’ or ‘co-operative federalism’ in countries like Australia or Canada, or (with modifications) Germany. (I discussed how this approach works in practice in my chapter ‘The Practice of Multi-Level Government: How intergovernmental relations work in federal systems’ in The State of the Nations 2008, available here or here.) That’s largely how things presently work in the UK – not only does Westminster find itself dominated by the UK Government, but the same is true in the devolved legislatures too, with a partial exception for Scotland since the minority government came into office in 2007. (Northern Ireland gets complicated here, not just because of the compulsory coalition between DUP, UUP, SDLP and Sinn Fein, but because of the way the ‘inner coalition’ between DUP and Sinn Fein works, or doesn’t, and the extent to which the Alliance can function as a meaningful opposition.)
So the SNP is looking at federal-type models: disentangle functions where you can, deal with matters intergovernmentally where you can’t. That in turn, they suggest, promotes clear lines of accountability. It’s a picture familiar to anyone used to watching what happens in Quebec, whether the government is formed by the federalist Parti Libérale du Québec or the sovereigntist Parti Québecois (although it’s more typically adopted by the PLQ than the PQ).
The Calman proposals were rooted in assumptions that Parliaments should be supreme in both principle and practice, that the integration and entanglement of governments was inevitable (if not positively good), and best remedied by improving interparliamentary liaison to hold the executives to account. Hence it proposed interparliamentary committees and meetings, submission of motions to each other, ministers from one government appearing before the other parliament, and so forth. This vision may reflect partisan views, or an optimistic view of the role of parliaments in the practice of modern government generally (and in the UK in particular). It’s much more traditionally ‘British’ in the way it emphasises Parliament over executive. It also accepts that the way powers are presently divided between devolved and UK levels, and the entanglement that results, are unavoidable.
I have to admit to scepticism about this aspect of the Calman recommendations. In practice, joint meetings and joint working are likely to advantage the older, larger, more powerful parliament over the newer devolved one. It may not have been Calman’s intention, but these approaches can work in practice as ways to constrain the scope of devolved action and reinforce the power of the UK level.
What is going on here is more than a simple tussle between immediate interests. There are also very different conceptions of how the devolved and UK levels of government should relate to each other, and they need to be understood as such.