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Comment: The souring relationship between Edinburgh and London is undermining devolution

Comment: The souring relationship between Edinburgh and London is undermining devolution

Can a devolved Scotland led by the SNP find common ground with a UK government led by the Tories?

Michael Gove, Minister for Intergovernmental Relations (amongst much else), recently presented a report agreed between the UK and devolved governments on “new structures for more regular formal intergovernmental engagement and new processes to increase impartiality and to avoid, resolve and, where necessary, escalate disputes”. 

But it fails to address the elephant in the room and evades a crucial issue at the heart of any democracy. What happens when Scottish and/or UK governments are looking for a fight, exaggerates and escalates differences and prefers to use structures to grandstand? And how will these new institutions be accountable?

Institutional reform is rarely enough to resolve difficult questions. Karl Popper, the great twentieth century philosopher, compared institutions to fortresses. “You cannot construct foolproof institutions, that is to say, institutions whose functioning does not very largely depend upon persons: institutions, at best, can reduce the uncertainty of the personal element, by assisting those who work for the aims for which the institutions are designed, and on whose personal initiative and knowledge success largely depends. (Institutions are like fortresses. They must be well designed and properly manned.)”

The Gove report refers to “regular official-level engagement within a collaborative environment created and fostered by ministers”. And there lies the problem. A hostile environment has been created by politicians, though any reader of the document could be excused for being unaware.

The issue of accountability looms large despite claims that the new structures involve “greater transparency, accountability and scrutiny”. They are a recipe for blame games and grandstanding given the current fraught state of relations between London and Edinburgh.

Agreements reached within the new structures will often require compromises and each side will blame the other for any perceived sub-optimal outcome. This is always a danger with intergovernmental relations, especially when transparency is lacking, and requires a maturity that is lacking at the moment.

At the outset of devolution, memoranda of understanding, codes of practice, concordats, joint ministerial committees, statements of funding policy and, in the words of one senior Whitehall official interviewed back in spring 2001, “all sorts of paraphernalia none of which existed before devolution” were agreed.

There had been a smooth transition to devolution. ‘Party congruence’ ie that Labour was in office in London, Cardiff and Edinburgh, the last albeit in coalition with the LibDems, helped.

Less noted, but at least as important, was the generous funding allocated to the devolved bodies: loads of money oiled the wheels of relations and the Barnett formula ensured that Scotland shared in the growth in public spending, unparalleled outside of war time. It would have been extremely remiss if no account had been taken of the possibility of such change. 

Joint ministerial meetings soon became dead letters but it was assumed that life could be breathed into them if and when the need arose. More frequent and formal meetings were called for repeatedly by numerous parliamentary committees and commentators from the start. Some of us were sceptical, believing that while new structures might help, attitudes, values and behaviour were more important. What was lacking was a federal-style culture (not necessarily federal institutions).

This is acknowledged in the recent report from the Lords Constitution Committee which calls for a “greater degree of respect and partnership between the different layers of government”. But warm words are not enough. If the Scottish and UK governments show the same mutual respect that Edinburgh shows towards local authorities, then nothing will change.

Whatever Scotland’s constitutional status, we require good relations between Edinburgh and London. The current situation does not augur well for any prospective post-independence negotiations and future relations, which will make the UK’s Brexit negotiations with the EU look like a picnic in the current context.

Conflict is, of course, inevitable with devolution. An early advocate described devolution as allowing for “creative conflict”. The issue is how it should be handled. Seeking to deny or eradicate differences creates problems and signifies the pre-devolution mindset that operated under a unified system of government. Robust exchanges were usually kept under wraps. This denied the purpose of devolution, to allow for differences.

We have since moved to the opposite extreme. We see (and some look for) conflict almost everywhere. Devolution withstood the election of the SNP in 2007, not least as the SNP knew then that there would be an electoral backlash if it had used devolution to pick fights or even push the case for independence hard.

Similarly, David Cameron was cautious, emphasising his “respect agenda” knowing that the return of the Tories might provoke increased support for independence. The SNP’s 2011 overall majority – ironically won despite, not because, it supported independence – ensured that independence moved to the top of the agenda and that’s when everything changed.

The Tories, too, embraced their own form of nationalist fundamentalism. Each had glimpsed its version of the promised land. More constructive relations might have been possible if only one government had had a rush of blood to the head.

But relations are now conducted in the shadow of incompatible, irreconcilable goals. There is no easy solution to this conundrum and new structures will not make much difference.

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