The Prime Minister being ‘frustrated, angry and upset’ is no basis for Lords reform

1 Aug

Although eclipsed by the decision to delay the latest round of lockdown easing, last Friday’s Daily Telegraph carried a troubling story about the Prime Minister and the House of Lords.

No, not his proposals to move them to York – although these remain the height of folly – but the claim that he is considering an overhaul of how new peers are appointed after getting several of his nominations knocked back at the last minute.

From the start, this Government has expressed a keen interest in constitutional issues, although following the shelving of their mooted Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission it isn’t clear what shape that interest will take. But this story highlights the dangers of an uncoordinated, unsystematic approach. This is how the Telegraph describes it:

“Boris Johnson is understood to be furious after he was blocked from giving peerages to some of the Conservative Party’s financial backers, and is threatening to reform the House of Lords in retaliation.

“The Prime Minister is said to be “very frustrated, angry and upset” after a Lords watchdog refused to sign off peerages for some of his business supporters this summer.”

Surely Downing Street can see the danger here. There may well be grounds for reforming the way we appoint peers, or other aspects of the Upper House. There may also be a case for bolstering the ranks of the Conservative benches, although this is less pressing with a large Commons majority and in any event only hastens the day when someone will have to confront the unsustainable pattern of parties having to bid up the number of peers after every change of government.

But such changes will never attain widespread legitimacy if it looks as if they have been imposed purely to aid Boris Johnson in appointing Tory donors to the red benches (although these are still better than some of his successful choices).

If the Government really is going to mount a serious push on the constitutional front – and it is past time that it did – then ministers must take pains to ensure that their proposals cannot be fairly painted as straightforward partisan game-playing. When listing the reasons for altering the arrangements in Parliament, the courts, or elsewhere, ‘the Prime Minister is upset’ should not even feature.

Henry Hill: If Gove and Johnson want to save Britain, they’re going to have to use the word ‘Britain’

30 Jul

Gove digs out Better Together’s greatest hits as Davidson heads to the Lords

Michael Gove has been in Scotland this week, fronting a new push by the Cabinet to raise the Government’s profile north of the border ahead of next year’s Holyrood vote – with a particular focus on the under-35s.

Following polls which suggest that independence is not a priority for the Scottish electorate, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has said that he will not be ‘distracted’ by those showing majority support for breaking up Britain.

He has also adopted an identifiable style – perhaps informed by Downing Street polling – which appears to be setting the tone for the pro-UK effort. It includes repeatedly stressing that devolution is not only ‘working’ but, in a phrase dredged up from 2014, offers “the best of both worlds”.

As I wrote for the Daily Telegraph this week, this is a tactical position with huge strategic dangers. The insistence that ‘devolution is working‘ makes it difficult to attack the SNP’s many failures, or to answer the separatists when they pose the simple question of why, if Holyrood is using all these powers so well, should it not have even more?

Worse still, Gove’s article for the Times makes repeated references to the “four nations” and “different nations” of the UK, but doesn’t mention ‘Britain’ or ‘British’ once. It bodes ill for any effort to build an ’emotional case’ for the Union if Cabinet ministers dare not speak the nation’s name.

Ruth Davidson, however, has struck a different note to this softly-softly approach, suggesting that Unionists should have been more combative and “put the boot in” to the SNP in the aftermath of the 2014 vote. This comes as the Press & Journal reports SNP fears that she is being elevated to the Lords to launch high-profile attacks on them (surely a reasonable assumption).

With the Government preparing to face down the Scottish Government over control of the British internal market, and another row brewing over the proposed ‘Shared Prosperity Fund’, the best that can be hoped is that Gove is speaking softly so as not to draw attention to a big, big stick. Or boot.

New parties shaking up the unionist and separatist camps in Scotland

With the possibility of a second independence referendum possibly riding on the results of next year’s Scottish Parliament elections (although it shouldn’t), the stakes are extremely high – and have tempted new entrants into the ring.

In the nationalist corner is the new Alliance for Independence. This has been set up with the express intention of gaming Holyrood’s electoral system by contesting only the list vote, attracting vast numbers of SNP second preferences, and delivering a separatist supermajority next year.

However it has already become a locus for deeper tensions within the independence movement, with Nationalist figures dissatisfied with Nicola Sturgeon’s safety-first strategy rallying to its defence. There are also concerns that it could become a vehicle for Alex Salmond to stage his next comeback.

(On a related note, the Daily Record reports that the Scottish Government is set to miss an important deadline for turning over documents to the inquiry into the debacle with the former First Minister.)

On the pro-UK side, meanwhile, is George Galloway’s Alliance 4 Unity. This is an explicitly ecumenical effort, distinct from his Workers Party GB: he has openly stated that he will work with Tories in the name of defeating the SNP, and attracted candidates from a range of backgrounds to stand under the A4U banner.

Despite that, Galloway’s big opening might be on the left, exploiting the gap in the market created by the moribund Scottish Labour Party (more below) and wooing Lab-Nat switchers tempted by the radical promises of independence supporters.

Crack in DUP unity as Foster spurs rebellion over Stormont changes

A major crack in the discipline of the Democratic Unionist Party appeared this week, when Arlene Foster found herself facing the largest Stormont rebellion in the Party’s history.

The revolt was staged over a controversial bill intended to give increased powers to individual ministers in Northern Ireland’s power-sharing executive, the News Letter reports. The move has been pushed through by the DUP and Sinn Fein, whilst being opposed by the Ulster Unionists.

Senior DUP figures have accused the First Minister of trading away important safeguards secured for Unionism at previous negotiations. Outside observers have also suggested that it will increase the exposure of Executive decisions to legal challenge.

If this comes to pass, it will join the St Andrews Agreement in the line of Stormont fouling itself up with self-directed reform.

BBC urged to drop Sturgeon’s ‘political broadcasts’

The BBC has been urged to stop broadcasting Nicola Sturgeon’s coronavirus press briefings on the basis that she is using them for party political purposes.

According to the HeraldScottish Labour have demanded a meeting with the head of BBC Scotland and claim that the broadcasts are “in breach of the Charter of the BBC”. The Tories have made the same claim – in their case slightly awkwardly, as the Prime Minister is in the process of trying to set up a similar press briefing at Westminster.

Sturgeon has been accused of misrepresenting Scotland’s Covid-19 statistics, and downplaying the scandal in Scottish care homes revealed by the BBC.

Labour veteran calls on Leonard to step down ‘for the Party’

Lord Foulkes has called on Richard Leonard, the leader of the Scottish Labour Party, to step aside ahead of next year’s Scottish Parliament electons, the Daily Record reports.

The peer, a former MP and MSP, suggests that Jackie Baillie, the punchy and relatively right-wing deputy leader, could take over on an interim basis for the 2021 campaign.

Leonard is a left-winger who was a close ally of Jeremy Corbyn. His leadership has seen a fresh waning in the Party’s fortunes, losing all but one of its MPs (again) at the 2019 election and fifth place at the final European elections. Labour are currently bumping along at 15 per cent in the Holyrood polls.

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.

Remainers cannot re-write history: it is Covid-19, not Brexit, that challenges the Union

24 Jul

During the EU referendum campaign, it was an article of faith amongst Remainers that a vote to stay in the EU was a vote to protect the Union.

Brexiteer unionists, including those of us who wrote on the subject for this site, were accused of allowing our preoccupation with Europe to put at risk the very existence of the United Kingdom.

There are few excuses for continuing to indulge this myth in 2020. But such is its extraordinary staying power that Lewis Goodall, of Newsnight, has accrued thousands of likes for a short Twitter thread extolling this decayed orthodoxy.

This is undoubtedly a challenging period for the UK. But trying to stretch the fallout from Covid-19 to retrospectively validate the Remain position on the Union is re-writing history. So let’s set the record straight, again.

First, one can only assume that when Goodall writes that “few answers were/are forthcoming” from Brexiteer unionists about the potential impact of leaving the EU, he is not an assiduous reader of this site. We set out detailed cases for why voters should be sceptical about the doom-laden predictions of the Remain campaign in relation both to Scotland and to Wales.

Our central point was that EU membership actually made it much easier to break up the Union, both by providing a high ceiling for ongoing relations and legal harmonisation post-divorce and by laundering British cash (as a net contributor) back into Scotland and Wales as ‘EU funds’.

Disagree with this if you wish – people did – but it is therefore simply inaccurate to claim that there wasn’t a perfectly serviceable unionist justification for Brexit.

Moreover, in the years since this was borne out by events. Nicola Sturgeon came out hard for a second referendum the morning after the referendum but soon found herself beached, marooned by the failure of Scottish public opinion to follow her cue.

In fact (and again, as we covered at the time) the SNP went on to become a committed partner in the ‘Stop Brexit’ coalition precisely because they recognised how difficult Britain’s departure from the EU would make their project. The key quotation again:

“Labour could well find an ally in the Scottish Nationalists. A senior SNP figure told me this week that Scottish independence all but depends on Brexit being cancelled: without the economic safety net of the single market, Scots won’t risk a leap out of the UK. Only a second EU vote could provide that reassurance.”

The fact that more recent circumstances, specifically the massive pandemic, have revived the SNP’s fortunes should not mean that Remainers get to throw the above down the memory hole and re-write 2016-19 to bolster their original, threadbare thesis.

Henry Hill: Davies touts ‘devolution revolution’ as the Welsh Tories try to shield their unionist flank

23 Jul

Davies says Wales needs a ‘devolution revolution’

The leader of the Welsh Conservatives has pledged a ‘devolution revolution’ and to give Cardiff Bay a ‘dose of Dom’ in his latest bid to avoid being outflanked by organised devoscepticism.

ITV Wales reports that Paul Davies made the remarks in a ‘virtual speech’ – available on YouTube – to Conservative activists ahead of next year’s elections to the Welsh Parliament.

Other sources report that the Welsh Tories’ new election strategy aims at tackling the long-standing problem this column has covered previously: mobilising Conservative voters who only vote at Westminster and in local elections to turn out for the Senedd. As I wrote two years ago:

“Secondly, both candidates would do well to address the severe disadvantage their Party suffers because hundreds of thousands of its voters do not vote in devolved elections. In 2016 the Tories polled just 215,000 votes, compared to over 400,000 in 2015 and almost 530,000 in 2017.”

Tory strategists have now set themselves the target of mobilising 75 per cent of their general election vote (557,234 in 2019) for the devolved contest, which if successful would almost double their 2016 vote to just under 418,000. For comparison, Labour’s majority-winning Senedd vote in 2016 was just under 354,000.

All this is the latest evidence that the advent of organised opposition to the Welsh Parliament is already shifting the balance of power inside the Conservative Party. The leadership remains firmly in the hands of the ‘devophiles’, but their new slogan – ‘Abolish Labour, not devolution’ – suggests they fear they’re on borrowed time.

Johnson funds research for the ‘Boris Bridge’ as he steps up campaigning in Scotland

News that the Prime Minister intends to embark on a tour of Scotland has probably not brought unconfined joy to unionists north of the border, but it remains infinitely preferable that he fights the good fight than not.

Following a week in which the Government squared up to the devolved administrations over the future of post-Brexit market regulations (with very good reason, and as we covered last week), this morning’s papers carry several stories on Boris Johnson’s pro-UK fightback, with the role of the Treasury in supporting the Scottish economy through the pandemic front and centre.

He has also apparently approved funds for a feasibility study into his proposal for the ‘Boris Bridge’ between Scotland and Northern Ireland. It still seems extremely unlikely it will be built, however, especially once the Government has to start making cuts to pay for all the Covid-19 spending.

MPs set up new ‘Union Research Group’

More evidence that the Tories are marshalling their forces in the Times this week, which covered the emergence of the new Conservative Union Research Group.

This new body is chaired by Robin Millar, the MP for Aberconwy, and aims to bring together backbench MPs to help support the Government as it prepares to take on Nicola Sturgeon and the devocrats. It reportedly already has the backing of around 40 backbenchers.

Although modelled on the European Research Group’s template, which has the virtue of being approved by IPSA, CURG sources emphasise that it is not intended to be a ‘party within a party’ or agitate against the Government. Defending the Union was in the Conservative manifesto in 2019, so it expects to be working with the grain of the leadership.

It isn’t yet clear whether or not the group will have any relationships with other parties – ERG membership is open to the Democratic Unionists – or how precisely it will operate. Watch this space.

Trouble at Stormont as ruling parties try to push through changes

There has been a new fight in Northern Ireland over proposed changes to the Assembly being pushed by Sinn Fein and the DUP, according to the News Letter.

On Tuesday the Assembly took just ten minutes to vote through the crucial stage of legislation which will increase the powers of ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive. Arlene Foster, the First Minister and DUP leader, has been accused of making a “massive error” based on a mistaken understanding of the law in question by a senior adviser who has now left the party.

Experts also warn that the changes are likely to lead to more legal challenges against Stormont decisions, contrary to the assertions of both Foster and Michelle O’Neill, her Sinn Fein counterpart.

Meanwhile, Ulster and the Republic have also revived joint ministerial talks, the FT reports, as the new Taoiseach tries to build bridges following the departure of Leo Varadkar.

What the abolition of DfID tells us about the war on Civil Service generalists

18 Jul

Although overtaken by the Covid-19 crisis, this Government remains committed to the Herculean (perhaps Sisyphean) task of reforming the Civil Service.

Michael Gove has spoken about the need to tackle ‘group think’, and Dominic Cummings is an avowed enthusiast for cracking down on Whitehall’s reliance on generalists and bringing in outsiders to shake things up.

The practice of shuffling civil servants around Whitehall on a regular basis, which fuels the generalist culture, not only makes it very difficult for them to develop expertise in a given area, but it can also make it hard to hold individuals accountable for failure, and over time this inevitably has an effect on the efficacy of the Civil Service.

In Part V of his excellent essay ‘The Gervais Principle‘, an analysis of organisations through the lens of The Office, Venkatesh Rao describes how individuals in complex organisations conspire to offload blame onto the organisation itself, which instead accrues inside it as a sort of ‘dark matter’.

He then describes the effect this has on the organisation over time, which cumulate in “the organization itself gradually turning into an incomprehensible, byzantine and increasingly error-prone maze, as it pretends to evolve and self-correct”. Critics of the Civil Service probably wouldn’t dissent from that assessment.

Worse, the Civil Service lacks the correction mechanism Rao perceives in modern capitalism: a relatively short institutional life-cycle which allows for regular resets through mergers and take-overs. It thus ends up in the middle-management mire foreseen by William H Whyte in his seminal The Organisation Man, the consequences of which for the end-user were illuminatingly described by George Bathurst in his article yesterday.

But the war on generalists could have perils of its own. Whilst circulating civil servants around Whitehall may contribute to the creation of a broad ‘Civil Service culture’, the alternative could be the emergence of much more powerful departmental cultures.

A department populated by long-serving specialists risks becoming deeply committed to an institutional outlook, one bolstered by the very expertise Cummings et al is out to attract and the ideological preoccupations which attract able people to a career in a single sector. It may thus lack the flexibility to adapt to changes of course under different governments.

(It’s telling that the Department for International Development, which the Prime Minister is abolishing, is one of the those with the biggest reputation for such a culture. The battle between the Government and a deeply pro-EU Foreign Office would be another example of the problem.)

Such a development would only deepen the disadvantage faced by ministers, who do tend to move around, unless accompanied by further reforms to help them get an immediate political grip – further complicating the whole process.

A common assumption of Conservative reformers is that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for the Government to devise an effective way to simulate the dynamics of the private sector. It isn’t obvious that this is any less true for creative destruction than anything else.

The ultimate tragedy of Civil Service reform may ultimately be that no amount of huffing and puffing can replicate Schumpeter’s Gale.

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

Richard Ritchie: What the great Commons debates on devolution can teach today’s unionists

4 Jul

Richard Ritchie is the author of a recent history of a secretive group of Conservative MPs called The Progress Trust (Without Hindsight: A History of the Progress Trust 1943-2005). He is Enoch Powell’s archivist and is a former Conservative Parliamentary Candidate. He was BP’s director of UK Political Affairs.

The appearances by Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister, at her regular Covid-19 press conferences are a reminder of how skilful politicians never waste a crisis.

One should not be surprised at her zeal in presenting herself as a Prime Minister of an independent nation, with a distinct approach from the British Government’s. All this will be very useful when normal politics is resumed, and Scottish independence is restored to its primary place on the UK political agenda.

If anyone doubts this, or is surprised by her behaviour, they need only turn to the historic Parliamentary debates on Scottish devolution, which commenced on the floor of the House of Commons in the late 1970s when a Labour Government with a very small majority sought to establish legislative devolution for Scotland and Wales.

Always, the crucial difference of opinion has been between those who believed offering devolution would discourage nationalism, and those who believed precisely the opposite. And although the jury is still out, a reading of past Hansard debates suggests that those holding the latter view are most likely to be vindicated.

Both parties had woken up to the threat posed by Scottish nationalism some ten years before. In opposition, Edward Heath established a Scottish Constitutional Conference which, under the leadership of Sir Alec Douglas-Home, the former Prime Minister, recommended in 1970 “a directly elected Scottish Assembly with legislative responsibility and powers of debate and supervision.” But once in government, the Tories did nothing.

In October 1973, a Royal Commission established by the previous Labour Government under the chairmanship of Lord Kilbrandon advocated the creation of directly elected Scottish and Welsh Assemblies. Within months of its return to office in 1974, the Labour Government committed itself in a White Paper to directly elected Assemblies; a further White paper in October 1975 discussed the detailed schemes for doing so, which were the subject of important Parliamentary debates in January 1976.  These culminated, on 13th  December 1976, with a four-day Second Reading debate of the Scotland and Wales Bill.

But Parliament’s first substantial discussion took the form of a two-day adjournment debate on 3rd February 1975, concentrating on the Labour Government’s White Paper of the previous September.

These were the days when the economic policies of both parties were interventionist, and neither front bench wished to be regarded as unsympathetic to Scotland so long as Westminster maintained “overall management of the economy” and avoided what Edward Short, Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons, called “the fragmentation of the UK which could be the consequence of an unwise, ill-planned scheme”.

For the Opposition, William Whitelaw at least posed the possibility that “response to demands for self-government in Scotland and the maintenance of the unitary character of the state are ultimately capable only in the realm of rhetoric.” But it was left to backbenchers to confront the issues directly. Robin Cook referred to the White Paper as a “stalking horse” for the SNP. John Biffen argued that devolution “provides an unreal resting place between union and separation” and Tam Dalyell – who was destined to be the leading opponent of any attempt to establish a Scottish Assembly or Parliament – warned that “there is conflict in the situation by its very nature.”

Enoch Powell concentrated on “the problem of England which is central to whatever conclusions are going to be reached” and in particular the implications that a Scottish Assembly would have for “representation in this House.”

The next significant parliamentary occasion was a four day debate which started on 13th January 1976, when Harold Wilson set out his Government’s detailed proposals for the legislation planned later in the year as outlined in the White Paper Our Changing Democracy.

The Government hoped the consultative approach embodied in the White Papers would encourage cross-party support, which was essential given its tiny majority and internal divisions. Prominent Labour MPs – notably Eric Heffer and Neil Kinnock – disputed that the Labour Party was democratically committed to devolution of the kind envisaged.  Both saw the proposals as incompatible with socialist state planning of the economy, and Heffer argued that “if we allow these matters to get out of hand and if we go too far, the risk that we run is that eventually we shall see the break-up of the United Kingdom.”

Edward Heath on the other hand, who had just been removed as leader of the Conservative Party, became a leading advocate of the opposite view: “The Union is in danger…I do not believe that the complaint is about over-government (which was precisely the belief of Thatcherites) … we have to decide whether we are dealing with a passing whim or a settled conviction of the people.”  He concluded: “I can foresee a situation at Westminster in which both major parties suffer great losses in Scotland, in which there is a large nationalist representation pledged to separation.”

He was right, but for the wrong reasons.  Heath’s belief was that pressure for separation would be strengthened by a failure to provide devolution. In fact it has grown, despite the creation of a Scottish Parliament and Government (which amounts to a much more substantial measure of devolution than Heath or others were pressing for at the time).

This would not have surprised Powell, Dalyell and the many Conservative critics of the Bill. Powell predicted that the establishment of directly elected Assemblies “will confront us with the choice of separation, of conversion to a federal state with all its implications, or an attempt to reverse the process and somehow subordinate the new Assemblies to the sovereignty of this House.”  The high Tory Julian Amery put it even more starkly:

“But my advice to the House, for what it is worth, after experience of several devolved constitutions under the Colonial Office and the Commonwealth Relations Office, is that it is difficult to find a single foothold on which we can stand.  It did not happen in Australia, nor did it happen in Canada. I do not believe it has happened in any other instance.  They all went on to demand full executive control…An assembly that will not slide into total independence…I do not believe that is possible.”

In the end, because it was a debate on a White Paper designed to reach a wider consensus, only 37 MPs forced a division against the Government.  But this disguised the latent principled opposition to the proposals.  It was only because Margaret Thatcher lacked sufficient political strength within her own party to oppose outright what she instinctively detested.

These were but opening skirmishes. On 13th December 1976, James Callaghan as Prime Minister introduced his Scotland and Wales Bill, promising as many as 30 sitting days on the floor of the House to consider its details and leaving open the possibility of a referendum. The Government’s principal case was that the status quo had become untenable; that the SNP would never be satisfied; but proper devolution would remove their support.

No direct tax-raising powers were on offer.  The “block fund must remain the main source of revenue for the devolved services” and what was to be devolved had to be laid out in detail, with everything else reserved to Westminster. But, Callaghan argued, nothing short of a legislative Parliament would suffice.

The Conservative Party remained divided. Unlike her former leader, Thatcher indeed believed the problem was ‘over-government’, but some of her MPs were more sympathetic to Heath’s position and a few – including Alick Buchanan-Smith and Malcolm Rifkind – disobeyed their whip and supported the Bill on Second Reading (when the Government achieved a majority of 45).

Indeed, Buchanan Smith had resigned as Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland five days before, arguing that “the worst course of all is to do nothing. Opinion in Scotland cannot be ignored… If we in the House appear to frustrate the genuine aspirations of the Scottish people, this is the very thing which turns moderates into extremists.”

Under David Steel, the Liberals were in favour of going even further than the Government and their support was vital to the Government’s survival.  More crucial and uncertain were the Ulster Unionists, who under Powell’s influence were indirectly sustaining the Labour Government on issues of confidence. Stormont was often cited, by the Bill’s advocates, as a precedent for Parliaments in Scotland and Wales. However, as James Molyneaux, the Ulster Unionist leader, argued: “the devolution which matters and has always mattered in Ulster is not legislative but administrative devolution.” This might have been the view of Unionists in Westminster, but not necessarily in Ulster itself.

Once the Bill began its Committee stage, Parliament’s lack of enthusiasm became apparent. Most of the credit for the Bill’s demolition lay with Dalyell, the Scottish Labour MP who represented West Lothian from 1962-1983, and thereafter Linlithgow until 2005. It was Powell who, on 14th November 1977, coined the phrase the ‘West Lothian Question’, and justifiably so because, from the start, Dalyell had been the most assiduous and relentless in asking how it could be justified for Scottish MPs at Westminster to influence English legislation, while lacking the power to do the same in Scotland.

As Dalyell explained in Committee, under the Bill’s proposals:

“I can vote on policy and money for the Arts in Alnwick, but not in Armadale, West Lothian. I can vote on aerodromes at Heathrow and Gatwick, but not Edinburgh, Turn house. I can vote on buildings in Bath but not in Bathgate in my constituency. I can vote on the burial laws in Blackpool but not in Blackridge. I can vote on betting, bookies and gaming in Blackburn, Lancashire. But I cannot touch the bookies or the gaming laws in Blackburn, West Lothian. Etc. etc.”

These lists became a common feature of Dalyell’s contributions to these Committee debates, exasperating his front bench and providing delight to the Bill’s critics.

The West Lothian question raised further difficulties. First, there was the over-representation of Scotland in the House of Commons. As an answer, some proposed a reduction in the number of Scottish MPs, as well as restricting their right to vote on ‘English’ matters.  But Dalyell countered:

“In no way would reduced representation solve the problem of irresponsible participation in other People’s business. The principle remains the same. It makes it no better whether 50, 57, 35 or ten. Hon. Members can vote on matters for which literally they have no responsibility whatever.”

Powell supported Dalyell, reminding the House that the idea of “in and out” members had been raised and rejected in the past when dealing with Irish Home Rule, and that “there is no logical reason and no logical ground which underlies the proposition that representation should be proportionately reduced.”

Even today, when the number of Scottish MPs has been reduced to 59 and a change in Standing Orders facilitates “English votes for English Laws”, the objections of Dalyell and Powell remain valid.  As Powell explained on 24th February 1977, “if we were to attempt something in between (i.e. the situation today)…the Scots would be under-represented when deciding upon Imperial matters (i.e. all those matters not devolved) and over-represented when deciding upon all other matters”, not to mention the difficulties of classification.

In 1977, however, such questions remained academic since the Bill could not be carried without a timetable motion, which Michael Foot, contrary to all his past beliefs and arguments, was embarrassingly forced to introduce on 22nd February. He reminded the House that the Bill had already received a four-day debate on Second Reading and ten days in Committee (involving all-night sittings).

He proposed a further 20 days of debate, but the House of Commons was having none of it. The Government’s guillotine was defeated by 29 votes, and from that moment this Bill was dead.

But not the arguments. Labour’s first attempts to create devolved legislative assembles had marked out a divide.

Either one agreed with Heath’s conviction “that neither the people of Scotland nor Wales want separation. I do not believe they will move in that direction, provided they get meaningful and viable devolution”; or with Teddy Taylor, who claimed twenty years later: “Those who think that devolution will knock the SNP on the head are living in cloud cuckoo land.  Those who think the move to devolution will lead to the collapse of the SNP will be subject to a brutal shock.”

It was another twenty years before fresh legislation was introduced. Callaghan had made a second attempt in November 1977 by introducing separate bills for Scotland and Wales, and promising a referendum before their enactment.

In response to the objections which had killed the previous legislation, the Scottish Bill sought in various ways to reduce “the scope for dispute between the United Kingdom Government and the Scottish Executive” and, in particular, by limiting the UK Government’s rights of intervention to defence, trade, the economy and industrial relations (but leaving out health and education which had previously been included).

But no concessions were made in response to the West Lothian question. Moreover, the Assembly would continue to be funded by a block-grant from Westminster, always regarded by critics as another source of conflict. This time, the Government managed to guillotine the Bill from the outset, thus denying Dalyell, Powell and other opponents of the Bill their opportunity to renew their detailed onslaught.

Both Dalyell and Powell were now clear that ‘independence’ was preferable to the Government’s proposals. But that should be up to Scotland since, in Powell’s words:

“…none of us has the means of knowing whether Scotland is to be a nation. What is quite certain is that we cannot answer that by passing legislation which is itself incoherent… this is a constitution which, being inherently unstable, will force those who live under it in one direction or the other; and there is all too great reason to guess in what direction they will be forced.” 

In this, Powell had the support of the SNP. Its leader, Gordon Wilson, made it clear that: “My party regards the Bill as the first step along the road to self-government.”  Or, as Dalyell had said first time round:

“Many electors want an independent Scotland and will continue to want that. Jolly few people, the more they know about it, want devolution… those who want devolution want it as a stepping-stone, a launching pad for a separate Scottish state.”

But finally, what killed this Bill was a change in the proposed referendum rules. Through the Cunningham amendment, the Act could only come into force if it gained the support of 40 per cent of the registered electorate. In a referendum on 1st March 1979, it gained only 32.9 per cent. thus putting to an end any chance of creating a Scottish legislative assembly in time for the next election.

Thatcher was never tempted down a similar path. It was not until Labour’s landslide victory in 1997 that a fresh attempt was made – and by this time the Labour Party had learnt a lot, at least from its former tactical mistakes.

For a start, in 1997 a pre-legislative referendum was held before the House of Commons had the opportunity of debating the legislation.  The referendum posed two questions i.e.

  • I agree/do not agree there should be a Scottish Parliament
  • I agree/do not agree that a Scottish Parliament should have tax varying powers

On 11th September 1997, the first question was agreed by 74 per cent of those who voted, and the second by 63 per cent.  A government with a massive majority and the authority of a referendum was clearly not to be obstructed, even by die-hard opponents such as Dalyell, who remained an MP.

Moreover, instead of listing devolved subjects, the Scotland Bill 1998 merely specified matters which were reserved to the UK Parliament, not those which were to be devolved. In addition, the new Scottish Parliament was promised a limited power to vary the basic rate of UK income tax in Scotland by up to 3p.

This power was never used, but in April 2016 the Conservative Government gave Scotland a range of new tax and financial powers (including Scottish Income Pax paid directly to the Scottish Government), which went much further than ever would have been contemplated by even the most fervent devolutionists of twenty years earlier.

This new bill reached the statute book in 1998 without difficulty but to no avail since, on 16th May 2007, Alex Salmond formed the first SNP Minority Government in Edinburgh. Four years later, he rubbed salt into the wound by winning an overall majority – the very result which Labour had hoped to prevent by granting such a significant amount of devolution in the first place.

Some say this was because too much was devolved; others too little.  But whatever the cause, Dalyell had predicted thirty years earlier “if a majority of Scots voted for the SNP, it would be a separate state.  There is no question about that.”  Except the Union still stands.

True, those who said it would satisfy nobody have been vindicated.  But those who claimed a Scottish legislative Parliament was a logical impossibility within a unitary political system haven’t yet been proved right. Attempts have also been made to address the West Lothian question, although not to the satisfaction of those who posed it originally and who still believe it’s unanswerable.

During debates on the Scotland Bill 1998,  Liam Fox put it thus: “An answer to the West Lothian question requires either a federalist solution, providing a balanced solution constitutionally within the UK, or independence, which would remove the question altogether.” Powell would have agreed with the latter, but not the former:

“The reason why federation is only a logical reduction ad absurdum and not a practical possibility is that we do not want it. The House and the vast majority of people behind Members are not prepared to consider the notion of resolving ourselves into a federal state.”

But perhaps they are now, given the quantity and complexity of modern legislation which threatens to overwhelm Parliament and which a federalist approach is designed to mitigate. It wouldn’t, however, placate the SNP, at least not while they have 48 members of the House of Commons. In the late 1890s, there were over 80 Irish Nationalists in the House of Commons and history tells us what happened next.

Exactly the same situation is faced today. Once a separatist element is represented significantly in the House of Commons, only two things are possible.  Either it is removed via the ballot box; or independence is granted, and it departs voluntarily.  As Powell had put it as early as 27th September 1968 in a speech at Prestatyn: “England will never again consent to live through the long and harrowing episode of the coercion of the Irish. We have learnt, and learnt once for all, that enforced unity is a curse, to which almost any other consequence or condition is preferable.”

Renewed calls for independence are now portrayed as Brexit’s fault. But past Hansards show how there were always only three choices – unionism, federation, or independence. Unionism could embrace extensive administrative devolution, including special laws for Scotland if passed at Westminster. Federation would necessitate English participation. If neither is an option, then independence becomes the least harmful. As concluded by Powell:

“I have always said that if it be the preponderant and settled wish of the inhabitants of any part of this Kingdom no longer to remain part of this Kingdom, that preponderant and settled will should not and could not be resisted.”

But how does one know this “wish” exists?

Some hard and unfair things have been said about those who sit in the House as members of the Scottish National Party or of Plaid Cymru. They sit in the House by the same right as the rest of us. If we are looking for  the answer to the question “Is it or is it not true that there are nations in this kingdom which will not abide the present constitution of the United Kingdom?”, they are a way whereby we can find out.

We can identify a nation, as it were, only after the event. We cannot identify a nation by historical, sociological and cultural studies. A nation is a people who have made good the right to be a nation, not necessarily by force but, according to our institutions, by proving overwhelmingly that they are not content to remain part of another State, in our case the Kingdom as it is at present constituted.

Such “overwhelming” proof is not yet forthcoming, but we may be close to it. Ironically, by accepting this reality and remaining neutral, England has the best chance of averting it.

England’s love of Scotland has made her zealous in her opposition to independence. An understandable mistake, but a tactical error. If both Scotland and England are united in believing the current settlement unstable, then maybe this will concentrate minds on the real choice. The best hope of maintaining the Union lies with England remaining neutral in any further independence referendum.

But what England cannot be neutral about is the prospect of Scottish MPs determining the political composition of a Westminster government which has transferred power to Scotland. Had Jeremy Corbyn been able to form an administration last December following the General Election, it is almost certain that he could have done so only through the support of SNP MPs with the power to influence English issues but no power to shape legislation directly affecting Scotland.

The fact that this danger was averted does not mean that it won’t arise again.  It almost certainly will, unless and until Scotland becomes an independent nation, is governed once again as an integral part of the United Kingdom; or the UK breaks up into a federation.

That is the lesson from Hansard.  What will be the lesson from Covid-19 we shall also know soon.

Henry Hill: Johnson prepares to take a more ‘robust’ line on the Union… but muzzles devosceptics

2 Jul

Fight for the Union: Government mulls ‘devolution revolution’… but tries to muzzle Tory critics

Earlier this week, the Times reported that ministers are considering setting up new, UK-wide economic and security bodies as part of a bid to enhance the standing of the British Government in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

This move could finally mark an end to the previous practice of feebly handing over reserved powers to the devolved institutions, even when this risked great damage to the Union, in the name of the “spirit of devolution”.

Apparently, “Tory ministers are preparing to be more “robust” with their SNP counterparts in taking responsibility for macroeconomic and security issues”, and ideas will be brought forward by a new Union Policy Implementation Committee, supported by a Downing Street-based ‘Union Unit’.

This may be some comfort to the Scottish Conservatives, many of whom are deeply concerned that the Prime Minister doesn’t grasp the scale of the danger posed to the Union by the next Holyrood elections. (Of course, holding a referendum is one thing ministers could be ‘more robust’ about.)

It also comes in the same week as Boris Johnson’s high-profile clash with Nicola Sturgeon over the latter’s threat to start quarantining visitors from England. Following the ugly politics we have already seen from the Welsh Government, this highlights once again the real damage the ‘Four Nations’ approach to the Union, so thoughtlessly endorsed by minister after minister, is doing to the integrity of our country.

But there are apparently limits to the boldness of this approach. This week Guido Fawkes reported that the whips have been cracking down on Conservative MPs who want to break ranks and criticise devolution. This is further proof that the divisions we revealed in May are not going away, and will continue to exacerbate the coalition-building dilemma faced by the Welsh Tories.

For their part, the ruling devophiles amongst the Cardiff Bay leadership are reportedly doubling-down on their efforts to excise wrongthink on this question: apparently expressing devosceptic views is enough to get even already approved candidates summoned back for re-assessment.

But silencing such critics will only slow (even further) the Government’s painfully slow awakening to the dangers of the current constitutional situation. We must hope that, like the Eurosceptics before them, it will not be long until some true believers slough off the whip on this particular question.

Elsewhere this week Joanna Cherry MP, an ally of Alex Salmond and prominent figure on the SNP’s ‘fundamentalist’ wing, called on the Nationalists to be prepared to make a bid for independence without a referendum.

Plaid Cymru launches investigation after Senedd candidate accused of antisemitism

The Welsh Nationalists have launched an investigation after a prominent Jewish organisation called for one of their candidates to be permanently barred from the Party over an antisemitic tweet.

According to Wales Online, high-profile Plaid activist Sahar Al-Faifi tweeted the same claim about Israel training US police officers which ended up seeing Rebecca Long-Bailey sacked from the Labour front bench.

This is not the first time this has happened: Al-Faifi was previously suspended from Plaid over a series of antisemitic social media posts published in 2014, but was since reinstated. Apparently the Nationalists would not confirm whether or not she remains a candidate.

DUP call for O’Neill to ‘step aside’ over funeral attendance

The Democratic Unionist Party are calling on Michelle O’Neill, the leader of Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland and Deputy First Minister, to step aside to allow a police investigation into a republican funeral held earlier this week.

O’Neill, who has repeatedly urged the public to maintain social distancing and obey other public health guidelines, flagrantly breached them at the funeral of Bobby Storey, an IRA terrorist and senior Sinn Fein official.

Now the DUP are saying that it will be difficult for Arlene Foster, the First Minister, to appear alongside O’Neill at the Executive’s coronavirus press conferences. For her part, the Sinn Fein leader says that she is “satisfied” that her actions were within public health advice.

Anglesey constituency protected from ‘radical’ boundary shake-up

ITV reports that the Government has committed to protecting the boundaries of Ynys Môn, the parliamentary constituency which corresponds to the Isle of Anglesey, ahead of “the most radical shake-up of Welsh parliamentary seats in more than a century”.

Under the proposals, Wales’ seats will be brought into line with England’s in terms of size. As a result, the Principality’s representation in the House of Commons will be cut by almost a quarter, from 40 to about 32. This is part of a broader push to equalise constituencies across the UK.

Anglesey will now join four other island-based exceptions to the new rule: Orkney & Shetland and Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Western Isles) in Scotland, and two seats on the Isle of Wight. The move may help the Conservatives, who won the seat at the last election, as the adjoining area of mainland Wales is slim pickings for the party.