The autumnal restart of political life also marks something of a new start in Whitehall. This year, it doesn’t have to prepare a Queen’s speech, but it is full of folk beavering away on the Spending Review, as well as sorting out the Welsh referendum on primary legislative powers and the white paper on the implementation of the Calman Commission’s recommendations. One perennial question affecting such issues is how able the civil service is to deal with intergovernmental issues, both strategically and reactively as they crop up.
Whitehall’s capacity to deal with devolution has long been fragmented. There are ‘devolution contacts’ in each Whitehall department, though their engagement varies considerably. There are the territorial offices, which manage bilateral relations between UK Government and Scottish Government, Welsh Assembly Government and Northern Ireland Executive. Here, again, there are wide variations – Northern Ireland Office has had a relatively small role in managing bilateral relations, having instead a wider concern with constitutional development and security issues. (The long history of administrative devolution in Northern Ireland, and Ireland before 1920, means that there’s less spill-over from the British policy agenda anyway.) The Wales Office has a heavy focus on Westminster legislation, which is inevitable given the arrangements for LCOs and framework powers under Part 3 of the Government of Wales Act 2006. After the SNP came to office, the Scotland Office came to be seen as increasingly politicised, acting as a platform for UK Government campaigning in Scotland. I’ve heard persistent complaints that this campaigning role made it much harder for it to act as the lubricant of the cogs of government that it was for most of the time between 1999 and 2007, and so undermined its effectiveness within UK Government. The SNP has, of course, long called for its abolition. While the Coalition faces a different set of challenges in managing these relationships, the legacy of that perceived politicisation lives on.
Part of the problem has been the ‘missing centre’; the lack of any overall co-ordination of devolution, or attempt to manage relations with all three devolved territories in a structured way. That changed somewhat after the autumn of 2007, with the creation of a post of ‘Director-General, Devolution Strategy’ in both Cabinet Office and Ministry of Justice, and the appointment of Jim Gallagher (a senior official from the Scottish Executive, on secondment) to fill it. Gallagher was behind much of the UK Government policy over the last couple of years, including the revival of the Joint Ministerial Committee and the establishment of the Calman Commission and later the UK Government white paper. While his appointment was a reaction to the SNP’s election and its success in steering the constitutional debate, it also marked the first time since devolution that the UK gave itself any capacity at a senior level to take seriously the challenges devolution posed. That may not have made him many friends among his erstwhile employers in Scotland, of course.
Following the election, the incoming Coalition government resisted arguments (made HERE and elsewhere) to merge the three territorial offices, which might have helped develop its capacity somewhat. As part of the reorganisation of the MoJ and Cabinet Office to create official support for Nick Clegg (who appears to have neglected to ensure he had this when the Coalition was negotiated), that post has vanished. There’s no place for it in the new Cabinet Office structure, focussed as that is on ‘political reform’ and accompanied by the now-habitual lack of interest in territorial matters. Gallagher is leaving the civil service, and the UK Government appears to be losing much of its senior devolution co-ordination capacity as a result – as well as one of the people who best understands how the Calman Commission recommendations might work. The question of the personnel policies of the new government are not the main issue here (in any case, I’ve heard several different versions of what happened), and sadly by this time next year Gallagher won’t be the only former civil servant with much he could have offered government, but who is outside it. But for a UK Government that’s committed to implementing Calman and to strengthening the Union, it is a strange move.