Henry Hill

How Unionists can battle against devocrats

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.

This could be the second time the PM has bet against received wisdom on the constitution and won

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.

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