This week, the government published its first Union Connectivity Review report. You’d be forgiven for mistaking this for another boring sounding Whitehall transport initiative that inevitably fails to get off the ground. But this seemingly inoffensive review has triggered the latest round of allegations from the devolved administrations that Westminster is engaging in a ‘power grab’.
Doesn’t the Prime Minister know that transport is devolved, they cry? If the Treasury has extra money to spend, it should simply hand it over to the governments in Edinburgh, Cardiff, and Belfast to spend as they see fit.
But there is an obvious problem with the ‘transport is devolved’ mantra. One can see the logic (if not necessarily the wisdom) of granting Mark Drakeford and Nicola Sturgeon responsibility for transport within their respective territories. But what about the maintenance and development of routes between them, and joined-up thinking about the needs of the whole British economy?
Even in a federal system (which, of course, the UK is not), this would likely be the responsibility of the federal government – and those responding to the government’s review recognise this, with most supporting a UK-led transport plan. It is a testament to the complacent and haphazard development of devolution since 1998 that Westminster’s responsibility for such functions has not been asserted before now.
Nor should commentators make the mistake of conflating the territorial braying of the devocrats for popular resentment of the policy. It is difficult to imagine even the most able SNP grievance-monger whipping up public anger at additional investment in improved air and high-speed rail links with the rest of the country. Especially as the report’s author, Sir Peter Hendy, was at pains to emphasise that this proposed funding boost is in addition to everything the devolved parliaments get under the current devolution settlement.
Unless Johnson contrives a way for it to blow up in his face — and that can’t be entirely ruled out — this will be the second time the PM has bet against received wisdom on the constitution and won.
It was a similar story with the UK Internal Market Act, which grants the government new powers to spend (extra) money directly in devolved territories and replicate spending previously overseen by the European Union. This too was decried as an ‘assault on devolution’ by the usual suspects, only to land with scarcely a whisper with the public at large.
Indeed, despite all the shroud-waving about the government’s approach to constitutional issues, the latest polling by the Scotsman reveals that both the UK government and the Prime Minister have risen by 14 points each in the public’s estimation north of the border.
This is not yet enough to get either into positive territory, admittedly, but it is not the direction of travel you’d expect for a latter-day Edward I.
Johnson’s task now is to keep up the momentum, and assuage the concerns of those, like me, who fear that the recent collapse of Downing Street’s Union Unit could lead to a loss of focus on the detailed work of constitutional trench warfare.
In the first instance, that means making sure that a substantial share of these transport reforms are backed up by hard Treasury cash (Sir Peter was wise enough to hive off considerations for the Prime Minister’s proposed tunnel to Ulster to a separate report). The government needs to carve out a pro-active and positive role for itself across the country, the sooner the better.
The second, more controversial step is looking at what the next offensive should be. Where else could the government legitimately assert itself in a way that will allow it to strengthen the Union without angering the voters?
One area that could prove fruitful is mandating the Office for National Statistics to collect uniform data on public service performance from all four home nations, to prevent the devocrats from masking their poor performance by opting out of international testing and tweaking their own records to make them non-comparable.
But the logic of these transport reforms suggests another, more urgent one: save the British Transport Police.
The BTP is a specialist constabulary that provides joined-up policing for the national transport network outside Northern Ireland. But in a fit of devolutionary mania, Westminster signed off handing responsibility for it over to the Scottish government, which has inevitably made plans to roll it into their unwieldy super-force, Police Scotland.
While the Nationalists’ motivation for abolishing an institution with the word ‘British’ in the title are obvious, the case from a UK perspective is non-existent.
Moreover, the move is extremely unpopular with BTP officers in Scotland — Douglas Ross reported to the Commons in 2018 that fully 83 per cent of them told an academic study they opposed the merger (and fully 70 per cent were ‘very unsupportive’).
In fact, more than 40 per cent of the BTP’s Scottish officers have left since the announcement, with many seeking transfer either to the BTP south of the border or to non-Home Office forces, such as the Ministry of Defence Police and the Civil Nuclear Constabulary. (Tellingly, these last two are still organised on a British basis.)
Thankfully, the Scottish government has not yet actually managed to effect the merger. But the SNP insist that it remains ‘a long-term goal’, and the legislation to do it remains on Holyrood’s statute book. The Prime Minister must therefore seize his chance to review, and reverse, this historic mistake.
The Union Connectivity Review should be his spur to action. Joined-up national transport policing should go hand in hand with a strategic national transport policy. The more ground that is conceded to the Nationalists, the greater the calls for independence will become. We won't save the Union by letting the separatists tear it up one root at a time.