Winging the Constitution

There was a time when Conservatives were viewed as traditionalists and reactionary in the Albert Hirschman sense particularly regarding the constitution. I suppose Mrs Thatcher’s radicalism put paid to much of the older Tory caste of mind but it is remarkable just how willing the new unbound government is to get stuck in about various aspects of how we are governed. Perhaps, like the SNP in 2011, they did not expect a majority and in 2015 wrote a manifesto expecting to negotiate parts of it away. Instead we have an unadulterated set of commitments, blue in tooth and claw.

First, there is the Human Rights Act, earning many lawyerly column inches in Scotland because of the ambiguity of its status in terms of it being written in to the founding of the Scottish Parliament. At this point, it is not at all clear how this Bill of Rights is supposed to work and we all know about the consequences of hasty law.

Second, the Smith Commission, itself not exactly hanging about to reach its decisions, has had its draft clauses put in place, diluting certain aspects of the welfare benefits aspects of what Smith proposed. This was unanimously criticised by the Devolution Committee at Holyrood yesterday and clearly is part of the terms of current negotiations between PM and FM who met in Edinburgh this morning. Of course, the Scottish Government want additional powers on the back of their amazing election result: devolving more welfare powers (similar in sprit to Smith’s original proposals), the minimum wage, employment policy and corporation tax. At the same time the Conservatives want to push on with EVEL (while retaining Barnett) which, despite some reasonable arguments about natural justice and West Lothian – looks likely to be leading to serious party political and territorial conflict.

Looking back over the last few years it is striking how the debate is running ahead of agreed reforms. We have only now last month started rolling out the 2012 Act’s changes to property transactions taxes and it will be next year before the income tax changes start. We have the likely future introduction of the Smith Commission proposals on income tax, VAT and benefits – but still a sense that there is more to come even further into the future. Where will we be in terms of the debate if and when the Scottish Government’s negotiated extra-devolved powers come into force three or more years down the road? The continually moving ground of what is devolved and what reserved must make goof government more challenging.

Third, there has of course been no change at DWP. The Universal Credit continues and, until Scotland has its limited levers over welfare, discretionary payments, bedroom tax and the like, it will be implementing the UK policies. IDS will be at the helm looking to make the £12 billion cuts factored into the party’s manifesto. The stresses and strains on this part of the social union will not cease any time soon. The timescale for the enactment of the expected devolution bill becomes all the more critical.

Fourth, George Osborne yesterday proposed more Devo Manc style metropolitan level devolution of powers, including the promise of health and social care budgets, as was previously agreed for Manchester. I have previously written about the rather ad hoc and unsystematic nature of City Deals and related interventions that impose devolution from the centre. The quid pro quo announced yesterday is the requirement for a super council elected mayor in each case. Why is an imposed mayor/leader governance structure required to enable devolution to the local level (even if it is a combination of previously separate councils)? Is there a coherent long term plan that is systematic – perhaps the newly ennobled Jim O’Neill will flesh this out in the months to come? Glasgow and the Clyde Valley have a city deal and membership of the Core Cities but would appear to not have to worry about elected mayors (though it conjures up images of Strathclyde Regional Council, an entity much lamented in Tory circles).

Finally, there is the trump card of the negotiations followed by the expected EU referendum. The view seems to be that the UK Government wants to push forward to an early referendum. This is being articulated as the tactic of those in power who want to stay in Europe but of course it may simply speed up Brexit. In Scotland, this is generally seen to be a sufficient cause for a further independence referendum. It does assume that Scotland would vote differently from England – but we will just have to wait and see. Because of these tactical considerations, I worry that the substance of the arguments about the UK in Europe may be lost or diluted by constantly interpreting the debate and the polls (assuming we have opinion polls in the future?) in terms of the wider consequences of a no vote. This is a huge decision and Europe seems to me to be the best example of the gratuitous desire to vandalise governmental relations and structures on ideological rather than evidenced reasons. Now I am sounding reactionary.

The title of this post arose from an excellent piece by Flip Chart Fairy Tales recently on the nature of the Coalition’s economic policy development over the last five years: winged rather than planned. Looks like more of the same.