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by James Mitchell
05 July 2024
What next for devolution?

Sir Keir Starmer and John Swinney | Alamy

What next for devolution?

Devolution now enters a new phase. Its first phase was accompanied by a booming economy, massive growth in public spending, relative peace on the constitutional front, and with Labour in office in both Edinburgh and London. This helped devolution bed down well.

Tensions grew when the SNP formed a minority government in 2007 but Alex Salmond knew that rocking the boat by picking needless fights with London would not help his party or cause. Labour struggled to come to terms with the result. By now Labour should have reflected on this period and learned lessons. The SNP succeeded in portraying itself as a constructive and serious party of government and this – not support for independence – saw it win an overall majority in Holyrood in 2011. 

This was when the SNP usurped Labour’s place as the party of devolution while retaining its support for independence. Alex Salmond, unlike his successors, understood Jimmy Maxton’s maxim that ‘if you cannot ride two horses you shouldn’t be in the circus’. 

David Cameron’s ‘respect agenda’ had similar motivations. He needed to dispel the Tories’ anti-devolution image and wanted to make devolution work. It looked as if we were all devolutionists for a brief period.

But all changed with that SNP overall majority in 2011. It did not matter that the SNP hardly mentioned an independence referendum during the campaign and the voters thought that Scotland’s constitutional status had declined in importance over the four years the SNP had been in office. A referendum became inevitable when Cameron miscalculated and agreed on a referendum – so long as it offered a binary choice.   

Like so many, he assumed that support for the union would easily win and that this would seriously damage the SNP.  Governing became subsumed in a lengthy intense campaign.

Cutting out the middle ground suited both the SNP and Tories and undermined Labour, the real party of devolution. Those who had consistently supported devolution – with or without more powers – were forced to choose between two options that were not their first choice. Salmond’s SNP exploited this effectively bequeathing the most remarkable base to his successor.

For a brief period after the referendum, it looked as if the SNP would return to the kind of politics that had won it an overall majority. Many people working across Scotland’s public services, including those who had never voted SNP or for independence, welcomed the prospect of attention focusing on everyday concerns in the health service, poor educational outcomes, addressing climate change and stimulating economic growth.  The goodwill towards the new first minister was almost palpable. The breadth of support for her to succeed went well beyond SNP voters.

One view is that all changed with the Brexit referendum result. Nicola Sturgeon returned to the campaign style of politics in which she was most comfortable. It was opportunistic but understandable but she miscalculated.  

But even before the Brexit result, she was in full campaign mode, drunk on the adulation evident at pointless mass rallies across Scotland.  Her focus on campaigning  – always easier than governing and where her undoubted strengths lay – at expense of governing.  

Delivering speeches came easier than delivering better outcomes but went down well with the party faithful.  Relations with London deteriorated.

Devolution is predicated on an understanding that there are differences between Scotland and the rest of the UK but also, crucially, that Scottish interests will frequently coincide with the UK. Cooperation and joint policy making are essential. Devolution has been misconceived for too long. There are issues that are wholly or primarily the responsibility of devolved or UK central government but many issues do not fit neatly into such categories (nor it should be stressed ever will regardless of Scotland’s constitutional status).  

There will be differences, tensions and battles but if seen through and worked out from a public policy perspective not as a game of constitutional politics then there is a chance of improving outcomes.

The election of a Labour government and with a relatively new first minister, albeit someone who has been at the heart of the SNP government over the last seventeen years, is an opportunity for a new chapter. It is a chance that should be watched and scrutinised carefully. The scale of the challenges is immense. There is, for example, an opportunity to stop using Scotland’s hellish record of drug deaths as a political football.

There needs to be evidence of mutual trust and parity of esteem based on the understanding that each government has a legitimate mandate from the same electorate. There is a need to rethink the relationship but tired ideas that the governments need to formalise and regularise meetings evade what is required. It was understandable that calls for more formalisation were made in the early days of devolution but the experience of the last decade and more shows that what is needed is more fundamental change. Discussion of intergovernmental relations has been stuck in a bureaucratic fog in both academic circles and in government.

In the event that one governing party uses its position for purely or largely campaign purposes but the other is intent on focusing on governing it should not be difficult for the latter to demonstrate this to its advantage. If, however, both governing parties play politics at the expense of governing then more regularised meetings are pointless and often enough counter-productive. More meetings mean more opportunities for grand-standing and blame games.

Just as if two people want to have a fight, only a third-party intervention can stop this. A political rather than institutional and legalistic response is needed. The third party in this case is the electorate. Voters need to decide whether they are content with the continuation of politicians behaving badly.

Looking at the situation that now prevails suggests an opportunity, though not without dangers. There will, of course, be a temptation for Labour to crow and rub the SNP’s noses in defeat. That is inevitable but if it spills over into government then little will change. Exchanging barbs about whose mandate is bigger than the other’s needs to be separated from good government.

Building trust is important. The best way to do this is to identify issues that need the efforts of both governments working together. There is no shortage but it will be a test of the maturity of our politicians more than our political institutions whether they can work together. Ad hoc arrangements will be far more important than the managerialism that has too long dominated discussion.

As ever in public policy, there are trade-offs. Easy wins might help build trust but have less impact. More challenging policy problems are less likely to achieve quick wins. Tackling Scotland’s drug problem stands out as a scandal that should focus minds. Economic growth is essential but made increasingly difficult given the need to grow while addressing the climate crisis and with more grey clouds on the horizon in the field of international trade. Both are examples of where we need cooperation and to make devolution work.

There are two members of the SNP Cabinet who understand the importance of the economy. Having John Swinney and Kate Forbes as first and deputy first minister should help but it is time for a reshuffle.  There are still too many Scottish Government Ministers who came to office through loyalty more than talent. There are some on the backbenches who are more competent and likely to work collaboratively with London.

John Swinney has shown remarkable loyalty to each leader he has served over 45 years. He now needs to show leadership of his own. If independence is ever to return as a real prospect then it will only do so by showing competence in government and making devolution work.

Labour will not want to help the SNP appear competent but the alternative is to appear anti-devolution.  Labour has good reason to re-capture the agenda and show it is the party of devolution. The new Secretary of State for Scotland and the ministerial team will need to come out of campaign mode upon assuming office. Ian Murray has spoken of the need for cooperation. If he follows this through then we can look forward to a different type of politics.

On each side, there will be a temptation to carry on campaigning at the expense of governing. There will be some within the SNP who see ‘making devolution work’ as the very antithesis of advocating independence.  Labour will be tempted to use government office to undermine devolution so long as the SNP is in government.

This election presents an opportunity and a test of Scottish politics. Scotland may finally move on from the independence referendum that has cast a long shadow over politics for a decade.

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