Devolution needs reset – returning it to its original limited purpose

Devolution needs reset – returning it to its original limited purpose

by Tom Gallagher
article from Tuesday 20, October, 2020

ANOTHER WEEK has passed where many of the headlines have revealed the cruelty and absurdity of the world. A teacher in Paris, Samuel Paty, is brutally slain by a Chechen refugee after an imam has issued a fatwa urging his death. His offence? Teaching civics in a way that would encourage his pupils to think for themselves rather than be robots who grew up spouting dogma. 

Next, along came the five most senior Anglican bishops of the land, thankfully not armed with a fatwa, but demanding that the Internal Market Bill, a crucial staging-post in exiting the EU, be thrown out by the unelected upper house to which they belong. Justin Welby & Co are just different kinds of theocrats eagerly lending their services to a cosmopolitan elite permanently outraged by Brexit. The authority of a government with an 80-seat majority is nothing compared with the need to remain a benevolent appendage of a post-national state in Brussels where the chattering classes can dream of global utopia with their continental counterparts. 

Then there is the bizarre spectacle reminiscent of trade union barons of times past who had conflicting objectives but were united in trying to bring down the government-of-the-day (or at the very least extract lucre from it). I refer to Barons Burnham and Drakeford, ensconced in their municipal and regional power bases of Manchester and Wales. One is resisting compliance with Covid-led curbs on opening hours in commerce and the hospitality sector. The other (a Corbynite and former sociology professor before he became First Minister) is determined to make Wales as puritanical and free of individual initiative as North Korea for at least the next fortnight. But they are at one in demanding that Boris Johnson’s government pay for their divergent stands or else they will make endless trouble.

By contrast, Nicola Sturgeon has been uncharacteristically low-key. Polls (perhaps quite as misleading as the ones showing a vast Biden lead in the United States), bring good news for her cause. But she is buffeted by strong head winds in her own party as all kinds of inconvenient revelations about her clumsy attempt to bury her predecessor Alex Salmond, spill into the open. 

So it was to her credit she managed at least one provocation in past days that was bound to garner headlines. She has ordered her civil service to warn businesses involved in Scottish-Irish trade that their goods are liable to suffer delays before entering Scotland. She is anticipating warnings from France that energy supplies might be cut off to the UK unless it gives up the idea of ever being in control of its coastal waters. Sturgeon’s pretext for her latest fit of petty-nationalism is to check goods to prevent pests and disease taking hold in her infection-free land. 

The real reason is of course to keep in lockstep with the House of Lords Bishops and others to try and wreck Brexit. Her ill-will may prove pointless since central government can legislate to prevent a subordinate parliament disrupting trade in this way. Nevertheless, it is a gesture bound to evoke some respect from tyrants like Vladimir Putin. It is straight out of his playbook as countries which export wine or other perishable products to Russia know to their cost. Unless they dance to his tune, it is amazing how zealous Russian officials quickly discover defects in their goods. 

Sturgeon, the political bishops and the other grasping regional politicians are all encouraged to make trouble because they see a vacuum at the centre of where confident power should lie. So do radical Islamists in France but president Macron may have decided the price of devolving authority in the grim banlieues of outer Paris to Islamists and criminal gangs is too high and that unless he offers resistance, the survival of the French Republic itself may be at stake.

Belatedly, the calls are growing here for a rethink after over twenty years of decentralisation. Promoting territorial politics complete with elected assemblies and ever-expanding budgets, has brought few blessings to Britain. The island’s governance has certainly grown steadily worse. Whitehall has surrendered powers which have been turned by the Scottish Government into a formidable arsenal of central control that Margaret Thatcher would be astonished by. Tony Blair was content to hand over major civil service responsibilities to a vast assortment of semi-state agencies, trusts, and oversight bodies. It went hand-in-hand with allowing the European Commission to sideline Parliament and shape the parameters of much of domestic policy.

Now as Britain leaves the EU and confronts a disruptive pandemic which poses an even greater threat to the economic life of the nation than to the health of it citizens, the challenges for the administration in London are enormous. The central state is required to show the energy, initiative and adaptability that it provided in past national emergencies. But as Whitehall departments roll out training sessions in critical race theory for civil servants, the civil service machine has been revealed as not fit for purpose. Mandarins like Lord Gus O’Donnell and Lord Bob Kerslake who were content to preside over mediocrity, refuse to admit there is a grave problem. 

The BBC offers them regular platforms as elder statesmen of British governance where their complacency goes unchallenged. At least, the new head of the civil service Simon Case is not a part of the colourless administrative blob of doubtful efficiency and without any discernible sense of patriotism. He is embarking (along with influential figures like Dominic Cummings) on a mission to mend an obsolete and perhaps broken administrative machine. But an efficient and purposeful national administration won’t emerge overnight. 

A recovery in statecraft will occur more quickly if a defensive and sentimental attitude towards the concept of devolution is discarded. The performance of administrations in London, Wales, and Scotland has gone far to discrediting local self-rule. It is of course better than stultifying centralisation but measures need to be drawn up and legislated on which prevent subordinate tiers abusing their powers and acting ultra vires. If for instance, personal surcharges were introduced for using money from the centre to pursue foreign policies which devolution makes no provisions for, I suspect regional politicians would quickly retreat.

Devolution has coincided with a steep fall in the quality of political representation in Britain. It may have contributed to the rot because parties and politicians who abuse their executive positions are not punished by the electorate. Labour has not been substituted in office since the birth of Welsh devolution and since 2007 the SNP has run Scotland like a Soviet kolkhoz despite massive and recurring policy failures. The evidence is overwhelming that the politicians who go far in the devolved systems are apathetic about governing but often very keen to enjoy the perks of office, and usually fanatical about self-promotion via the media.

Perhaps even a growing number of SNP colleagues would agree that Nicola Sturgeon is the stellar example of a self-absorbed, domineering, and wilful politician manipulating devolution for her own personal ends. But so in a different way was her predecessor Alex Salmond and so, in all probability will be Kate Forbes if she doesn’t suffer an accident on the way to the Forum to be anointed as Sturgeon’s successor. She had a good outing on BBC Question Time last Thursday against Douglas Ross. Like so many other Tories, he fails to see that despite the fact an agitational cult like the SNP stands for very little, it can be turned to advantage by spivs or adventurers. 

In the hands of Machiavellian media experts the most callow young politician can be turned into a shrill and self-confident demagogue. The spirit of the age, one where scepticism and even contempt for prudence and common sense is ingrained, favours such types. Scotland, due to some peculiarities of its political culture and recent experiences such as de-industralisation, the upsurge of hedonism, and the collapse of any settled consensus about what constitutes morality, is ripe ground for the political grifter and the charlatan. 

But it would be a colossal error to assume that other parts of the United Kingdom won’t see the rise of territorial barons who build up a formidable power-base by exploiting popular neuroses with the help of allies in the media, the charity sector, the police, the legal system and the churches – and an army of media advisors. Too many institutions which used to automatically assume a government elected by the people thereby possessed ingrained legitimacy, no longer do so. Resentment and a grievance mentality will be the engine of politics as long as group identity is privileged by law and convention over individuals rights.

It is time to recognise that an adaptable and responsive central state is a surer guarantor of individual freedoms than local city or regional statelets that can easily succumb to a hostile takeover by vested interests with restrictive or even dangerous agendas. Devolution cannot easily be undone but it can and must be de-fanged. It should not become a platform for politicians with a messiah complex who behave in an authoritarian and irresponsible manner. Laws need to be passed which bar those who wield regional power in this manner from acting so damagingly or even holding public office.

Devolution is one of the most striking outcomes of an age of political optimism when it was assumed political standards were improving and the new arrangements would cause democracy to blossom. Perhaps it is now time for a reassertion of some realism and an acknowledgment  it is hard for political standards to improve in a hurry and easy for them to steeply regress. Measures such as a Clarity Act being urged on the government in London by the newly-formed Alliance for Unity in Scotland could help prevent devolution being sabotaged and dangerous strife arising. It would impose a series of very onerous tests on separatists before they could be allowed to hold another independence referendum.  

If such an act is passed and proposals for turning Britain into a federal patchwork of autonomous units are binned, then the prospects of the country overcoming the stiff challenges which confront it in what is a new age of danger and adversity, will be much enhanced. 

Tom Gallagher is Emeritus Professor of Politics at the University of Bradford. His latest book is Salazar, the Dictator Who Refused to Die, Hurst Publishers 2020 (available here) and his twitter account is @cultfree54  

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