So far, our analysis of the fallout from the Scottish Government’s defeat in the Supreme Court over their bid for the right to hold their own independence referendum has focused on two axes.
First, the political: what becomes of the increasingly fractious separatist movement now that it no longer has the real prospect of imminent battle to hold it together? Second, the personal: is all this teeing up, deliberately or otherwise, Nicola Sturgeon’s departure from front-line politics in the next few years?
But perhaps most importantly in the long run, there is also an institutional question, namely: if independence has been officially ruled as lying outwith the competence of the Scottish Government, is it proper for civil servants north of the border to work on independence?
Alister Jack, the Scottish Secretary, has said this week that Simon Case, the head of the Civil Service, is investigating the issue. This comes after Douglas Ross, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, raised the issue – they claim that the First Minister has spent £1.5 million of public money trying to build a case for independence.
The curious position of the Civil Service has been on the radar of more strategically-minded unionists for some time. Unlike in Northern Ireland, Scottish civil servants are part of the Home Civil Service, which means they are ultimately responsible to case and that, in theory, there is a minister answerable to Parliament for them.
However, in the woeful hands-off spirit which saw Whitehall cede control of the census to Holyrood, the SNP has been allowed to almost entirely suborn the Scottish branch of yet another British institution. Indeed, just this week the Daily Telegraph reported that: “One of the most senior mandarins working in Nicola Sturgeon’s government has been caught on video boasting that his job is to break up the United Kingdom.”
Even this is just a smaller part of a broader story of the devolved governments spending tens of millions of pounds on projects in Westminster’s areas of responsibility, such as international aid or foreign affairs, despite having plenty of problems to deal with at home.
Thanks to the way the Barnet Formula operates, the Government in London channels billions of pounds worth of grants to Edinburgh, Cardiff, and Belfast but holds nobody to account to the British taxpayer for how that money is spent.
We don’t yet know how Case will rule on the question of Civil Service involvement in the bid to break up the state they serve, on the current facts. But it is past time that Westminster started to be more assertive about its ultimate control over the machinery of government.
After all, even in actual federations – perhaps especially in such states – the central government controls things such as the census, has proper systems in place to ensure proper scrutiny of subordinate administrations, and has the necessary levers to drive forward truly national policy.
That the United Kingdom has ended up creating some of the most powerful non-sovereign legislatures in the world without such safeguards is testament to the sloppy and haphazard manner in which New Labour implemented devolution (and the insistence of men such as Gordon Brown on doubling down on confederalism merely shows that some people cannot admit their mistakes).
Rishi Sunak may only have two years left before Labour get their hands back on the constitution. That’s still enough time lay the foundations for a stronger and more effective UK, if he and Jack are willing.