12 December 2023

The devolution delusion


Over the weekend, David Cameron reprimanded the Scottish Government over Humza Yousaf’s recent meeting with President Erdoğan, the authoritarian president of Turkey. The First Minister had apparently breached an agreement that the government would get sufficient notice of such meetings to ensure a Foreign Office official was present. 

The Foreign Secretary pulled no punches. Although stressing that the Government was still open to cooperation on foreign matters, he wrote in a letter to Angus Robertson, the SNP’s external affairs minister:

‘…any further breaches of the protocol of Ministerial meetings having an FCDO official will result no further FCDO facilitation of meetings or logistical support. We will also need to consider the presence of Scottish Government offices in UK Government posts.’

This row touches on two unresolved tensions in this country’s devolution settlement: the lack of clear lines setting out what devolved governments can or cannot do, and the failure to establish proper mechanisms by which the national government can hold them to account.

It is a particular problem if the Scottish Government is disregarding agreements with the Foreign Office when conducting business overseas; even Andy Wightman, a former Green MSP and convinced separatist, concedes that this undermines Yousaf’s talk of a ‘dark day for devolution’.

But the deeper issue is that even under the current arrangement where any power not expressly reserved to Westminster belongs to Holyrood, foreign affairs is expressly reserved to Westminster. So what is the First Minister of Scotland doing meeting foreign heads of state? Why does the Scottish Government spend millions of pounds on an ‘overseas network’ of official outposts? 

Some of this activity may be completely fine; many states afford devolved or federal units some capacity to, for example, drum up overseas investment. 

But given that the Scottish Government is currently run by separatists, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that they’re stretching the rules – and there ought to be a stronger response available than merely withdrawing the British State’s help with conducting an independent foreign policy.

The same problem has also arisen with regards to the constitution. It, like foreign affairs, is expressly reserved to Westminster. Yet the Scottish Government continues to spend large sums of public money trying to fabricate a case for independence, and uses the Civil Service to do it.

Alister Jack, the Scotland Secretary, has said this is not acceptable. But to date, nothing has been done about it. 

He has acted in other areas, most famously in vetoing Nicola Sturgeon’s ill-fated Gender Recognition Reform (GRR) Bill. The power he used to do that (Section 35 of the Scotland Act 1998) has been on the statute book since the advent of devolution – yet Jack’s intervention was the first time it has ever been wielded.

Last week, the Court of Session threw out the Scottish Government’s legal challenge to that decision, although Yousaf is reportedly still weighing up whether or not to appeal further. As with the passage of the UK Internal Market Act, which also provoked a lot of devocrat outrage, the fact of our constitution is that Westminster can assert itself when it chooses to do so.

Yet apart from the odd safeguard such as Section 35, our current settlement was not designed with that sort of active, policing role in mind. Some of those who designed it (such as Gordon Brown) seem determined to undermine it, and many senior figures who have overseen the status quo since 1998 have nothing good to say about the new-fangled ‘muscular unionism’ that wants Westminster to throw its weight around.

(In fact, they often seem far more exercised about it than the fact that separatist nationalism made enormous strides during the quarter-century in which devolution was Westminster’s unchallenged orthodoxy, despite the explicit promise in New Labour’s 1998 manifesto that: ‘the Union will be strengthened and the threat of separatism removed.’)

One doesn’t need to be a die-hard opponent of devolution, however, to see that the current model has serious flaws. 

Take the recent PISA scores, which revealed both an ongoing and steep decline in Scottish outcomes and that Wales continues to be the worst-performing home nation when it comes to schools.

Given that education is, along with health, one of the two central responsibilities of the devolved governments, the fact that results have slumped in both nations since devolution began ought to be provoking much more soul-searching than it appears to be, especially as both Scotland and Wales receive more public funding per head than England, courtesy of the British taxpayer.

Yet there is currently no mechanism by which the Welsh or Scottish governments can even be held to account by MPs for the British money they spend, let alone any way such central funding can be made conditional on improved performance (the tool the Canadian Conservatives are promising to use to force recalcitrant provinces to build houses).

Moreover, there isn’t currently even any requirement that adequate data on devolved performance exists at all. The devolved governments collect data in such a way that cross-border comparisons are extremely difficult to make – at one point the Scottish Government even opted out of parts of PISA. 

This helps the devocrats disguise their actual record on public services and, alongside such madness as letting the Scottish Government run a separate census, destroys any hopes of creating a solid evidence base from which to judge devolution on its actual outcomes.

That suits the devocrats just fine. It also suits Westminster’s guilty men, those who advocated for or have presided over devolution these past 25 years.

But this can’t go on. Other countries with federal systems do not pretend to be confederacies, and try to downplay or dismiss the idea that there is a hierarchy between national and devolved government and that the former has a legitimate role overseeing the latter. 

Abandoning that pretence is even more important here because the UK, unlike nations such as Germany or the United States, does not have a constitutional ban on secession. Without that, the internal role of the British State is even more important; without that solid endoskeleton, the whole thing will collapse.

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Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.