Saturday, January 14, 2012

Scottish independence won't be the end of the devolution 'process'

Back in 1998, a now almost-forgotten former Labour cabinet minister coined the phrase: "Devolution is a process, not an event."

They were in fact the words of Ron Davies, the architect of the Welsh Assembly who is now primarily remembered for his 'moment of madness' on Clapham Common and subsequent 'badger-watching' escapades near the M4.

But as the repercussions of New Labour's devolution reforms of the late 1990s continue to reverberate around the body politic, it is clearer than ever that Mr Davies was spot-on in his analysis.

Just as the former Cabinet secretary Gus O'Donnell predicted in his series of 'exit interviews' before retiring last month, the future of the Union has suddenly become one of the hottest of political hot potatoes.

The extent of the Prime Minister's gamble in seeking to strong-arm the Scottish government into holding a straight yes-no vote on independence within the next 18 months should not be underestimated.

A less risky strategy would surely have been for the Westminster government to carry on doing what it has been doing to the Scots for the past 30 years, namely try to buy them off.

The carrot on this occasion would not have been money in the form of the highly-advantageous Barnett Formula of public spending, but rather the promise of more powers – or “devo max” as it is termed.

By handing significant financial autonomy and accountability to the Scottish government while allowing it to remain in the UK, the government would surely have satisfied all but a minority of pro-independence diehards.

But Mr Cameron appears to have eschewed that option in what appears to be an all-out bid to destroy the Scottish Nationalist First Minister Alex Salmond and kill the idea of independence stone dead for a generation or more.

His attempt to set the timetable for the referendum as well as fixing the question is designed to pitchfork the Scots into an early vote in the hope that they will reject independence.

But will it actually have the opposite effect? Will the Scots simply see it as yet more unwanted meddling in their affairs by a distant English premier whose party enjoys so little support north of the border it nearly decided to change its name?

If so, then Mr Cameron is going to look remarkably stupid before this game of political chess is played out. So stupid, in fact, that it could be he, rather than Mr Salmond, who finds himself out of a job.

The future constitutional position of Scotland may seem like a rather arid subject to those of us south of the border, but for the North-East, it could have some rather interesting political repercussions to say the least.

For starters, an independent Scotland would be more likely to compete aggressively against the Northern English regions for inward investment – an issue that has reared its head from time to time even within the existing Union.

The wider implications, though, would be in the change in political balance within England and the impact that this would have on traditionally Labour-supporting areas.

The secession of the Scots would mortally Labour south of the border, ending any prospect of it holding power alone at Westminster again and permanently shifting the centre of political gravity to the right.

The Labour-supporting regions of the North - whose political cultures in fact have more in common with the Scots than with the Southern English – may well then find themselves even more marginalised by the Westminster Parliament.

This, in turn, might well lead to a revival of interest in the idea of devolution within England, perhaps within a pan-Northern context this time round rather than individual assemblies for the North-East, North-West and Yorkshire.

My guess is that if Mr Cameron’s gamble does backfire, and the Scots ultimately vote for independence, it won’t be too many years before we see calls for some sort of 'Council of the North' encompassing all three regions.

Fanciful? Well, maybe. But devolution is, after all, a process, not an event.

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5 comments:

Toque said...

"The secession of the Scots would mortally [damage] Labour south of the border, ending any prospect of it holding power alone at Westminster again and permanently shifting the centre of political gravity to the right."

I think you're wrong about that, Paul.

See http://toque.co.uk/would-english-parliament-mean-permanent-conservative-majority

And http://wingsland.podgamer.com/?p=13513

Withering Vine said...

"The secession of the Scots would mortally Labour south of the border, ending any prospect of it holding power alone at Westminster again ...."

This is wrong. There have been only two Labour governments which did not have a majority of members in England: those of 1950 and February 1974. The February 1974 government collapsed and after an October election turned into a Lib-Lab pact in which no party had a majority in either the UK as a whole or England. All other Labour governments have had majorities in England.

There is absolutely no reason be believe that Labour could not achieve a majority in England again, let alone England and Wales.

Michele said...

Isn't that what got us in this mess in the first place .... buying them off? usually at the expense of the English, with the devolved parliaments for them, nothing for us; the Barnett Formula for them, and not even infrastructure spending for us without something for them.

Haven't you heard the rising growl of English discontent? Perhaps Cameron or at least his Backbenchers have one ear to the ground and are beginning to realise that placating the implacable is no longer an option. Especially with some very touchy English in the constituencies asking 'When do we get some equality in democracy - like an English Parliament for Instance'

cornubian said...

Yet more talk of the North of England and devolution, where in fact the people rejected the idea, and none of Cornwall which has had a nationalist party since the 50's, its own Celtic language, and distinct national/regional identity.

It exasperates me that even today I have to point out to people that in 2002 we in Kernow collected a petition of 50,000 signatures calling for devolution to a Cornish assembly. This was backed by opinion polls putting support for devolution at over 55%.

Just recently the ethnic data for a Cornish schools survey showed that kids preferred Cornish rather than English or British to describe their ethnic/national identity.

Did you know any of this? If not ask yourself why?

I'll be happy to verify any of the above if you'd like.

doctorhuw said...

"This is wrong. There have been only two Labour governments which did not have a majority of members in England: those of 1950 and February 1974."

To that list, you can add 1964-66, when the Conservatives had a five-seat lead in England, offset by a modest Labour lead in Scotland (and a huge one in Wales). Moreover, in October 1974 the Labour lead over the Tories was just 2 in England.
Of course, this was partially offset by the steady return of a block of MPs from the Conservative fiefdom of Northern Ireland until the 1970s/80s (depending on when you date the secession of the Ulster Unionists). Also of course the governments of 1924 and 1929-31, but I accept those were special cases.

In 1964, had Labour not been in power, they might have lost the subsequent election as well, because they would not have controlled the timing. So your argument is a tenuous one.

My personal view is that it is unlikely Labour would be unable to hold power in England alone, but they would find it much more difficult, and they would undoubtedly find it utterly impossible to win as anything more than a milksop SDP-style party. If you want genuine governments of the left in this country (nb I don't, but that's another story) you should definitely hope Scotland stays in the union - or the Conservative stranglehold over the south of England will return them to the position of the dominant party in politics.