Henry Hill: Conservatives explore plans to buy off SNP with… yet more powers

22 Oct

Tories draw up plans to ‘buy off’ SNP referendum demands

Ever since New Labour first set up the devolved legislatures in Scotland and Wales, there has only been one game in town when it comes to how to defeat the nationalists and hold the United Kingdom together: “more powers”.

It’s fair to say that it hasn’t worked so far. In the just over two decades since the advent of the Scottish Parliament, for example, the SNP have gone from a marginal force to a political hegemon and independence from a minority pursuit to, at best, a parity position in public opinion. In Wales, meanwhile, the Senedd is brute-forcing nationalist sentiment out of the most incoherent foundations.

Yet the sheer weight of intellectual inertia that has built up behind devolution is such that it remains, despite everything, the reflex response to political difficulty, and this week Bloomberg revealed that this Government might be no exception. They have reportedly seen a memo drawn up by Hanbury, a consultancy working with the Government on the separatist problem, which suggests adopting a policy of ‘accomodation’ to forestall a second independence referendum:

“The government should instead focus on a “Four Nations, One Country” policy by transferring further financial powers, differentiation on policies connected to the EU vote, such as immigration. The document says that the new settlement will be the subject of another paper.”

It goes without saying that there is no mention anywhere in the piece of policies to give effect to the ‘One Country’ part by re-asserting Westminster’s rightful prerogatives as the seat of this country’s sovereign, national government, in the manner of the UK Internal Market Bill.

All of this comes as Michael Gove pledged this week to ‘reset’ relations with the devolved administrations, which have deteriorated in the course of the coronavirus pandemic. According to the FT, this will take the form of ‘institutional’ reforms to improve inter-governmental communication rather than new powers (although it may well just preparing the ground for the concessions envisioned by Hanbury).

This will please Scottish business organisations, which have reportedly urged Westminster and Holyrood to end the ‘stand-off’ over Brexit as the negotiations enter the closing straight.

Stephen Daisley has a great piece for the Spectator outlining why Westminster’s retreat-to-victory approach to the Union is so, so wrong, and I explored similar issues in a recent piece for These Islands on the folly of federalism. If a Government with a majority of 80 really feels it needs more than “once in a generation” to refuse a second referendum, better arguments are available.

Reckless joins ‘Abolish the Assembly’ as ex-UKIPs MSs set up new group

It has become a source of visible irritation to a section of the Welsh devocracy how often the MSs (formerly AMs) who were elected under UKIP’s banner in 2016 have re-organised themselves in the years since.

UKIP broke through in Wales with seven AMs, but the group was almost immediately riven by internal power struggles. Following the decline of UKIP it has splintered yet further, with some joining the Brexit Party before that too ran out of steam. Now the ‘unionist right’ of Welsh politics is dividing over another question: whether or not to abolish the Senedd altogether.

This week, Mark Reckless became the second MS to defect to Abolish the Assembly, the leading devosceptic party (which despite initial refusal is apparently now going to rebrand to reflect the institution’s new name). It will be interesting to see whether this means they will adopt his preferred solution: Reckless doesn’t favour full re-integration, but rather an arrangement wherein Wales’ devolved competencies are exercised by MPs.

Abolish face competition for the abolitionist vote with Neil Hamilton, the sole MS still sitting under the UKIP banner, who has set up his own ‘Scrap the Welsh Assembly’ campaign – a reminder of the personality clashes which have dogged the UKIP caucus. Meanwhile three other ex-Brexit Party MSs have set up the Independent Alliance for Reform, who has the aim suggests are opposed to getting rid of devolution (and with it, of course, their own roles).

Reckless’ defection will give Abolish a high-profile front-man for the upcoming devolved elections and could make them more dangerous to the Conservatives, whose leadership have been firefighting outbreaks of anti-devolution sentiment amongst the grassroots for months.

All of this comes amidst fresh tensions over the Welsh Government’s anti-Covid-19 strategy. As Guido reports, Mark Drakeford has tried to bounce Westminster into stumping up the cash for his ‘firebreak’ lockdown by announcing it before securing sufficient funding. This is a repeat of tensions we saw between the Scottish Government and the Treasury earlier in the pandemic, and is starting to spark calls for the devolved governments to ‘pay for their own lockdowns‘.

Commentary

  • Unionists must stop playing by separatists’ rules – Stephen Daisley, The Spectator
  • A fundamental misunderstanding – Ian Smart, Blog
  • Where is the media scrutiny of Labour in Wales? – Matt Smith, ConservativeHome
  • The little-known £5 billion subsidy which helps unravel the RHI riddle – Sam McBride, News Letter
  • The Prime Minister must not resign himself to the union’s demise – Jeremy Warner, Daily Telegraph
  • Can Unionists better game Scotland’s two vote electoral system than the Nats? – Graham Stewart, The Critic
  • Wales has never been a nation – Polly Mackenzie, UnHerd
  • Why are the devolved nations so ungrateful? – Toby Young, The Spectator

The Tories’ hard pivot against the Cardiff Bay establishment reveals the power of Welsh devoscepticism

25 Jul

Back in May, I wrote about how the widening cracks within the Welsh Conservatives risked undermining their bid to capitalise on strong polling and deliver historic gains at next year’s devolved elections, with devolution becoming ‘Europe 2.0’.

Not only did a section of the grassroots appear to be getting much more vocal on the question, but the Party faced the prospect of being outflanked on its right by parties formally adopting a devosceptic agenda.

Despite what I was hearing from the rank and file, more senior sources – including some not personally ill-disposed towards devoscepticism – assured me there was nothing to see. This was a perennial debate amongst the membership, yes, but they expected everyone to fall into line in the end.

Two months on and it appears that the leadership may have been more spooked than this analysis suggested.

Paul Davies is nobody’s idea of a revolutionary. But following a ‘relaunch of his leadership’ in March in which he took aim at the Assembly gravy train’, the Welsh Conservatives have adopted a much more strident tone on the question. Davies now says Wales needs a ‘devolution revolution‘ – you can listen to the speech here – and has even gone so far as to say Cardiff Bay needs a “dose of Dom”.

Meanwhile Darren Millar MS, the power behind the Tory throne, has trained the Party’s guns on the devocracy (although of course not using the term).

Writing on Gwydir, the blog of the Cardiff University Conservatives, he promises a cull the algal bloom of quangos (“cronies and hangers-on in civic society”) which has spread across the stagnant waters of Cardiff Bay under two decades of unbroken Labour rule. Or to drain the swamp, as it were.

Yet perhaps the spiciest passage is the one which really drives home that this is no gradual evolution, but a definite and deliberate shift in approach:

“Over the summer the process of developing a full first draft of the Welsh Conservative manifesto will be completed and I can assure you that it won’t be Butskellism with a dragon on it. The days when you could take paragraphs from a Welsh Conservative manifesto and slot them randomly into documents by Plaid or Labour or the Lib Dems are over.”

That is a barb with a target, and it is clearly causing some unease amongst the devophile wing. David Melding, a retiring MS of pronounced nationalist sympathies, hit back on Twitter, but it feels suddenly as if he’s sailing against the wind. ‘Ever looser Union’ no longer looks like an inevitable future.

None of this is to say that the current leadership has converted to devoscepticism. It certainly has not, and Millar especially is viewed by devosceptics as something of a witchfinder-general on the constitutional question. The ferocity of the response to Daniel Kawczynski’s call for the Senedd’s abolition is a better indicator of their true feelings on that fundamental question.

But they have clearly concluded that it is no longer sufficient simply to have the whips machine-gun the parapet and force people to keep their heads down. Devoscepticism is a constituency, and the question is breaking out whether they like it or not. Candidates are penning pieces criticising devolution.

One has even gone so far as to suggest, in a piece for the Centre for Welsh Studies, that the Party is approaching a make-or-break moment:

“In next year’s Senedd Elections I see the future of Wales at a crossroads and my view is clear: if Conservative policies cannot deliver the positive changes we need to see to drive forward improvements in our public services, infrastructure and economy then we must campaign for a different settlement. That settlement would not include a Senedd.”

Given how recently devoscepticism was anathematised by the Party hierarchy, it’s remarkable that someone aiming for office should feel able even to hold out the prospect of opposing devolution.

Their framing, however, reflects that of the leadership. In materials from a recent strategy session, seen by ConHome, Tory strategists included the slogan “Abolish Labour, not devolution”. The goal is evidently to harness mounting dissatisfaction with Cardiff Bay and channel it towards a Conservative programme, rather than abolition.

But is this feasible? The Party is acting as if it were. Notwithstanding their polling, their operation includes a concerted effort to mobilise the hundreds of thousands of Tory voters who turn out to consistently deliver it second place at Westminster contests but ignore devolved ones, leaving it bumping along at roughly level pegging with the Welsh Nationalists.

Were the Conservatives to hit their goal of getting 75 per cent of their 2019 vote (557,234) to turn out next year, it would give them almost 418,000 votes. For comparison, they took just 190,846 in 2016. Indeed Labour, which took 29 seats at that contest, only won just over 319,000 votes in that election.

But is this goal realistic? We have covered the gulf between the two Welsh Conservative electorates several times since 2018. Last year, I explained that “‘leaning in’ to the devolutionary status quo and trying to align themselves as possible coalition partners with Plaid Cymru” made it impossible for the Tories to motivate their devosceptic stay-at-home voters.

On this front, the tough new rhetoric and rumoured shift in stance against governing with other parties is a good start. Operationally, the Conservatives also have an advantage in that they have the data to know where these voters are. The various parties scrapping for the anti-Senedd vote will need time to build up their own electoral intelligence.

But it still seems a long shot, not least because any strategy built on mobilising non-voters always is (ask Jeremy Corbyn). There is also a danger that the Tories might rouse these slumbering dragons only for them to plump for Abolish, even if just for the regional vote, once they get to the polling station.

It also seems unlikely that the Conservatives could marshal hundreds of thousands of new voters without provoking some kind of response from the the Left. There are a good number of Labour voters who don’t turn out for Cardiff Bay too – will they stay idle if it looks like the Tories might be about to take power?

There also remains a big question mark over whether the leadership would really turn out an opportunity to turf Labour out, after so long, even if the price were a compact with Plaid.

A big win next year might slice this strategic Gordian Knot. But should this plan fail, and grassroots Conservatives despair of ever taking power in the Senedd, it seems likely that pressure will continue to build for an even more devosceptic position.

Some in Wales are already suggesting that, notwithstanding efforts to keep them off the lists, it may not be long until an anti-Senedd candidate contests and even wins the leadership. The alternative could be the slow bleed of activists and councillors to Abolish growing to a haemorrhage.

Henry Hill: Reserving control of ‘level playing field’ provisions to Westminster should be just the first step

16 Jul

Government’s fight over post-Brexit powers is late, but welcome

The big constitutional story this week is the news that the Government is squaring up to the devolved administrations over control of vital ex-EU powers.

According to the Financial Times, Boris Johnson intends to retain control over ‘level playing field’ provisions and state aid at Westminster, in order to prevent different parts of the United Kingdom undermining each other. This has revived specious claims by Edinburgh and Cardiff that London is engaged in a ‘power grab’, seizing powers which are rightfully theirs.

The Scottish Conservatives have come out fighting for the pro-UK position: Ruth Davidson has penned an op-ed in the Evening Standard supporting the move. Douglas Ross, who recently resigned from the Scottish Office, challenged the SNP on this basis:

“If it is a power grab there most be powers currently held by the Scottish Parliament, enacted by the Scottish Government on behalf of the people of Scotland that we the UK Government are taking away.”

Luke Graham, the former MP for Ochil and South Perthshire and now head of Downing Street’s Union Unit, has taken the same line: that these powers have never been devolved (indeed Holyrood was only established after many were already vested in Brussels), so there is no attack on devolution.

This is a welcome shift in position. During the pivotal clash over the misnamed “post-Brexit devolved powers” in 2017 and 2018, several leading Scottish Tories were at the forefront of the campaign to force the Government to scrap the part of the Withdrawal Bill safeguarding ex-EU powers in Westminster. Indeed, senior MSPs lent credence to the ‘power grab’ claim.

Defenders of Section 11 of the Withdrawal Bill, as-was, advanced detailed arguments about the dangers posed by ceding powers necessary to harmonise a common market below the highest level of political authority in that market, and were met with little more than airy rhetoric about the “spirit of devolution”.

Whilst some, such as the Institute for Government, believe the new, more centralised approach is “not a sustainable long-term strategy”, in fact the reverse is true.

It is not sustainable to continue trying to deliver pan-UK rules whilst bending over backwards to avoid our pan-UK institutions setting and enforcing them. It should be taken as read that any devolved administration committed to breaking up Britain will exploit any opportunity to foul up the proper functioning of the UK common market, whether that be through setting different standards or exploiting new consultation and dispute-resolution mechanisms as platforms for grievance.

Any power previously exercised at the EU level should, by default, be executed at the UK level. They were, after all, passed upwards for a reason. Ministers should re-acquaint themselves with the arguments over Section 11, and consider casting their powers net much wider yet.

Separatists attempt to game Holyrood elections with new party

An ex-SNP MSP has set up a new pro-independence party, with the aim of hugely inflating the number of separatist MSPs returned at the next Holyrood elections.

STV reports that the Alliance for Independence anticipates that it might win up to 24 MSPs by running exclusively for the Scottish Parliament’s ‘list’ constituencies.

Under the Scottish electoral system, voters cast two ballots: one for their geographical first-part-the-post constituency, and another for a regional list. When the parties contest both, the list vote is used to ‘top up’ those parties which under-performed under FPTP and ensure something resembling a proportional outcome.

But if the Alliance for Independence only contest list seats, and SNP voters lend it their support en masse, it could result in the ‘official Nationalists’ winning most of the constituencies and the ‘unofficial nationalists’ a huge share of the list, resulting in a chamber in which the unionist parties were seriously under-represented compared to their vote.

Some commentators, such as Kenny Farquharson, have argued that this would undermine the legitimacy of the resulting parliament – a possible boon to the Government if it truly intends to resist calls for a second referendum (as it should). Rory Scothorne, writing on a pro-independence site, sums up the approach as ‘magical thinking’.

There may also be more to the AfI than gerry-mandering. The SNP civil war, which David Leask profiled a couple of months ago, rages on. A new separatist party could provide a rallying point for Nicola Sturgeon’s internal opponents and provide a vehicle for Alex Salmond’s latest re-entry into politics.

On the other side of the argument, George Galloway is carving himself a space in unionist politics with the launch of his new ‘Alliance for Unity’. Based on the Scottish branch of his new Workers Party of Britain, it will provide a vehicle for his particular brand of energetic, left-wing unionism.

Galloway’s decision to return to Scotland and contest elections there might be bad news for Scottish Labour, the ailing giant of the left-unionist quadrant of Scottish politics. But who knows, perhaps the WPB will confine itself to the lists…

Brexit Party shift to anti-Senedd stance

There is now a three-way battle for the votes of Wales’ sizeable devosceptic minority. Mark Reckless, the leader of the Brexit Party’s MS group, has made it his party’s policy to scrap the Senedd.

Whilst differing in detail from the position of rival groups – Reckless’ plan is to hand the Welsh Parliament’s powers to Welsh MPs, rather than wholesale reintegration – this puts him in contention both with the rump of UKIP, led by Neil Hamilton, and the new Abolish the Welsh Assembly Party.

Dividing this vote, which is already reluctant to even turn out for devolved contests, may provide a short-term boost to the Conservatives. But should one of the three emerge triumphant it could pose a serious threat on the Tories’ right-unionist flank.

Op-eds:

  • Sunak was right to bypass the SNP with UK-wide splurge – Alan Cochrane, Daily Telegraph
  • Devolution is dragging the UK’s economic recovery down – Matt Smith, CapX
  • Six things the Conservatives need to do now – Andrew Waddell, The Majority
  • The Union is in graver danger than ever – James Forsyth, The Spectator
  • Stand up for the Union or lose it – Stephen Daisley, Website
  • Sturgeon’s quarantine threat is an anti-English dog whistle – Henry Hill, Daily Telegraph

Henry Hill: Sturgeon sets out plan to ‘unlock’ Scotland… one day before England

25 Jun

Sturgeon unveils timetable for ‘mass unlocking’ of Scotland

Nicola Sturgeon is planning a major easing of lockdown restrictions, the Daily Telegraph reports, including lifting a five-mile travel limit and opening up access to holiday homes.

In proper devocrat fashion, this new regime will kick in one Friday, July 3rd – the day before Boris Johnson’s own changes take effect south of the border.

This comes as the Scottish Government faces continuing criticism over its handling of schools, with its plans for so-called ‘blended learning’ coming under attack from both the press and SNP politicians. Scientists have also attacked the evidence base (or lack thereof) underpinning Nicola Sturgeon’s approach to lockdown.

(The Welsh Government is not doing any better, with their Education Secretary unable to say when schools will reopen and likewise committed to ‘blended learning’.)

Local government in the spotlight

The Scotsman reports that several Scottish councils are facing severe financial black holes as a result of the pandemic. Three council have deficits adding up to hundreds of pounds per resident – the highest is £411 – which adds up to hundreds of millions of pounds in total.

This is the latest twist in a long-running battle between the Nationalist administration at Holyrood and Scottish local government. Arch-centralisers, the SNP have been using Scottish Government financial support to reduce the independence of councils.

In Wales, meanwhile, the Centre for Welsh Studies has published a new report which suggests that the Shared Prosperity Fund – the UK-administered scheme which will replace EU funding post-Brexit – should be administered by Westminster and local councils, rather than being handed to the Senedd.

This proposal will doubtless outrage the devocrats, who are consistently opposed to letting Westminster control UK-level policy in the way that Brussels controls EU-level policy. But if the SPF is to become an instrument for strengthening the Union, keeping it out of devocrat hands is essential.

DUP again press Johnson on post-Brexit border arrangements

Their moment in the Commons sun may have passed, but the Democratic Unionists are still trying to hold the Prime Minister’s feet to the fire over his promises to Northern Ireland.

Speaking at yesterday’s PMQs, Sammy Wilson challenged Boris Johnson over the fact that the Port of Larne is reportedly making preparations for extensive customs infrastructure, ready to receive shipping from the British mainland.

In response, the Prime Minister said that “I can tell him absolutely, categorically that there will be no new customs infrastructure”, citing the Withdrawal Agreement’s recognition that Ulster remains inside the British customs territory.

Abolish the Assembly get their first MS

After a few months of growing media attention, following some good poll showings and the defection of their first councillor, the Abolish the Welsh Assembly Party (‘Abolish’) have secured their first representative in that institution.

Gareth Bennett, an independent MS who previously served as leader of UKIP’s Assembly group, has now signed up to the group. (And if you want an idea of why devosceptics might be rare in Welsh political life, check out the extraordinarily aggressive interview he got from Wales Online).

Apparently Abolish, which recently launched a membership programme, will consider it a good result if they win three seats at the next Senedd poll.

(In other devosceptic news, I spoke to David Leask at the Herald on Sunday about why opposition to devolution appears to be waxing during Covid-19. Most of my section seems to be missing from the online version, but it may return.)