Henry Hill

More devolution won’t save the Union

More devolution won't save the Union
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Yesterday, Lord Dunlop – the author of the Dunlop Review into the British state and devolution – appeared before a joint meeting of four Select Committees.

It was the first time the Public Accounts and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC), Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish committees had sat together, which was fitting given his remit. But the resultant Q&A only highlighted the ongoing tensions in the government’s approach to the Union.

Dunlop is an advocate of what he calls a ‘cooperative Union’. His emphasis is on getting the various parts of the governments of the UK to work together, and building on the past two decades of devolution. He summarised his mission as:

‘How do we get devolution and the Union running through the bloodstream of the Civil Service?’

But what if ‘devolution’ and ‘the Union’ are in tension? What if the reform the British state really needs is not yet more modification to accommodate the devolved executives, but restored capacity to make a visible and positive impact in the home nations directly?

That was the logic underpinning the UK Internal Market Act 2020 (Ukima), and there are plenty of Conservatives (whom we might call ‘Ukima Unionists’) who want to use that controversial legislation as a beachhead for a more ‘muscular Unionism’.

It didn’t take long for the difficulties in Dunlop’s cooperative vision to start emerging. Pete Wishart, the Nationalist chair of the Scottish Affairs Committee, branded the array of ministerial positions Dunlop wishes to create to drive cultural change in government and the Civil Service an ‘invasion force’.

Dunlop himself also had to concede that, whilst he welcomed the Prime Minister’s decision to invite the various first ministers to a ‘Covid recovery summit’, he couldn’t compel them to attend.

This has always been one of the biggest hurdles of his approach: at least one of the devolved administrations is not a good-faith actor that wants the UK to work. Dunlop later conceded that the existing Joint Ministerial Committee is essentially ‘a forum for raising grievances,’ but didn’t seem to offer any compelling reason to expect the new arrangements to work differently given that grievance-mongering is very much in the SNP’s interest.

(Gordon Brown was similarly bereft of a response to this point when I challenged him on it at a conference last spring, just as the SNP were stonewalling COP26. He simply said, ‘we have got to make this work,’ which is no answer at all.)

Robin Millar, one of the leaders of the new Conservative Union Research Unit (CURU), drew attention to another difficulty when he pointed out that the various governments can’t even agree on the basic principles of how the British constitution works.

Both the Scottish Government, which professes the alleged sovereignty of the Scottish people, and the Welsh Government, where Labour were just elected on a manifesto which contained an entirely fictitious description of the UK as ‘a voluntary association of four nations with sovereignty shared among its four democratic legislatures,’ dispute the sovereignty of Parliament.

Reorganising the country so that a ‘council of ministers’ could actually resolve disputes, Millar pointed out, was a direct challenge to the authority of the Prime Minister as the head of the sovereign government.

Dunlop largely evaded this point, stressing that his report was focused on practicalities and in any event the devolved executives derive their powers from Westminster legislation. But constitutional practicalities are necessarily downstream of constitutional theory, and Conservative MPs are right to be worried about approving arrangements which might later be read as endorsing a radical reappraisal of where sovereignty resides.

But the tension was most obvious when it came to money. Ukima’s most controversial – and worthwhile – provisions were those that gave British ministers the ability to spend money directly in the devolved territories on areas of policy not reserved to Westminster.

Dunlop is on the record as saying that this could ‘destabilise devolution’, and his evidence to the committee was in that vein. Whilst he didn’t set his face entirely against such investment, he argued that the government should be ‘supporting and encouraging the devolved institutions, but not seeking to usurp them or elbow them aside.’ The prospect of money, he suggested, should be used to induce the devolved executives to take part in his new structures.

Or in other words, ministers should spend Ukima funds bribing the devocrats to the table, rather than acting directly to build a relationship between the British government and British voters in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

This was further emphasised when Dunlop responded to Ian Paisley Jr, of the Democratic Unionists, who pointed out that the money disbursed by the Northern Ireland Assembly was ‘British money’ and asked what could be done to make sure voters recognised this. Dunlop’s view is that branding should follow ‘democratic accountability’. In other words, when the British state gives cash to the devolved institutions, and they spend it, the devolved institutions should get the credit.

Following this logic, UK government contributions would only be recognised when it has directly contributed additional cash. But in line with his earlier answers, that would rarely happen either.

The evident tension between the witness and some of the questioners perhaps explains why the Dunlop Review was so slow to be published. Dunlop certainly has an audience at the top of the government: Michael Gove in particular is keen to talk up an inter-governmental agenda and was reportedly opposed to Ukima.

But that legislation did pass, and some ministers are already talking quietly about taking it further with a ‘Ukima II’. Given that, it isn’t difficult to see why an approach which takes devolutionary orthodoxy as its starting point might have received a less than wholehearted welcome in Downing Street.