The devolved first ministers’ declaration about cuts (available here; the BBC News story is here) is rather interesting, even if there’s less to it than meets the eye. It’s scarcely a secret or a surprise that all of them are unhappy about the planned scale and timing of cuts, even if the impact on devolved spending will probably be less serious than it might be. What is intriguing is to do with timing and tactics. Both Alex Salmond and Peter Robinson have hitherto held their fire rather on cuts. Salmond has appeared to be saving his opposition as a tactic to use in the election campaign, while Robinson has generally been muted in criticism of the cuts (if less so than the UUP), in contrast to Sinn Fein, and Northern Ireland has certainly had warm words from both the Secretary of State (here) and the Chancellor (here). The preference of some devolved governments to express their opposition behind the scenes, while others (notably Wales) have been very public in voicing theirs, has come to an end. All are now united both in their substantive opposition and in the tactics they are using.
With only a fortnight to go until the spending review is finalised, time is getting tight to secure any sort of favourable settlement. Moreover, all three clearly see little advantage in holding their fire – Salmond, for example, appears to have given up hopes of getting a maximal version of the Calman proposals in the bill to be published in a couple of months’ time. Clearly the sorts of representations they’ve made at their periodic meetings with Treasury (most recently on 15 September), and the response they’ve had, have failed to convince them. The devolved governments now clearly see no advantage in holding their fire. And clearly, by making the target of their attack the scope of cuts and their economic impact (not just on devolved areas of public spending), they’ve taken on a wider role as politicians of the opposition, speaking for the wider interests of their parts of the UK and not just as administrators of particular devolved functions.
The real question is how the UK Government will respond – if indeed it does. I’ve already noted the limited and declining capacity of UK Government to engage with devolution issues in a coherent or strategic way. Most of Whitehall will, in any case, be too busy to deal with this. The likelihood is that it will simply be overlooked, or perhaps receive the sort of acknowledgement that indicates it’s not actually going to have an effect. Joint declarations are all very well, from a devolved point of view, but will require some sort of sustained campaign to have a tangible impact. Perhaps this should be viewed more as the first step in the 2011 election campaigns that as a démarche in intergovernmental relations.
Perhaps a more interesting question about the Spending Review is this. Why aren’t any of the territorial Secretaries of State on the Public Expenditure Committee that is resolving disagreements between Treasury and spending departments? Membership is one of the rewards for departmental Secretaries of State who have agreed their spending allocation with the Treasury already. Block grants are notionally paid through the Secretaries of State to the devolved administrations, so they do have a stake in this arguments – and one which implies it’s their job to present devolved concerns more than the devolved governments themselves. It’s hard to see how this doesn’t apply to the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland Secretaries, who don’t have any direct stake in the review at this point as the block grants are determined as consequences of spending agreed for other departments. The bitter truth appears to be that none of them actually matter enough to be on such an important committee. Those who think that Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland continue to benefit substantially from retaining ‘their’ Secretary of State might wish to note this powerful indication of their lack of influence within Whitehall.
UPDATE: According to Eddie Barnes in last Sunday’s Scotland on Sunday, Michael Moore has been made a member of the Public Expenditure Committee.