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The four contributors to our series on the Union this week weren’t asked to write about it. Their brief was its four components: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. But it may be significant that none of them tried to.
This habit of not considering our country as a whole is so familiar that we seldom reflect on it. Where does it come from? As so often, from circumstances.
The United Kingdom has a famously unwritten constitution. It has no single document, like the constitution of the United States. We did not come into being at a moment in time like, say, India, part of our former imperial possession. We have not been divided by war, as Germany was, or brought into new life, like France’s Fifth Republic.
Nor have our four parts been governed alike, unlike their predecessor, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Northern Ireland had devolved government from Stormont, and integration has never taken root there.
If some other countries are like Bauhausian mansions, designed as a single whole, the United Kingdom is like an ancient country home, constructed over time, frequently if casually renovated, run up in many different styles – and sprawling over territory it has gradually assimilated.
Standing back and gazing at this venerable structure can bring with it the itch to rationalise and reorder: to tidy up what is undoubtedly untidy by sending for the bulldozers of rational constitution-making, razing our home to the ground, and recasting it in concrete, glass and steel.
Significantly, that compulsion to reconstruct usually focuses on England, otherwise so often the elephant in the constitutional room. It takes form in schemes like the creation of an English Parliament, which would risk the English tail wagging the Union dog. Or federalism with its English regions – thumped at the ballot box when put to the people in the North East.
With Holyrood elections this year and the SNP campaigning for a majority, it is tempting to take Scotland as the starting-point for any discussion about the future of the Union. But there is reason to start with England after all, and with the Coalition’s hotchpotch of local reforms.
The patchwork of elected mayors, combined authorities, police commissioners, single authorities, and local enterprise partnerships dazzles and confuses the eye. Inconsistent it may be, but there is a logic to this programme of devolution, put well to ConHome yesterday by a senior former Minister.
“We can’t deliver levelling up, a skills revolution, an industrial strategy and zero carbon from the centre. The new mayors have a convening power: they can get local businesses, the Chief Constable, the NHS bigwigs, the university vice-chancellors, the local enteprise partnerships round the table, and come up with a plan.”
We believe that the first of our contributors this week, Jonathan Werran, was right. “A bit of local laissez-faire and free choice when it comes to English local governance might not be the worst outcome,” he wrote. Let further change be driven from the bottom up, not the top down – though more unitaries, encouraged from the centre, is a good idea.
In that way, towns and counties, working together, would become a counterweight to the cities and suburbs. It strikes us that Andy Burnham’s megaphone diplomacy with the Government over Covid proves the opposite of what some claimed. It was significant was how many Labour mayors took the opposite approach, working quietly and productively with Ministers.
Giving mayors more powers in the short-term, to help join up the Midlands and North, and shifting the balance of tax from national to local in the long, makes sense – as does more local input into the courts, mental health, and prisons. Nor is there any reason why a continuing shift to localism should stop at England’s borders.
Devolution New Labour-style should not be the last word, thank goodness, in moving government nearer the people. Boris Johnson was right if unwise to blurt out to Conservative MPs that, in terms of its effect on the Union, the Scottish devolution experiment has brought about the opposite of what Tony Blair and Gordon Brown intended: it has fed the SNP, not starved it.
But the lesson of this failure is not that there has been too much devolution. Rather, it is that there has been too little – and, too often, of the wrong kind. “The biggest failure of Welsh devolution has been the hoarding of power in Cardiff Bay,” Andrew RT Davies wrote on this site this week. North Wales has never come to terms with the Senedd in the way that South Wales has.
“I’d like to see the designation of “Union Highways” that would unblock Wales’s arterial routes on the M4, A40 and A55 and boost important cross-border growth,” he continued. In doing so, he put his finger on the formula best suited to keeping the Union together and freeing it to flourish: a smaller, stronger, strategic Westminster; more local autonomy for (say) Milton Keynes, Aberdeen, Wrexham and Londonderry.
The Scottish Parliament, unlike the Welsh Assembly, commands popular support. Nonetheless, the Smith Commission noted that there is “a strong desire to see…the transfer of power from Holyrood to local communities”. Even the SNP’s submission to it recognised that more devolution to Holyrood would “provide the opportunity to devolve these powers further to councils and communities’.
A New Union, to use Andy Maciver’s term in his contribution to the series, would see the Borders, Aberdeenshire and the Highlands, inter alia, exercising more power and bidding for money from Westminster as well as Holyrood. That would sit nicely with Douglas Ross’ call for Scottish councils to have the power to set business rates-free zones, rebuild local railways and deliver universal broadband.
Even in Northern Ireland, where devolution Belfast Agreement-style is the rock on which its settlement is founded, there is room for UK money and branding. We didn’t cite Londonderry by accident. This week’s City Deal there will be funded largely by the UK and Stormont governments alike, putting in £105 million apiece.
The UK Internal Market Act is seen as a model for the future by some in Government – opening up the prospect of Westminster directly funding Scottish councils, and making important infrastructure decisions. This may be bad news for the Treasury, which frets about paying for Scotland twice over, but it is good news for the Union.
Looked at on a map, the United Kingdom is a sizeable island, plus a big slice of another, with some smaller isles tacked on to it. Viewed politically, what we are painting in this article is an archipelago – a mass of different localisms in different places.
That would suit the “Brexity Hezza” that Boris Johnson says he is. But it’s an unashamedly red-white-and-blue archipelago, held together by Westminster, with a Secretary of State in charge of the Union after the reshuffle. Could Michael Gove continue in that role, instead of being shuffled off to Health?
His reflex is to kill the SNP with kindess, drawing the leaders of the devolved administrations more formally into central government. His junior minister needs to do the same for England’s main mayors and council leaders.
There’s nothing in this programme about reforming the Judiciary or Parliament – that’s for another day. Nor does it offer some frantic scheme to save Scotland for the Union overnight. Maybe the best way of securing it within the United Kingdom is actually to fret about it less: by doing more for the Union as a whole, one would also do more for all four parts of it.