This post also appears on the Constitution Unit’s blog, here. Constitution-unit.com has a number of other election-related posts which are well worth reading.
It is hard to think of a general election that has ever been so freighted with questions about the UK’s territorial constitution. It is hardly an overstatement to say that the outcome of the 2015 election, and actions of the government that takes office after it, will either reshape the UK significantly or ease the way to its breakup. This post considers what the manifestos tell us about what the various parties propose to do and how they propose to do it, when it comes to the reshaping of devolution arrangements across the UK, and then discusses some of the issues that will loom larger after 7 May.
The pro-UK parties
The 2015 manifestos contain a welter of devolution-related commitments. Those in the three pro-UK parties (Conservative, Liberal Democrats and Labour) are all strikingly similar, though not identical. For Scotland, all commit to implementing the Smith Commission’s recommendations, and to retaining the Barnett formula. (Interestingly, they do not commit to the UK Government’s white paper Scotland in the United Kingdom: An enduring settlement, raising the possibility they could scrape off some of the barnacles that paper puts on the Smith proposals). Labour want to go further in a ‘Home Rule bill’ in unspecified ways, though it appears that wider scope for the Scottish Parliament to legislate on welfare matters is key to it. These commitments rather resemble those made by the same three parties in 2010 about the implementation of the Calman Commission’s recommendations, though with Labour somewhat breaking ranks with the two governing parties.
There is also similarity when it comes to Northern Ireland: endorsement of the peace process and commitments to support it, along with the economic rebalancing package agreed as part of December’s Stormont House Agreement. For Conservatives and Lib Dems, this includes support for sustainable public finances, welfare reform and corporation tax devolution subject to adequate progress being made on financial matters. Labour’s commitments appear to embrace similar policies, but are confusingly worded. They say they will: Continue reading
Filed under Conservatives, English questions, Labour, Lib Dems, Northern Ireland, Plaid Cymru, Scotland, SNP, UK elections, Wales, Westminster
Monday’s Herald had a story based on an interview with me (here), based on something I’ve written as part of the IPPR’s Devo More project. In this paper, I set out the Devo More strategy as a whole, and explain how it fits with the political traditions of each of the major UK-wide parties. There are two key arguments: much the same package of devolution serves the interests of all three traditions and the parties that currently embody them pretty well, and that this approach to further devolution will reinforce the Union not weaken it.
I’ve written a comment piece for the Herald which summarises the chapter and its overall argument. That can be found here, and its text is also below. The chapter on which all this is based can be found on the IPPR’s website here.
The UK Government has now published its proposals for the implementation of the Silk Commission’s Part 1 report, following its announcement at the beginning of November (and so managed to get its response in just before the anniversary of the publication of the Commission’s report). The Wales Office’s news release is here and the paper itself, Empowerment and responsibility: devolving financial powers to Wales, is here. (Note for government documentation trainspotters: this isn’t a Command paper to be formally laid before Parliament, and certainly not a white paper or even green paper. This contrasts with both Labour and Coalition responses to Calman, and again suggests either that the UK is not taking Wales as seriously as it did Scotland, or that this is a response framed in some haste.)
Unsurprisingly, the paper largely confirms the key elements of the deal announced by the UK Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, previously discussed HERE: devolution of two small land taxes, devolution of 10 points of income tax, but only after a referendum. It confirms that, as for Scotland, aggregates levy may be devolved, but only once outstanding EU state aids issues are resolved, and that air passenger duty will not be. Continue reading
Friday’s news had ample coverage of the UK Government’s decision about financing Welsh devolved government, following the Silk Commission’s Part 1 report from last November. No doubt the looming anniversary of the publication of the Silk report triggered a certain sense of urgency. Despite promises that the UK Government would produce its response in ‘the spring’ (and strong hints this would be earlier in the spring rather than later), that has been delayed and delayed. At the end of June, Secretary of State David Jones said it had been postponed until after the summer, and now pretty late in the autumn it has finally materialised.
There has been wide coverage of the UK response. The Western Mail’s article by David Cameron and Nick Clegg is here, and their news coverage is here, here and here. BBC News coverage is here, and analysis here. The Guardian’s story is here. The official Wales Office press release is here, and the written ministerial statement is here.
The party conference season always produces a crop of policy announcements that are meant to be eye-catching. The extent to which these are thought through is often doubtful, though – these are announcements for political purposes, not necessarily to work in the real world. That also means how their devolution implications is addressed is often rather sketchy. Regular readers of this blog will know that concern about ‘devolution literacy’ is a long-standing one of mine, and one which I find has slowly but materially improved over the courts of the 2000s and 2010s.
Either devolution has bedded itself into party-policy framers’ consciousness, or something has changed. When he made his announcement about free school meals for 5-7 year olds in England, Nick Clegg was keen to point out that funding would be given to the devolved administrations to decide whether to follow suit. (The political pressure to do so will be considerable, of course – a lot of parents’ and poverty groups will be asking pointed questions about it.) And that’s all well and good; the Treasury’s Statement of Funding Policy provides that spending on the schools budget has a 100 per cent comparability percentage for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – so any extra spending on that budget automatically triggers a full population-related comparable payment.
Ed Miliband’s widely-trailed announcement about cancelling a cut in corporation tax and instead making one in business rates (strictly, non-domestic rate or NDR) is more problematic. The aim is to favour smaller businesses, which may not be incorporated (or have profits), but which necessarily occupy business premises. Like Clegg, Multiband will apparently announce a change for England, with funding for devolved governments to make a similar cut. The problem is that this is not what the Statement of Funding Policy says. NDR is only 100 per cent comparable for Wales, where a complex England and Wales pooling mechanism currently exists. Even there, there are plans for change following the Morgan Review last year (BBC News summary here, full documentation here). In Scotland and Northern Ireland, NDR is 0 per cent comparable – because it’s regarded as fully devolved. So any decision for England would not automatically trigger comparables for Scotland or Northern Ireland.
There are ways to resolve this, of course. The easiest is probably the messiest – a one-off concession relating to adding a specific block of money to the devolved governments’ budgetary baselines. (If the comparability percentage were changed, it would lead to further complications in future.) Even then, though, there is no guarantee whatever that devolved governments will use the extra money in the way UK Government might desire. (Indeed, the Scottish Government has been imaginative in making use of NDR as an instrument of local economic policy – extra charges for out of town superstores, for example.) But the point is that Miliband’s attempt to make an impression by reshaping where the burden of business taxation falls has run into the practical realities of how the post-devolution, fiscally decentralised UK functions. While Miliband deserves 8/10 for effort in thinking about the problem, it’s only 4/10 for success in doing so.
The agreement publicly reached between David Cameron and Alex Salmond for the holding of a Scottish referendum on independence in 2014 marks the end of a long, and unduly protracted, process. (There’s an account of the latter stages of that by Alan Cochrane of the Telegraph here which strikes me as well-informed if incomplete.) The agreement itself (with the draft section 30 order at the end) is here. The news story about it from Number 10 is here, and that from the Scottish Government is here.
The deal itself is a good and necessary one, if not particularly surprising in its content given the various leaks and rumours about it over the last few weeks. It is also one which delivers each government its key requirements, so in that sense it is a good deal for both sides. And, of course, it confirms that a referendum will indeed happen.
How we got here
It’s worth remembering how we got to this point. The SNP fought the 2007 election on a manifesto commitment to hold an independence referendum if elected, and to publish a white paper on independence before then. That commitment meant that a vote for the SNP would not necessarily be a vote for independence as such, which helped boost support for the SNP so it was able narrowly to win a plurality of votes and seats at that poll, because the election turned into one about ‘valence’ and competence not high-level ideology. In other words, the Continue reading
The UK Government’s ministerial reshuffle may lead to further tensions within the Westminster Coalition, but it has been one of pretty limited change, as far as the territorial offices are concerned. Full details of all the new ministers can be found on the No 10 website, here.
There has been no change at the Scotland Office at all, with Michael Moore and David Mundell remaining in place. Lord Wallace does so too, as Advocate General for Scotland. The opportunity of putting a more ‘campaigning’ politician in charge has not been taken, even with the independence referendum looming, and although the heavy legislative work of getting what is now the Scotland Act 2012 drafted and onto the statute book is now done. The only major item of legislative business on the immediate agenda is the section 30 order regarding the referendum (which Severin Carrell suggests here is close to agreement between the two governments).
The Wales Office has seen the departure of Cheryl Gillan as Secretary of State, and the promotion of David Jones, the former junior minister, to replace her. That follows a determined lobbying campaign from Welsh Conservative MPs for the new Secretary of State to have a Welsh seat, and suggests minimal change in the UK Government’s approach. Jones has already emphasised his desire for a ‘very good business-like relationship’ with the Welsh Government. The interesting shifts of role and personnel are at the junior level. Stephen Crabb has been promoted within the Whip’s office (though he was never the ‘Welsh whip’), and also made parliamentary under-secretary of state. Baroness (Jenny) Randerson, former AM and Welsh Lib Dem Minister, has also become an (unpaid) parliamentary under-secretary, for which the Lib Dems are said to have fought hard. Given her company among colleagues who have been regarded as ‘devo-sceptics’ (though they now emphasise their support for devolution), it’s interesting that she emphasises that she is a ‘committed devolutionist’ in the Welsh Lib Dem press notice announcing her appointment.
The Queen’s speech given today launches a pretty modest UK legislative programme. Whatever the reasons for that – failure to agree between the Coalition partners (see Patrick Wintour’s view that it’s largely a Lib Dem programme, here) or giving priority to other issues which don’t need legislation – it’s notably limited when it comes to the sort of domestic legislation that tended to throw up devolution issues while Labour were in office. Nonetheless, more such questions lurk within it than may be obvious at first glance.
The text of the Queen’s speech can be found here. The Cabinet Office’s remarkably interesting briefing notes on it – which give information about the content of the bills – are here.
Those notes include summaries of territorial extent and implications for devolution, which suggest rather greater consideration has been given to devolution questions than has been the case when many previous legislative programmes were announced. Indeed, that was conspicuously missing in the Coalition’s first Queen’s speech. If that was an example of poor practice in that regard, this is an example of pretty good practice.
Some time ago – before Easter, in fact – I had an article in the Scotsman about how enhanced devolution can be part of the Scottish independence referendum debate, despite the determination of the Unionist parties to have a single Yes/No question in that vote. In essence, that requires the ‘devolution plus’ option to be developed so that it is a clearly framed and worked-through scheme, with broad political support (from the Unionist parties, and more widely), before the referendum. Otherwise, a pro-Union vote will necessarily be a negative one, and that will make the pro-Union case a much harder one to make.
The article can be found here, and a webchat about the article and related issues I did with Scotsman readers can be found here.
The text of the article as I filed it is below.
‘Devo more’: on the table, even if it’s not on the referendum ballot
The debate about Scotland’s constitutional future will soon come to another punctuation point. The UK Government’s consultation on an independence referendum will shortly result in the making of a section 30 order (something I outlined in this paper back in June 2011) , and the publication of the UK Government’s summary of responses to its consultation shows pretty clearly that London intends to limit the choice before voters to a single question, not two as sought by the Scottish Government. The referendum will be a straight choice between the Union and independence, with the possibility of further powers afterward.
This position suits the Unionist parties, if not the SNP. Quite a number on the Unionist side are opposed to any extension in the scope of devolved powers. Many others support more devolution, including the Liberal Democrats and many in Labour, but are not clear what that means. Politically, the Unionist side thinks it has a better chance of winning a Yes or No referendum than one offering several options – what one might call an ‘excluded middle’ strategy. This is essentially a negative approach, and contrasts with the positive one of the SNP.
The UK Government’s planned announcement regarding road privatisation and tolling in England is a puzzling move (see trails from the Independent here, Guardian here, and BBC News here). It controls, of course, only roads in England; the building, maintenance and operation of roads in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is devolved. So this policy is not just limited in scope, but over-hyped in its rhetoric; ‘the nation’s roads’ are only roads of one part of it.
The second element is the planned funding through hypothecating a proportion of vehicle excise duty (road tax). As a solution, it will be attractive to potential operators of privatised roads as it will be a guaranteed revenue stream. But if that’s to be done, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland’s devolved governments should get their share too. (Should that share be calculated on the proportion of road miles in those parts of the UK, or population? That’s a technical question that matters, given the large areas of sparse population in all three parts of the UK, with a lot of not-very-heavily used roads as a result.)
The announcement to be made today is only for feasibility studies to be carried out, and actual privatisation may never happen. But the way it has been publicised suggests that no-one has aired these issues before the announcement was planned, which itself may suggest something about the role of spin and side-lining of normal policy-making under the Coalition at Westminster. Moreover, it shows a failure to think carefully about what ‘the nation’ is (England or UK?) at a time when that issue has a particular sensitivity. It’s almost as though Number 10 has bought into SNP rhetoric without noticing.