The Cynic’s Guide To Devolution

Here’s how I see the asymmetric devolution settlement brought in by New Labour in 1998. This may not be terribly original; but it could serve as a useful guide to the cynical politics that has brought us to our present pass.

Scotland-side, there’s the view that devolution, rather than being merely a nationalistic movement for greater political autonomy, if not full independence, was a reaction to the experience of the Thatcher years, when an essentially English-elected Tory government rode rough-shod over the social consensus in Scottish politics, and isolated Scotland economically and politically from the rest of the UK and, indeed, the EU.

All of which may well be true. From the party-political perspective, however, the manner in which New Labour implemented devolution was a self-serving dirty trick. By separating off the governance of Scotland and Wales with respect to traditional public-sector areas such as education, health, social care and transport, Labour thought it could pretty well guarantee that it would remain in power in Scotland and Wales in perpetuity. No more unpopular English Conservative government driving through Tory social policies against the will of the Scottish and Welsh people meant permanent Labour power, or so the thinking went. The Barnett Formula – the fiscal mechanism that ensures that per-capita public expenditure is significantly higher in Scotland and Wales than in England – was the means by which Labour could ensure that its puppet regimes in Holyrood and Cardiff Bay would always have a margin of latitude to pursue more traditional, Old Labour, public expenditure-dependent social policies regardless of the political hue of the Westminster government.

I say that this is regardless of the party in power in Westminster because, at the same time as seeking to perpetuate its grip on power in the Celtic nations through devolution, New Labour was intent on consolidating its ultimate power base – England – by pursuing neo-Thatcherite market reforms of the economy and the public sector, which it believed to be necessary to ensure it continued to enjoy the support of the more Conservative-inclined English electorate. Indeed, it had been vital that a sufficiently large minority of the English electorate should swing from the Tories to New Labour in order for it to secure its landslide election victory of 1997; and a failure to hold on to that support could leave the party vulnerable to being swept away by a large minority vote in favour of the Tories in subsequent elections.

But just to make sure that the government’s real, English power base was doubly protected, New Labour fixed the devolution settlement in such a way that MPs elected from Scottish and Welsh constituencies could still vote on matters which, for their constituencies, had been devolved from Westminster. These were now, therefore, by definition England-only issues. This meant that the government’s majority in England – or, in theoretical future parliaments where Labour did not secure a majority among English MPs, its plurality – could be bolstered by Labour’s Scottish and Welsh MPs. This was effectively a form of gerrymandering: MPs elected in Scotland and Wales, who were not therefore accountable to English voters, could vote on matters affecting England only, thereby unfairly increasing the likelihood that Labour would secure a parliamentary majority over English matters, even if this was not based on a majority of English MPs.

Ironically, the assistance of the Scottish and Welsh Labour MPs to prop up the government’s majority was called upon on only two occasions, when – had the decision been left to English-elected MPs only – the government’s market-orientated reforms for England would have been defeated: the votes on Foundation Hospitals and university tuition fees. It’s this sort of injustice that has infuriated so many English observers: Scottish and Welsh MPs, electoral support for whom was reliant on Labour regimes in their countries pursuing Old Labour policies, helping to foist New Labour policies on England against the wishes of English-elected MPs, including their own Labour colleagues.

The fact that the Labour-controlled or Labour-coalition administrations elected during the first two terms of the Scottish and Welsh Assembly Governments were somewhat slow in rolling out Old Labour-style, social-democratic policies could be attributed to two factors, among others:

  1. The devolved administrations were in fact still subject to the centralised politburo-style control of the national (British) Labour Party, which was determined that Labour should not be seen to be reverting to its old habits of high public expenditure and ideological commitment to the public sector. This was especially the case during New Labour’s first term in office, when it had committed itself to adhering to the Tories’ previously announced spending plans
  2. It is paradoxically in Labour’s interest, or perceived interest, that the areas that are its traditional power bases should remain relatively deprived, socially and economically. The poor vote Labour. So long as decisions affecting Labour’s core supporters in Scotland and Wales were taken by a geographically remote, predominantly English political elite, Labour could portray itself as the defender of the Scottish and Welsh working classes, battling against the odds – and against the English – to get a better deal for them. But if you get self-confident, politically autonomous governments in Scotland and Wales committed to really tackling the social and economic problems of their countries, and creating opportunity and wealth that is not dependent on Westminster patronage, then it is the parties that drive this sort of change that will win the support of voters.

This is now what has begun to happen during the third governments in Scotland and Wales; and it is the nationalists, who are in minority and coalition government in those countries respectively, that are in the driving seat. Inevitably so, because the interests of the Scottish and Welsh people as they see them are at the heart of their policies; unlike Labour, whose power base in Scotland and Wales was reliant on the relative impoverishment of the people and their dependency on Westminster hand-outs, as I have said.

So devolution has really back-fired on New Labour: hoist by their own petard, so to speak. The Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) and Plaid Cymru (the Welsh Nationalists) are taking on the mantle of parties carrying out Old Labour-style social-democratic policies; and, in so doing, they are ironically taking advantage of the higher per-capita spending allowance afforded them by the Barnett Formula that was intended to provide extra leverage for Labour administrations in Scotland and Wales to pursue traditional Labour policies, even if a Tory government was in charge at Westminster. Meanwhile, the really considerable extra benefits that people are enjoying in Scotland and Wales as a result of the Barnett Formula (and good luck to them) – such as free university tuition and cancer drugs in Scotland, and no prescription charges in Wales, among others – have naturally provoked growing envy and outrage on the part of many English people. Apart from these inequalities violating basic principles of fairness (along with the democratic deficit described above), the resentment people feel about these benefits being provided to their Scottish and Welsh brethren but denied to them, merely on the basis of their postcode, could be said to reveal that the English are maybe not quite as enamoured with the Market as New Labour has always thought, and that they feel the public sector should be providing more than it is.

In other words, market-orientated, Conservative England is rejecting New Labour not so much because it has failed to deliver on the promise of economic prosperity that was made, but because people feel that they should have been given some of the fruits of that prosperity while it lasted, in terms of a generous public sector giving back to them some of their hard-earned taxes – which, instead, they feel are being siphoned off to Scotland and Wales. So ‘Conservative England’ may be moving back over to support for the Conservative Party not because people favour market-orientated economic and social policies traditionally espoused by the Tories, but out of rejection of those same policies, which New Labour has applied so unequally across the different countries of the UK for purely self-serving, political reasons. This is, incidentally, perhaps the real reason for the general impression at the moment that support for the Tories is based more on rejection of Labour, not endorsement of traditional Conservative policies.

In view of which, the Tories might do well to position themselves as so-called ‘one-nation’ Conservatives: liberal Tories who accept there is an important role for a well but prudently funded public sector. But, thanks to New Labour, that one nation can now be only England. Labour has created autonomous centres of political power in Scotland and Wales which, like the monster Frankenstein, have turned on their creator and former master. In this sense, the Scottish and Welsh governments may have outgrown the party-political objectives that New Labour had in mind when it devised them. But they have answered to the original inspiration behind devolution: the Scottish and Welsh people will now no longer have to bear the full brunt of an unpopular English conservative government – whether that government is Labour or Tory. If a Cameron-led Conservative Westminster government does try to rein in the Scottish and Welsh administrations and limit their room for manoeuvre by, for instance, reducing or eliminating altogether the Barnett differentials, this will only stir up the same sort of rebellious sentiment that inspired devolution in the first place; and the pressure for full independence may then become irresistible.

In that way, Scotland and Wales could opt out of an unpopular Conservative, or indeed Labour, government that was inimical to them. Good for them, I say. But what of England? Would even an independent England – after the secession of Scotland and Wales from the Union – still have to put up with minority-elected Labour or Tory governments commanding the full sovereign power of absolute parliamentary majorities? Where do we the English go to get away from unrepresentative governments that pursue their own ideological and party-political agendas with scant respect or concern for the English people? We can’t exactly get devolution or independence from ourselves!

The ultimate dirty trick of the Westminster political class could then be to perpetuate its own unrepresentative system of power even after the break up of the UK: same old first-past-the-post voting system, disproportionate majorities, and executive elected dictatorship. Which is why all people who are concerned about democratic fairness for England, and who seek fundamental constitutional reform, need to think ahead about the kind of England they want to create after the imbalanced post-devolution house of cards finally implodes. Let’s start pushing, campaigning and thinking about our democratic future; and not mortgage it to the political bets of self-serving parties. After all, New Labour has already tried and failed to gamble English money and goodwill in order to keep winning in Scotland and Wales. What price will the big parties not pay, at our expense, to hold on to the only real power base they have left: England?

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9 Responses

  1. New Labour inherited the commitment to devolution. There’s an interesting anecdote relating to the pollster Philip Gould. He was sent to Wales to conduct a couple of focus groups with Welsh Labour members shortly before the referendum vote in 1997. During the journey to north Wales he commented to the Welsh Labour staff member accompanying him, “Of course, you realise this isn’t part of the project”.
    Far from planning UK-wide dominance as the ‘conspiracy’ goes, New Labour hadn’t really put a great deal of thought into devolution – far too busy thinking about ‘Middle England’.

    The narrative fails to mention the ‘defenestration’ of Alun Michael, the first First Secretary (as then) of the National Assembly for Wales, aka ‘Blair’s poodle’, in 2000 and his replacement by Rhodri ‘man of the people’ Morgan. Following that bloody nose, Blair rapidly lost interest in trying to ‘control’ Welsh devolution.

    The idea that divergent policy has been led by the nationalists could also be challenged. It was in Aberystwyth in 2002 that Rhodri Morgan made his ‘clear red water’ speech. And the free prescription policy was a Welsh Labour policy which predated that speech.

  2. I once saw a bloke wearing a T shirt with the inscription: “A Cynic is what an Idealist calls a Realist”. There is nothing cynical about this article at all – as far as I can guage it is an entirely factual and accurate account of what has actually happened.

  3. HIstory is just that – history; so who did what and when is immaterial. What is needed now is democratic parity for England. If the English are denied the right to govern themselves in domestic issues without the interference of the politicians of Wales, NI or Scotland -just as the people of Wales, NI and Scotland do now – then the whole pack of cards will eventually come tumbling down.

    The logical solution is a federated system, with individual domestic parliaments and a UK wide parliament for such items as defence, foreign policy etc. If it were weighted to ensure equal representation is should work, but I doubt any of the major parties would agree to that.

  4. Thanks, Zenobia – couldn’t have put it better myself!

  5. Scotland and Wales are not “Celtic nations”. Why is this myth perpetrated? You have to be white to be a Celt!

    I’m half-Scots by the way and white – but a look at my mother’s family tree reveals she is far from being a “Celt” – and her family have been in Scotland for hundreds of years.

    Why is this “Celtic” myth never challenged? I think it’s exclusive and racist.

  6. I agree with Zenobia to a certain extent – it’s where we are now that ultimately matters. However I don’t think you can totally disregard New Labour’s relationship with devolution and how this influences the current debate.

    As one Welsh commentator pointed out, there was always a paradox at the heart of New Labour: it devolved power within the United Kingdom (including London) yet at the same time sought to centralise power within the party itself and exert an iron discipline in order to control events.

    New Labour’s tardiness in responding to English concerns following the rejection of its proposed settlement for England, to me, reflects the low priority it has always afforded devolution.

  7. Yes David, and no more cynical than necessary in face of the political spin bowlers! Some points for your consideration:

    Barnett, if left to work through would have seen the gradual convergence of pro rata redistribution. It was the politicians who topped-up and distorted the outcome: in Northern Ireland to buy peace through prosperity; in Scotland as cash back for votes.

    Discounting oil, all parts of the UK are net beneficiaries of the tax and spend take except for the London & SE area net contributer, arguably the City State we all service so that it might since financial services were placed at the heart of our economy……

    The N Ireland, Scotland and Wales are in a de-facto federation under the ersatz decentralisation that is devolution. England is governed directly from the centre. However, the UK cannot be a de-jure federation as Union and unitary are mutually exclusive.

    On the other hand, a confederal “Union of the Isles” uniquely would accommodate Independence and Union in a win-win outcome for all our nations of families and friends and family of friendly nations.

    Aye Ours,
    Keith, frae Fife and Yorkshire, for Independence & Union

  8. Apologies David in not adding that i admire your intent and support your reason for so doing. Others may have set off on the road to a better constitutional future first, but it is a journey we need to make together as how we get there could be as important as our preferred destination/s.

  9. Scotland doesn’t get higher amount if you calcualte the total spent by the uk and scottish government on scotland you would see that scotland gets just exactly how much it raises in tax like england the only difference is our government spends it in a better way than the westminster government spends it in england if your un happy with it vote for a government that spends the english share in the same way and by the way we dont get english money in case you fogot scots pay taxes too we pay to national debt like england and we get spent on us the amount we raise in tax just like england does just yous spend it differently down there than we do up here!

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