Tories draw up plans to ‘buy off’ SNP referendum demands
Ever since New Labour first set up the devolved legislatures in Scotland and Wales, there has only been one game in town when it comes to how to defeat the nationalists and hold the United Kingdom together: “more powers”.
It’s fair to say that it hasn’t worked so far. In the just over two decades since the advent of the Scottish Parliament, for example, the SNP have gone from a marginal force to a political hegemon and independence from a minority pursuit to, at best, a parity position in public opinion. In Wales, meanwhile, the Senedd is brute-forcing nationalist sentiment out of the most incoherent foundations.
Yet the sheer weight of intellectual inertia that has built up behind devolution is such that it remains, despite everything, the reflex response to political difficulty, and this week Bloomberg revealed that this Government might be no exception. They have reportedly seen a memo drawn up by Hanbury, a consultancy working with the Government on the separatist problem, which suggests adopting a policy of ‘accomodation’ to forestall a second independence referendum:
“The government should instead focus on a “Four Nations, One Country” policy by transferring further financial powers, differentiation on policies connected to the EU vote, such as immigration. The document says that the new settlement will be the subject of another paper.”
It goes without saying that there is no mention anywhere in the piece of policies to give effect to the ‘One Country’ part by re-asserting Westminster’s rightful prerogatives as the seat of this country’s sovereign, national government, in the manner of the UK Internal Market Bill.
All of this comes as Michael Gove pledged this week to ‘reset’ relations with the devolved administrations, which have deteriorated in the course of the coronavirus pandemic. According to the FT, this will take the form of ‘institutional’ reforms to improve inter-governmental communication rather than new powers (although it may well just preparing the ground for the concessions envisioned by Hanbury).
This will please Scottish business organisations, which have reportedly urged Westminster and Holyrood to end the ‘stand-off’ over Brexit as the negotiations enter the closing straight.
Stephen Daisley has a great piece for the Spectator outlining why Westminster’s retreat-to-victory approach to the Union is so, so wrong, and I explored similar issues in a recent piece for These Islands on the folly of federalism. If a Government with a majority of 80 really feels it needs more than “once in a generation” to refuse a second referendum, better arguments are available.
Reckless joins ‘Abolish the Assembly’ as ex-UKIPs MSs set up new group
It has become a source of visible irritation to a section of the Welsh devocracy how often the MSs (formerly AMs) who were elected under UKIP’s banner in 2016 have re-organised themselves in the years since.
UKIP broke through in Wales with seven AMs, but the group was almost immediately riven by internal power struggles. Following the decline of UKIP it has splintered yet further, with some joining the Brexit Party before that too ran out of steam. Now the ‘unionist right’ of Welsh politics is dividing over another question: whether or not to abolish the Senedd altogether.
This week, Mark Reckless became the second MS to defect to Abolish the Assembly, the leading devosceptic party (which despite initial refusal is apparently now going to rebrand to reflect the institution’s new name). It will be interesting to see whether this means they will adopt his preferred solution: Reckless doesn’t favour full re-integration, but rather an arrangement wherein Wales’ devolved competencies are exercised by MPs.
Abolish face competition for the abolitionist vote with Neil Hamilton, the sole MS still sitting under the UKIP banner, who has set up his own ‘Scrap the Welsh Assembly’ campaign – a reminder of the personality clashes which have dogged the UKIP caucus. Meanwhile three other ex-Brexit Party MSs have set up the Independent Alliance for Reform, who has the aim suggests are opposed to getting rid of devolution (and with it, of course, their own roles).
Reckless’ defection will give Abolish a high-profile front-man for the upcoming devolved elections and could make them more dangerous to the Conservatives, whose leadership have been firefighting outbreaks of anti-devolution sentiment amongst the grassroots for months.
All of this comes amidst fresh tensions over the Welsh Government’s anti-Covid-19 strategy. As Guido reports, Mark Drakeford has tried to bounce Westminster into stumping up the cash for his ‘firebreak’ lockdown by announcing it before securing sufficient funding. This is a repeat of tensions we saw between the Scottish Government and the Treasury earlier in the pandemic, and is starting to spark calls for the devolved governments to ‘pay for their own lockdowns‘.