Henry Hill: Johnson may have just broken a devolutionary spell two decades in the weaving

19 Nov

As I noted earlier this week, the clearest evidence that Boris Johnson was on to something with his remarks about devolution having been a disaster is the response of his critics – especially his Tory critics.

Nowhere to be found were any paeans to devolution actually being a success. Instead, the new devolutionary defence is to claim that the problem isn’t the constitutional settlement itself, but merely the people currently in charge of it. If only the Conservatives could take over the reins then all would be well.

This is what the young people call a ‘cope’, and not just because the odds of the Tories taking office in either Edinburgh or Cardiff are currently very long indeed. It also overlooks the fact that devolution has managed to deliver the same toxic combination of bad governance and diminished Britishness in three very different sets of political distance: the intended hegemony of a ‘unionist’ Labour Party in Wales; the unexpected dominance by separatists in Scotland; and mandatory deadlock in Northern Ireland.

Of course, the Prime Minister has immediately rowed back from his remarks and tried to take the ‘blame the SNP’ line. But one suspects that this is a grenade he won’t be able to un-throw.

An undercurrent of devosceptic sentiment has been bubbling up inside unionism for some time now. Douglas Ross, the Scottish Conservative leader, felt compelled to hit out at colleagues who think devolution has opened a ‘Pandora’s Box’ before Johnson dropped his bombshell. In Wales, where the Tories face a challenge from an explicitly anti-devolution party which looks set to enter the Senedd next year, the issue is fuelling what could become a proper rift between the grassroots and the leadership.

Whilst there hasn’t yet been any proper study of this change in attitudes, two possible drivers suggest themselves.

First, devolution hasn’t ‘worked’ as a pro-UK strategy. There are plenty of people who support it for its own sake, but the whole project was sold to sceptical unionists on the promise that it would “kill nationalism stone dead”. It obviously didn’t, and every subsequent one-more-heave concession of powers has sapped the credibility of devolutionary unionism as the separatists have got stronger and stronger.

Second, more unionists are waking up to the fact that there is more to their beliefs than merely the continued existence of anything calling itself ‘the UK’. They are unenthused, to put it mildly, at the prospect of going into another referendum defending a ‘radical’ or ‘federalist’ blueprint which turns the country into a ramshackle confederation, squeezing out what remains of the British political community in favour of horse trading between the Home Nations.

The pro-devolution consensus on the pro-UK side is broad, but fragile. It is to a great extent the product of preference falsification, wherein people with a dissident view pretend not to hold it and thus reinforce the illusion that they’re on their own (a good explanation of the dynamic is in this piece). Few of the activists and none of the politicians who have ever agreed in private with the arguments I’ve advanced in this column over the years (and there are enough) have aired such views in public. Enduring anti-devolution sentiment amongst the electorate is actually pretty remarkable when one considers that for the most part this attitude has been unrepresented in politics, think-tanks, or the media since the 1990s.

Which is why I said that the Prime Minister has just “has broken a spell more than two decades in the weaving”. Retracted or not, his comments will embolden people who share his view. And if they start speaking out, they will realise that they are less alone than they supposed. They may even think that if they organise, and start actually making the devosceptic case, it isn’t impossible that it might have an impact on public opinion (the same way pro-independence campaigning does).

All of this will horrify those drawing up plans to fight an imminent re-run of the 2014 referendum, and rightly so. It is quite possible to be very unhelpfully right, and if winning a vote in the near future requires selling the promise of a pseudo-federal dreamland then the very last thing needed is Johnson absent-mindedly prescribing constitutional red pills.

But if that is what it takes to win a near-future referendum, that is simply strong grounds for not holding one. It is all very well for the Prime Minister to have set up a new ‘Union task force’ to make the “social and cultural case for the UK”, but he must recognise that such policies will need the generational breathing-space unionism won in 2014 to have time to work. The case for the Union rests on utility and identity. Neither can be fixed overnight.

Garvan Walshe: Gloomy Sturgeon projects competence. The Government doesn’t – and the Union may be the price it pays.

19 Nov

Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party. He runs TRD Policy.

The Prime Minister’s reset has had immediate effects on Scotland. Out with “devolution is a disaster”, in with a “Union task force” (£). And in the Financial Times to boot, no longer boycotted by the No 10 media operation, but graced by a Prime Ministerial op-ed.

Details about the task force, which is to include English, Welsh and Scottish Tory MPs, are scarce. As the party with no Northern Irish MPs, it would be wise to add a Northern Irish peer, and David Trimble is an obvious candidate. Its mission to make the emotional and cultural case for the Union is welcome. Merely pointing to the fiscal benefits of Scottish membership of the Union is too easily spun as “we pay for you, so shut up” (a problem that scuppered Arthur Balfour’s unsuccessful “killing home rule with kindness” in relation to Ireland at the turn of the century).

The Scottish experience in the Union in the 100 years before the independence push has been a good deal better than the Irish (it’s only a decade since the last Scottish Prime Minister), but that hasn’t stopped the SNP dominating Scottish politics as Charles Stewart Parnell and John Redmond dominated the Irish scene.

Unlike Redmond and Parnell, the SNP doesn’t hold the balance of power at Westminster, but it has, because of the devolution, a platform to show how it would govern an independent Scotland.

Though it might irk unionists, who can point at failures in education, a self-inflicted wound over trans self-ID, the grubby mess involving Alex Salmond’s trial, and cruelty of anti-Covid measures applied to Scottish students, it’s a platform the SNP has made good use of.

It took maximum advantage of two events — Brexit and the Covid pandemic — to switch the balance of risk away from independence and convince Scots that leaving the Union had become the safer option. Brexit moved public opinion to give independence a slight edge. Covid has turned that slender lead into a solid advantage of around ten points.

The effect of Brexit will not be possible to address in the short term. There’s simply a difference of belief between the Government, which was elected to get Brexit done, after all, and Scottish public opinion, which is strongly against it, but safety and predictability are things the Government should, in principle, be able to get a handle on.

Number 10 has come in for heavy criticism for its management of the pandemic, which, however true it may be in an absolute sense, feels distinctly unfair when compared to Scotland.

England’s record has not been particularly good, but then neither has that of France, Spain, Belgium, Sweden, the United States, or most pointedly Scotland. All have had high death rates, found their test and trace systems overwhelmed, and struggled to gain acceptance for public health restrictions. These serious problems are common to almost all Western countries. An independent Scotland is just as likely to suffer from them.

What the SNP has been able to do has been to communicate stability (something that comes more naturally to Sturgeon than the bombastic Salmond). Unlike the Government in London, which has veered between seriousness and hope, Sturgeon has been consistently sober and gloomy. She has avoided overpromising on test and trace, and did not convert useful rapid antigen testing into a grossly over-the-top operation moonshot. This has allowed her to be perceived as far more competent despite having the same Western Standard Average performance in managing the disease.

There is, however, a useful lesson to be drawn from this. Projecting competence does not require achieving excellence. The public will react positively to a government that provides a realistic assessment of the difficulties faced. They understand that governing a country isn’t like pitching for investment in a start up, and would prefer a tolerably realistic assessment of the difficulties ahead then to endure an emotional rollercoaster of hopes raised only to be dashed.

This is not to rule out inspiration as a part of political rhetoric, but it is best for mobilising support for very long-term struggles, like the fight against climate change.

Scots go to the polls next May, and whether the SNP can get an overall majority at Holyrood will be a key test of their movement. Douglas Ross has an uphill battle to stop them, but reset towards realism from the Government could just convince wavering Scots that it’s safe to stay in.

Andrew Gimson’s PMQs sketch: The Commons has lost its power to hold the absent Johnson to account

18 Nov

Today’s PMQs was about as much use as a game of cricket where the batsman does not actually have to stand at the crease and face the bowling.

There was no danger the Prime Minister would lose his wicket or get hit.

Boris Johnson was not there. He appeared instead on a screen, and announced that in order to comply with the rules for dealing with the pandemic he is holding “virtual meetings” and performing “virtual duties”.

An indispensable quality of the Commons is that it is dangerous. There is nowhere for the minister to hide.

Within a second or two, he or she can suffer grievous embarrassment, by failing to make a proper case for whatever the Government is doing.

No vote has yet been lost, but already the House has been lost. The minister’s enemies are laughing and jeering, the minister’s friends have fallen silent and look glum.

It is bad enough to have a Chamber that is almost empty. Already in these circumstances it is far harder to see the ebb and flow of opinion.

Already the Opposition’s chances of holding the Government to account are diminished. There is no live audience of backbenchers to see how the Prime Minister is performing, to register and magnify his triumphs and disasters, to applaud or to stab him in the back.

And this makes the whole ritual pointless for the spectators too, including those watching on television. The drama is fled, and now we have lost the PM too.

Even under normal circumstances, the PM may succeed for a time in making things dull, by playing the deadest of dead bats to every delivery.

But when the Chamber is full for PMQs such an approach can seldom be sustained for long. The Government’s supporters demand something to cheer, and so do the Opposition benches.

A heckle, a joke, a fleeting intervention puts the PM on the spot, lights up the Chamber, prompts hundreds of conversations between the close-packed MPs and makes the reputation of whoever intervened.

Sir Keir Starmer did his best with Johnson’s observation earlier this week that devolution has been “a disaster”. According to Sir Keir, “Devolution is one of the proudest achievements of the last Labour Government.”

Johnson retorted that devolution is unquestionably a disaster when it means the SNP constantly campaigning for the break up of the United Kingdom.

In a later answer, the Prime Minister spoke at such length about the proposal of the SNP, immediately after independence, to make “a massive surrender of power straight back to Brussels”, that the Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, cut him off.

The Speaker was right. It was impossible to go on listening to this stuff. The ability of the Commons to hold the Government to account has been dreadfully diminished by the pandemic, and will remain diminished until the Chamber is once more full.

Adrian Mason: Cancelling exams is a betrayal of Welsh children

16 Nov

Adrian Mason is a lawyer and a former Deputy Chair Political of the North Wales Conservatives.

The Welsh Labour Government has announced that it is scrapping GCSE, AS, and A-Level examinations for the second year in a row, in contrast to the decision to proceed with exams in England. The consequences of the decision could well be a further deterioration in Welsh education as the system falls further behind its English counterpart. Already bottom of the league of home nations in the PISA tables, Labour has a track record of using education as a political football, with the losers being Welsh children.

Sarah Atherton, the Conservative MP for Wrexham, said:

“The Labour Government in Wales has a woeful record on education, and this simply continues the trend which has let down Welsh children again. This is reflected in the international PISA scores, where Wales scores over 15 points lower in English, reading and mathematics. Welsh Government needs to do better if they are to promote our young people’s life chances.”

The decision announced in the Welsh Senedd by Kirsty Williams, the Education Minister, is another example of how the socialists in Wales run the government. Engaged in a race to the bottom, they make decisions that are more to do with political ideology than the wellbeing of its citizens.

The decision not to run the exams in 2021 was announced, unusually, by Williams in the Sunday Times, two days before the formal decision was given to the Senedd. In the article, she stated that she was ‘not concerned’ whether Welsh students would end up with higher grades than their English counterparts and that was a matter for Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, to worry about.

However, what is becoming clear is that by deviating from the English position, the Welsh Government is potentially damaging the future of Welsh school students. It is not the first time they have played politics with our examination system. They recently took the decision to retain AS Levels as a stand-alone qualification, and not follow England with linear A Levels, provoking accusations that they had debased the ‘gold standard’ of the qualification in Wales.

This latest attempt to be ‘different’ (which frequently seems to be all that inspires the decisions of Welsh Ministers) followed on from a number of options presented to Williams by the regulator, Qualifications Wales. The Minister chose the most extreme option and now assessments will be undertake in the classroom, under the supervision of teachers, not through formal examinations overseen by independent invigilators. This leaves Williams open to the charge that these assessments will not be as robust as those taken in England under traditional methods.

Suzy Davies, the Conservative Senedd member and Shadow Minister for Education said:

“The critical issue for me is that assessments are externally set and externally marked. This will give them some comparability with previous years’ exams and protect teachers against any accusations of unintended bias.”

The Vice Chancellor of Bangor University, Professor Iwan Davies, commenting on Williams’s announcement, said he was awaiting further details but providing the assessment is robustly externally moderated then that should not prejudice Welsh students when they apply to university.

However, this is currently far from clear. Under the new rules, schools will be able to run ‘teacher managed assessments’ at a time of their choice between February and April next year. These assessments, which are likely to be part-papers taken from the full examination, will be externally prepared and assessed by the Welsh examination board, WJEC, but overseen by teachers.

This raises two issues. The first is that with such a wide window to take the assessments, it will be impossible to keep the contents of the papers confidential. What is to stop students simply sharing the contents with the outside world? How can fairness be maintained so that all students have an equal opportunity? The second issue is that by not having independent invigilators, how can we be sure that these classroom assessments will ensure the same level of examination rigour and compliance which is required by OFQUAL, the regulator in England?

These are questions that need answering before any semblance of confidence in the robustness of the system can be assured. The consequence of getting it wrong once again after last year’s grade debacle, will be that Wales’s students will potentially be becoming second class exam graduates.

To deny our young people the opportunity to excel in traditional examinations is a disservice to the hard work and dedication they put into their learning. It is an illogical decision. Williams says she consulted with a number of stakeholders before making the decision to not run the exams, amongst them the universities, but clearly as all the details of assessment have yet to be finalised, these discussions would have been based on conjecture and not hard facts. It remains to be seen whether Higher Education institutions in England and the university admissions service, UCAS, retain confidence in the standard of A-Levels achieved by students in Wales compared to their counterparts in England, when the full implications of the Welsh system of assessment are fully thought out.

And what about those children who have worked hard to achieve their GCSEs so they can leave school and find a job? Will employers consider their assessed qualifications to be as robust and secure as the exam results of their English job-hunting competitors?

Welsh political debate on the issue meanwhile consists of the usual hand-wringing contributions from Labour and the Welsh nationalists, Plaid Cymru. They say it would be ‘unfair’ or ‘stressful for children’ to allow the exams to proceed. Williams herself referred to ‘the mental stress that the pandemic had already inflicted upon young people.’ This is the type of propaganda we have grown used to in Wales.

The Welsh Government do our children a disservice by denying them the opportunity to compete in the real world, rather than the fantasy world dreamed by their socialist dogma. They believe so fervently in their ideology that some Cardiff politicians are calling for Gavin Williamson to follow the Welsh example.

I sincerely hope that Williamson has more respect for English students than to inflict this lunacy on them.

Henry Hill: Sturgeon’s timeline on Salmond scandal called into question as MSPs demand evidence

12 Nov

SNP timeline on Salmond grows ‘murkier’ as MSPs demand legal advice

Two weeks ago, this column had a section entitled “SNP woes deepen again”, the latest in what is becoming a regular feature on the growing laundry list of problems besetting the Scottish Government (not that you’d know it from the polls).

At the top of quite a long list of new challenges was a call by Alex Salmond for the ongoing inquiry into the handling of allegations against him by the SNP administration should be ‘broadened’ to look at “whether the First Minister would be investigated for potentially misleading parliament and failing to act on legal advice”.

It’s been a little while since we last had a proper look at how this row is developing, but this week saw a couple of important developments as the former First Minister, and opposition MSPs, continue to pick through the Nationalists’ story.

The first, reported here in the Courier, is that Nicola Sturgeon appeared to write to her most senior civil servant to confirm that the Scottish Government’s new harassment policy would apply to former ministers only two days after a meeting between her principal private secretary and one of the women who made allegations against Salmond.

As the paper notes, the timing of these events will only encourage those who accuse Sturgeon of being out to get her predecessors. This group certainly includes the man himself and his supporters, but opposition MSPs have also suggested that the two events “appeared to have been co-ordinated”.

Meanwhile Sturgeon has also been trying to claim that she has forgotten the details of a ‘bombshell’ meeting at which she first learned of the allegations against her predecessor. Jackie Baillie, a Labour MSP, attacked her administration’s “pervasive culture of secrecy” after it provided the same “no information” answer to five separate questions about the incident.

The SNP suffered another setback when they were ordered by the Scottish Parliament to hand over the legal advice it received during its ‘doomed’ legal battle with Salmond, according to the Herald. The defeat led to the current Holyrood inquiry after the former First Minister mounted a successful legal challenge to the Scottish Government’s handling of complaints against him, accusing it of bias. His victory cost the taxpayer over £500,000.

Now MSPs have apparently given ministers a Friday deadline to hand over the documents. Writing in the Scotsman, Murdo Fraser suggests that the “only reason for the Scottish Government not to publish legal advice is if they have something to hide”.

Yet typically, the SNP’s woes were not confined to this single front. It is reportedly refusing to reveal the final destination of cash the party raised through an ill-judged sale of branded anti-Covid masks, which was promised to charity.

Meanwhile, the Scottish Sun reports that the Scottish Government’s test-and-trace system “is performing up to five times worse than previously claimed”. According to a ‘bombshell report’: “Staff at the virus defence scheme failed to contact around half of recent positive cases within 24 hours of being told of their swab results, revised official stats reveal.”

Douglas Ross, the Scottish Conservative leader, has attacked the SNP for “peddling wildly inaccurate data”. This is a key issue for the Tories because the Nationalists’ perceived competence in handling the Covid-19 crisis is one of the big drivers fuelling support for separation in the polls.

Elsewhere on that front, Alister Jack appears to have hardened the Government’s opposition to a second independence referendum by reiterating once again its “once in a generation” argument (more robust arguments are available) whilst Sir John Major suggested offering the SNP a two-vote plebiscite instead.

Loyalist protests anticipated against backdrop of Stormont’s ‘rank incompetence’

The police are reportedly ‘actively’ monitoring loyalist groups in the expectation of organised protests against Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal. Activists may ‘descend’ on ports to oppose the new Irish Sea border the Prime Minister signed up to when he capitulated on the Irish Protocol.

Unionist opinion is rapidly hardening against the deal, which sees sweeping new checks imposed on commerce between Northern Ireland and the British mainland, as the scale of the impact becomes clear. Owen Polley provides an overview at CapX, but the most visible symbol of unease is the joint letter from Arlene Foster, the DUP leader, and Michelle O’Neill to the European Union urging it not to impose checks which risk severely restricting Ulster’s food supplies.

Advocates of the Irish Protocol insisted on a sea border over a land border because the latter was easier to police. But this failed to factor in that the volume of trade between the Province and the mainland vastly exceeds that with either the Republic or the rest of the European Union, so any checks there would affect a much greater slice of Northern Irish economic life.

It is also notable that nobody is suggesting that loyalist protests against a sea border render it a breach of the Belfast Agreement, despite the prospect of republican anger at landward checks being taken as evidence of such – another sign of the Government’s hapless failure to develop its own interpretation of the treaty.

One concession ministers did secure was the right of Stormont to set aside the Protocol. Obviously neither Brussels nor Dublin expected it to do so, now that unionists have lost their majority – but a unionism with fight left in it would recognise that protecting east-west commerce could be grounds on which such a campaign could be won.

Yet such a campaign seems a long way off with the DUP, unionism’s pre-eminent party, deeply embroiled in an entirely dysfunctional Stormont system. This week the News Letter has run some truly excoriating reporting on the “rank incompetence” of the Executive, a DUP-Sinn Fein duopoly.

Over the years since this column started, we have covered several attempts to establish new forces in Northern Irish unionism, focused less on little-Ulster rent seeking. In these stories one can see the space where such a party, running against the Protocol and the Stormont system, could make headway. But it remains nowhere to be seen.

Henry Hill: The public want UK-wide rules for Christmas, but we’re a long way from a ‘Four Nations’ approach

5 Nov

The ‘Four Nations’ approach to lockdown – where is it now?

As we noted earlier in the week when looking at the Government’s decision to pivot to a full lockdown, one of the casualties of this summer’s coronavirus confusion has been the ‘four nations’ approach to combating the pandemic. Instead of operating in lockstep, the different devolved governments are now all operating different restriction regimes – raising for the first time the prospect of ‘hard borders’ on the British mainland.

Polling suggests there are limits to the public’s appetite to this – a clear majority of Brits think that there should be uniform policies towards Christmas across the United Kingdom – but for now the Government is unlearning its reflexive deference to devolution too slowly to hope this will be acted on. So what is going on in other parts of the country?

Wales made national headlines with their ‘firebreak’ lockdown. Straying beyond the public health remit of coronavirus regulations (and thus perhaps opening themselves up to judicial challenge), Cardiff Bay ministers decided that ‘essential’ shops which stayed open would nonetheless be forbidden to sell ‘non-essential’ goods, in order to prevent supermarkets having an unfair advantage over smaller retailers.

Despite this, and a raft of other mishandled elements earlier in the pandemic such as priority food deliveries and coordinating volunteers, the latest polls suggest that opposition parties are not yet managing to capitalise (although more on those polls below).

In Scotland, the pandemic is giving the Scottish National Party a chance to give its authoritarian tendencies full vent. In recent weeks the Scottish Government has drawn fire over its puritanical approach towards banning alcohol, and the uneven-handed manner in which Nicola Sturgeon appears to have imposed regional lockdowns on different parts of the country.

This week, Sturgeon has been challenged over proposals to impose movement restrictions, limiting how far Scottish residents are allowed to stray from their homes. In response to suggestions that this might breach human rights legislation, the First Minister merely asserted that “it’s not respecting human rights to leave a virus to run unchecked”.

She has also warned Scots that a broader range of tough new restrictions may be in the offing, and picked a very favourable battle with the Treasury over furlough cash which only ended when the Government announced a full lockdown in England and turned the taps back on. The Scottish Parliament has also accused her administration of ‘disrespect’ over ” the way plans for scrutinising covid restrictions were announced”, according to the Daily Record.

(In other Holyrood news, MSPs have voted for the Scottish Government to publish its legal advice in the Alex Salmond row, with all the opposition parties including the Greens backing a Scottish Conservative move to force ministers’ hands.)

Over in Northern Ireland, there is growing unease amongst the Democratic Unionists about lockdown, mirroring that increasingly found on the Conservative benches in the Commons. Sammy Wilson, a DUP MP, has clashed very publicly with the local head of the BMA over the measures, and some of the party’s MLAs are also starting to voice concerns.

The News Letter reports that opposition MLAs (of which there are a tiny handful) are also increasingly angry that the NI Executive is preventing Stormont from debating its Covid-19 measures until only a few days before the current set of restrictions expires.

Poll suggests devosceptics could win seats in Wales

As mentioned above, there is new Welsh polling out: Professor Roger Awan-Scully has released the new Welsh Political Barometer. The top line is that Welsh Labour’s vote is holding up – if the results came through in a general election it might wipe out all but one of the Tories’ 2019 election gains. For the Senedd it would see the Tories rising from 11 seats to 16 but getting nowhere near a position to take power, which is the stated objective of the current Welsh Conservative leadership (although it would take Labour and the Lib Dems below the 30 MSs needed for a majority).

But as Awan-Scully points out, perhaps the most intriguing result is that Abolish the Assembly, the insurgent anti-devolution party, has matched its highest-ever polling showing. With seven per cent support, Abolish would pick up four regional list seats, giving organising devoscepticism a political voice for the first time since the advent of the system in the 1990s.

And their support could rise further still. The Barometer also shows the Brexit Party, which too has pivoted to a devosceptic position, picking up a further five per cent support (although no seats). If Abolish can poach this vote – and they recently poached Mark Reckless from the Brexit Party – then it would put them at the same vote share that delivered UKIP seven AMs in 2016.

Suffice to say that if Abolish can establish themselves as a permanent fixture on the unionist right of Welsh politics, there will almost certainly be no pathway to government for the Conservatives that doesn’t involve a deal with them.

Meanwhile one Tory MS is also having to fend off a deselection battle, according to Wales Online. Nick Ramsay, who has represented Monmouth since 2007, faces a fight for his seat after more than 50 members signed a petition calling for a meeting to ‘discuss his future’.

Adrian Mason: The Internal Market Bill will help North Wales compete

30 Oct

Adrian Mason is the Deputy Chairman (Political) of the North Wales Conservatives.

Looking for good news in Wales at the moment has become a difficult task. We are living under a Covid 19 cloud with an incompetent Welsh Labour Government (WG) meting out disproportionate diktats on what seems like a daily basis. Sadly, these measures are having a devastating effect on the Welsh economy, no more so than in North Wales where the lifeblood of the tourism industry is being drained away by lockdowns and government-sponsored anti-English sentiment.

Welsh Labour has never been a friend of North Wales – not enough votes here to cause them any electoral issues. It must be remembered that the WG is a hard-left regime, the living embodiment of Corbynism. It believes in state control, with its inevitable over-regulation and high taxes. It has little interest in our tourist industry, and this has been borne out in successive policy announcements. Even before Covid 19 they were planning to introduce a tourism tax. 20 years of failure, with a health board in special measures for the last six years, an education system bottom of the pile of UK nations, and a chronic lack of infrastructure expenditure has left our region all the poorer and gives precious little for the WG to shout about.

So, the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill (IMB) currently going through Parliament has the potential to redress the balance of years of WG neglect and should be great news for North Wales.

In all the hullabaloo over the Northern Ireland Protocol, the real essence of the IMB is often overlooked. Part 6 of the Bill allows Westminster to administer internal funding that was previously undertaken by the EU. All those signs you see with the EU flag proudly claiming that a project had been part-funded by Brussels. Well, that wasn’t really EU funding at all; it was British taxpayers’ money, top sliced by the EU and handed back to the UK regions. The IMB will allow Westminster, not Brussels, to carry out that task. Under S.46 of IMB, a Minister of the Crown has the power to allocate money provided by Parliament, to promote economic development in any area of the United Kingdom within a number of specified areas. These include the promoting of economic development, culture, sport, and provides far reaching financial support in areas like transport, health, education, and housing.

David Jones, a former Secretary of State for Wales, said:

“The Bill is of prime importance to businesses and consumers in Wales, as in every other part of the country. Indeed, those businesses and consumers would be horrified if they thought that there was any prospect whatever of there being a threat to the integrity of the internal market post-transition. The interests of economic prosperity require that producers in every part of the UK should have unfettered access to consumers in every part of the country. This Bill ensures that will happen.”

The First Minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford though, has recently stated that the IMB represents a “smash and grab” on the devolution settlement and takes back powers that have been devolved to Wales. This is simply untrue. Wales didn’t have those powers in the first place as they were vested in the EU. To state that these powers are now being removed from them is disingenuous. Part 6 of the IMB is just another layer of funding and does not impede upon competencies enjoyed under devolution.

What is undoubtedly annoying Drakeford is that the EU previously handed over this funding directly to the WG whereas under IMB, ministers in Westminster will now decide this based on merit across the whole country. The WG was quite content to allow an unelected unaccountable EU Commission to hand out funds but now squeals like a scalded cat at the thought of Westminster doing the same.

This is a view shared by Paul Davies, the Leader of the Conservatives in the Welsh Parliament who said:

The Welsh Government are quick to claim that Part 6 is some sort of power grab and that the UK Government simply wants to neuter devolution – well that couldn’t be any further from the truth. [Welsh] Government Ministers were all too happy to receive funding from Brussels and so it begs the question, why on earth would anyone object to more investment and more jobs in Wales at a time of looming economic crisis. Let me make this clear – Wales will not lose any powers as a result of the Internal Market Bill.”

The fact is that this is excellent news for us here in North Wales. No longer having to contend with a WG discriminating against us, we will have just as much chance of receiving funding as those in South Wales. With seven Conservative MPs here in North Wales, the aspirations of the people will be better represented than through a remote WG. It will, in fact restore democracy and not ‘attack’ it, as claimed by Welsh counsel general and minister for European transition, Jeremy Miles. Over time, IMB should level the playing field.

There are plenty of contenders for funding in our region. We need to develop our transport links, both rail and road, so that we can take full advantage of the Northern Powerhouse. Better links to Manchester Airport, full fibre broadband, and the development of our HE/FE sector too. Crucially, we need additional funding to regenerate the region after years of WG neglect. Our tourism industry will need major restorative surgery after the disgraceful treatment it has received from Cardiff Bay, not just through the draconian Covid measures but stretching back years. Schools and hospitals will be able to apply for targeted funding and our service industries will be able to tender for funds free from WG bias.

Sadly, in its own ‘mission creep’ the WG’s posturing over IMB is telling. There was not a hint of criticism when the unelected EU was administering funding and yet, the thought of an elected Westminster government now doing the same is now seen by them as ‘undemocratic’. The UK Government needs to stand firm and not concede an inch to a Welsh Labour Government that has such a disgraceful record of incompetence. First Minister Drakeford is on record as saying that Wales’s support for the union is ‘not unconditional’. Criticism by his government of IMB has all to do with Welsh politics and nothing to do with preserving the Union or crucially, sensible and prudent financial administration of UK taxpayers’ funds.

Should the Treasury underwrite Drakeford’s assault on the Welsh economy?

24 Oct

One of the many unpleasant features of the latest breakdown in the ‘four-nation’ approach to combating Covid-19 is that the nation’s various governments have all taken the opportunity to flex their authoritarian streaks.

Setting aside the top-level debate about the efficacy of Tier Three, or a national ‘circuit-breaker’, politicians in London, Edinburgh, and Cardiff have all invoked the crisis to justify some bizarre restrictions.

In England, the Government imposed a 10pm curfew (without modelling the impact) in order to ‘send a message’, with the result that thousands of people all ended up piling out of the pubs – and into the supermarkets and onto public transport – at the same time. North of the border, meanwhile, the Scottish Government’s own lockdown includes a ban on the indoor sale of alcohol.

Yet none of this reaches the absurd heights we are now witnessing in Wales, where Mark Drakeford has decided not only to force all ‘non-essential’ businesses to close, but to prohibit the sale of ‘non-essential’ items in essential shops.

Cue bizarre pictures of supermarket staff wrapping shelves to ensure the public can’t get their hands on such trivialities as new bedding (as winter draws in), as retailers try their best to navigate the new rules.

This bizarre move isn’t even nominally about controlling the virus. The First Minister has apparently claimed that it is necessary in order to create ‘a level playing field’ between big supermarkets and smaller shops. It is an ideologically-motivated thumb on the economic scales – not a public health measure. That Welsh shoppers will simply switch to online shopping (some permanently) seems not to have occurred to him.

As such, it will only sharpen the debate around who is going to pick up the tab for one of the strictest lockdowns in Europe. Typically of the devolution ‘settlement’, the Welsh Government has the authority to shut down its economy but can’t pay for it, and the Treasury is rightly resistant to getting bounced into spending commitments over which it has no control.

The perception that Scottish and Welsh devocrats are enthusiasts for lockdown because they can tap into ‘English’ money is a potentially dangerous one both for the Government and the Union as it is. If that grows into a broader perception of subsidy not just for more generous welfare spending but actively terrible economic policy, it could grow more toxic still.

Some devocrats want the power to borrow, although unless you think Westminster would ever not bail out devolved administration that’s simply more of the same by a different way. Others have suggested that Scotland and Wales should be forced to pay for additional lockdown measures from their own taxation. A third option would be to make Treasury economic support conditional, and revive the UK Government’s legitimate role in the governance of the whole country. No British cash without British strings.

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