The question is not whether the UK needs a new constitutional framework, but what that framework should be
Craig Hoy, the founding Editor of Holyrood Magazine, looks back on the early days of devolution
Image credit: Holyrood
Holyrood Magazine was founded in 1999, at the same time as the Scottish Parliament. This piece is part of a series of articles in the magazine and on Holyrood.com to mark 20 years of the Scottish Parliament, exploring how devolution has changed Scotland.
Twenty years ago this month I was asked to co-launch Holyrood Magazine. Weighing up whether to head back to Scotland from a similar posting at Westminster I mulled over several reservations before saying yes.
Firstly, I had not voted for devolution. Being a London-based Scot I wasn’t on the electoral roll. That was probably just as well. At best, I was unpersuaded. As a young journalist cutting my teeth in the lobby I strived to be studiously impartial. But at heart I was, and remain, a Conservative and a Unionist, although I recognised then that this was no barrier to supporting devolved government.
Before returning to set up home in Scotland two years ago, I spent a decade running a media and intelligence business in Asia. The resulting distance and time have clouded many political memories from those many moons ago. But I still vividly remember Donald Dewar launching the Scotland Bill with the words: “There shall be a Scottish parliament. I like that.” My problem then was that I was not so sure I did.
My doubts centred not on the case for devolution, which had been effectively made through the Scottish Constitutional Convention. My fears focused instead on the longer-term impact devolution might have on the British Isles as a whole. Rather than addressing divisions in the UK, I feared that a poorly devised and incoherent system of devolved government across Britain might make them wider still.
At that time, I also had a nagging, but probably false, doubt about whether Scotland was really as keen on devolution as the polls – and the referendum – suggested. After 18 years of Tory rule, it struck me that what many Scots wanted most of all was a government that they had voted for. And in 1997 they got it – at Westminster. If Labour hadn’t moved swiftly to hold the referendum I wonder if some of the passion might have gone out of the debate, at least for a while.
The case for taking decisions about Scotland’s future as close to the Scottish people as possible was, and remains, compelling. Two decades on I see much more clearly the practical, constitutional and cultural benefits of having our own Parliament. In policy terms think of Scotland leading the way on the smoking ban – or more recently Frank’s Law. But the piecemeal way Tony Blair implemented devolution UK-wide was, and remains, a cause for concern. It is definitely still unfinished business.
Rather than viewing Scottish and Welsh devolution as part of a greater process of reframing the government of the UK – and that could have extended to Europe – Blair effectively let Scotland develop its own plans. Dewar deftly overcame resistance in Whitehall about exactly what should and should not be devolved. I doubt if the Prime Minister cared much about such intricacies.
Wales, and later Northern Ireland, went on to frame different models of devolved government. This left much of England virtually untouched administratively and a House of Commons effectively comprising two-tiers of MP – as it still does to this day.
Constitutional reform is one of the Blair government’s lasting legacies. I just don’t get much of a sense that Tony Blair was its architect. And, if he was, I am not sure the whole system rests on particularly strong foundations. Look at how devolution energised Scottish Nationalism rather than, as many in Scottish Labour had predicted, killing it stone dead.
Pursuing plans for Scotland to have its Parliament, and Wales its Assembly, without any equivalent thinking on England looked to me to be storing up problems for later. Innovations such as the northern powerhouse and metro-mayors have only gone some way to address this missed opportunity.
Over two decades my position on the principle of devolution has changed – I am a passionate advocate of the Scottish Parliament, though not, I admit, the current administration. When it operates at full tilt in the national interest, Holyrood takes better decisions closer and more responsively to the needs of the Scottish people.
However, I want to see a strong Scottish Parliament as part of a strong United Kingdom and we’re in a bit of a bind on this at the moment. Despite Brexit and the possibility of Indyref2, we are “better together”. But the question now is “together in what?”
Two decades after Donald Dewar became First Minister – and the Scottish Conservatives reversed their opposition to devolution – our politics are not in the best of health. Despite the current woes, Tories have to remain the optimists in British politics. The party should be searching now for the silver lining. If we can reach a UK-wide accommodation on Brexit, and fend-off Indyref 2, then we have a huge opportunity to embark on a new wave of constitutional reform across the whole nation – including, for the first time in a very long while, England and its regions.
The question today is not whether the UK needs a new constitutional framework, but what that framework should be. It should be one, for example, which lays down thresholds for referendums which prevent major constitutional decisions being taken on knife-edge results.
We need to kick-start a very real debate about our constitution, our parliamentary systems and our structures and layers of government. Many would disagree with this, but I believe that this debate should be within the confines of the Union, which is where the majority of Scots want to remain. Such a debate should go way beyond the issues considered by the Smith Commission. It could – and should – involve discussion about devolving powers from Holyrood to Scotland’s regions.
At this crucial inflection point, the case for a Federal UK might never have been so compelling. Rather than threaten the Union, a federal system would allow us to devolve further powers to, and within, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It would address the very real concerns of the South West, the Midlands and the North of England.
The outcome is likely to fall short of delivering fully-fledged parliaments in England’s regions. But a “pragmatic federalism” would drive decision-making out from London to the regions of England and help de-centralise and codify the structures of government. Alongside a reformed House of Commons, a reconfigured House of Lords could better represent the countries and regions of the UK.
England’s regional bodies may not need, nor want, the same legislative freedoms as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – or, indeed, in London. An English Parliament, sitting at Westminster, or the West Midlands for that matter, might be close enough to the people to take responsibility for England’s broad legislative agenda. This legislation could be localised and implemented by regional bodies with the teeth, the budgets and the administrative autonomy to deliver on local needs.
This would address the on-going democratic deficit which exists beyond London and bring greater constitutional symmetry to the UK. It would also tackle the real grievance many parts of England have about the way they are governed – a sense of grievance which undoubtedly played a broader part in the Brexit vote.
Going into this process would undoubtedly raise significant questions. Do we need a First Minister of England? What further powers should come to Scotland? What powers could Holyrood devolve to our regions? What powers would the UK Parliament and British Government retain? And, on a technicality, does it matter if new structures are asymmetric?
These questions could all be determined through a wider post-Brexit constitutional review of how our family of nations governs itself in future. We should go into this expecting to see Holyrood gaining more powers, the regions of England being emboldened democratically and Westminster’s sphere of influence on all but a core of reserved matters shrinking. And it would allow us to tackle the urgent question about the future size, shape and scope of the House of Lords.
This would move us into a post-devolution, post-Brexit era where decisions on issues such as the environment and the economy are taken as close as possible to those they will impact. It would deliver greater coherence, and through that a cohesion, to the UK as a whole.
Rather than breaking the Union, a bold, new, post-Brexit constitutional settlement based on federal principles could well save it.
Craig Hoy was the founding Editor of Holyrood Magazine and is a Member of the Scottish Conservative Party
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