Resetting devolution now becoming an imperative if Britain is to survive - Brian Monteith

Devolution needs reset. After 21 years under managements of different temperament and political colour, there is enough evidence of what works and what doesn’t for consideration to be given to reforming our institutions.

The flags of the four UK nations
The flags of the four UK nations

The reset needs to be for the whole of the United Kingdom – considering the experiences of Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast – but also the performance of England’s city mayors.

Beyond the tragedy of the immediate victims of Covid-19, and the horrific harm still to become visible in healthcare, economy and civil liberties – the damage from competing jurisdictions confusing and persecuting the public about how to behave or what can and cannot open has shown devolution at its worst.

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The politicisation of the pandemic by the first ministers of Scotland and Wales has been utterly shameful – and, as is shown by the evidence of health outcomes, wholly counter-productive.

There can be no doubting that while there have been mistakes made in London, these have been compounded in Edinburgh and Cardiff.

Sadly, unforgivably, lives have been lost as the price for local politicians indulging in the fleeting glory of political point-scoring by claiming (more often than not without justification) that Scotland has been doing better than England.

This is not a matter for division. We are, together with Wales and Northern Ireland, one country. The virus does not recognise borders. We are in this pandemic together.

Mayor Sadiq Khan in London has been no better than Nicola Sturgeon or Mark Drakeford, while Mayor Burnham in Manchester has also been condemned for rejecting a government offer of £60 million against the £65m he was demanding.

Meanwhile in Scotland, we have seen UK funds destined for business being cut back and diverted when distributed by the Scottish government – and no amount of UK funding money is ever enough – despite the UK’s financial support being amongst the most generous anywhere in the world.

All of this tells us a review of what competencies should be held at UK level and what are appropriate for devolved institutions is now an imperative. It would not be about abolishing institutions, it would be about making them work better for the people.

It is not about changing the management of education, health, transport and other devolved matters – all of those are rightfully accountable locally through the regular election cycle.

This is about the intersection between central and devolved institutions – especially where mendacious politicians weaponise the relationships to make them break down or generate a politically advantageous grievance.

Devolution was intended to modernise Britain by decentralising powers away from London in the belief that better decisions are taken the closer locally accountable legislators are to the issues.

The greatest threat to devolution is not centralisation returning powers to Westminster, but nationalism delivering secession from the British family, like a centrifugal force spinning out of control.

Areas that require consideration include the overreach of Scottish ministers that is not tamed by adequate checks and balances provided in Parliament, its committees or the courts.

There is then the ability of ministers to act ultra vires on issues or in particular theatres where they have no right to participate. Our grand-standing First Minister and other ministers have no locus to conclude international treaties; flying to foreign capitals and allying with foreign powers against the democratically elected government of the UK should be an ultra vires abuse of power sanctionable through sequestration.

Imagine if a Scottish political leader had attended the Munich peace conference lobbying for pacifism and disarmament against Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s call for Hitler to halt his annexation of Czechoslovakia.

Then there is the disconnect across the UK’s Civil Service. We now have the absurd behaviour of SNP ministers preventing Scottish civil servants meeting their Whitehall counterparts to discuss scoping future transport projects that will improve rail, road and sea connections across imaginary borders. Likewise, there is SNP resistance to working with the Treasury and HM Revenue and Customs to provide freeports in Scotland – the end result of which will be millions, possibly billions, of pounds of investment landing only in England and the opportunity for tens of thousands of well-paid jobs coming to Scotland being forgone.

Since the Scottish Parliament opened its doors it has, over time, garnered more powers, delivered by both Labour and Conservative initiatives from Westminster, usually after an increase in support for the Scottish Nationalists. Rather than demonstrate the great British tradition of evolutionary democratic reform, it has only fuelled demands for yet more powers from the secessionists.

Now, with the threat of another victory for nationalists in next year’s Holyrood elections, political strategists in London are advising Michael Gove that further powers will need to be transferred – possibly going as far as creating a federal state.

This would be a false step – for if one thing has been clear in the last 21 years it is that no amount of devolution is ever enough for the nationalists – for they do not believe in improving British democracy and accountability, they believe in destroying it, no matter the cost to our economy and the livelihoods of our communities.

If all that is left for the British institutions to decide is foreign policy and defence, then these will simply become the final battleground on which believers in Britain will plant their flag. Instead, supporters of building a more just, harmonious, meritocratic and prosperous British society must reset devolution so our improved institutions pull us together – rather than be used to tear us apart.

Brian Monteith is editor of ThinkScotland.org.

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