One question that has occupied my mind over the last couple of weeks has been why the coalition government has been much more careful and sensitive in its dealings with Scotland compared with Wales. That has been quite marked: in Scotland, there has been a careful emphasis on policies supported by at least some of the parties there (chiefly the commitment to implement Calman), coupled with a delicate handling of the Scottish Government that illustrates ‘respect’ in an exemplary fashion. (For discussions, see HERE and HERE.) In Wales (discussed earlier HERE), there has been a rather heavy-handed and inconsistent approach to the question of the timing of a referendum on primary powers, and an even more heavy handed one to financial matters that prejudges the still-ongoing work of the Holtham Commission.
There are two possible explanations for this. One is that Scotland demands careful handling from a UK point of view in a way that Wales doesn’t. The difference is innate, and relates to the relationship of each nation to the centre of the UK or the political threat it is seen as posing. Alternatively, Danny Alexander, with his access to the Deputy Prime Minister and other political connections and standing, and as a Lib Dem engaged in Scottish politics in a way that (with the best will in the world) can’t be said of his Conservative counterparts for Wales or Northern Ireland, has been in a position to manage things in a different way. In social science terms, one is an issue of structure, the other of agency.
David Laws’s resignation as Chief Secretary to the Treasury will provide a test of this. With Danny Alexander replacing Laws, his successor as Scottish Secretary is to be Michael Moore, MP for Berwickshire, Roxburghshire and Selkirk. But Moore does not have the same relationship with Clegg and did not play the same role in putting the coalition together. Will this change of minister mark a change in how the UK Government treats the various devolved territories? While this won’t be a perfect test, it will start to expose the reasons for the difference there has been hitherto. And as well as being important in itself, that may also tell us more about the ideology and policy of the coalition UK Government generally.