UK Government Ministers can argue with some force that it is impossible to work with the SNP Government to improve the way the Union works given the Scottish Nationalists have no interest in doing so. But what about working with those calling for change who do want it to have a future?
In the last week or so, more proposals for reform of the Union have been made by pro-Union voices. In a debate in the House of Lords, numerous peers set out the need for a better way of working (summarised by the Herald’s Michael Settle). The First Minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford, published an updated version of his 2019 plan “Reforming our Union” on how to build a new culture of shared governance in the UK. Then the mayors of Manchester and the North of Tyne Combined Authority, Andy Burnham and Jamie Driscoll, addressed the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee where both argued that Whitehall continues to have a “blind spot” when it comes to dealing with England’s devolved regions.
A common theme emerges around the need for the government of the Union to re-examine how it convenes and mediates the United Kingdom. Crossbench peer Lord Kerr urged the Prime Minister Boris Johnson to “get round the table with your counterparts (in the devolved nations), settle the structures and make them work.” In its paper, the Welsh Government argued that the big issue thrown up by devolution now was about “how the UK as a whole should be governed, with proper account taken of the interests of all of its parts”. The Union was, it added “a joint project between England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, based on a recognition of our mutual inter-dependence, which therefore requires a degree of shared governance.” Meanwhile in evidence to the Commons, Burnham talked about the lack of “machinery” or “architecture” within the UK state which made it difficult for him as Mayor of Manchester to work with London. Some departments were good, he noted; others not so but there are “no formal protocols” to help guide matters. This doesn’t just apply to his working relationship with London but with other devolved governments: hence the fact that he only got to hear about Nicola Sturgeon’s strange and peremptory ban on Scots visiting Manchester when he read about it in the Guardian a few Saturdays ago.
In summary, the focus of concern among peers and politicians who are examining the state of the nation is less about the division of powers between the centre and the devolved nations and regions, and more about the failure to organise the relationship between the many layers of government which have evolved across the Union over the last two decades. Burnham went briefly through his reading of the history. The Thatcher government in the 80s, he argued, had weakened local government across England. The Labour government in the 90s and 2000s had then decided that Whitehall targets were the way to achieve results. Both had the effect of cementing power, control and authority in London while weakening it outside of the capital. Tory and Labour governments then introduced and expanded devolution in Scotland, England and Wales and, consequently, Whitehall’s command and control culture has run up against some increasingly assertive mayors and First Ministers who argue they are the ones in charge of their own territories, and think Whitehall is there to help them deliver their own mandates and priorities, not the other way around. People can argue the toss about which one is right but ignoring the clash isn’t going to be an option. As Burnham noted: “The genie is out of the bottle, English devolution is out of the bottle.”
A new agreement on intergovernmental relations is expected soon which is expected to tackle some of these matters. But the devolved leaders across the UK are now discussing far more radical issues, such as a new written constitution to try and codify matters and reform of the House of Lords. The Welsh Government argues that a new second chamber should have special responsibility for ensuring that devolved institutions are taken into account in the UK parliament. Burnham agreed, making the point that the current membership of the House of Lords is currently predominantly drawn from within the M25.
None of this is particularly headline grabbing while a pandemic is on nor while football entrances the nation. And it can fairly be argued that governments have always got something better and more urgent to do than long-term reform. But the fact remains that the genie is indeed out of the bottle and, across England, Wales and Scotland, the genie is becoming increasingly noisy. For the Government in Whitehall, this friendly fire from pro-Union figures across the UK urging change and renewal is surely worth listening to.