Archive for the 'Devolution' Category


If Scotland has its own Secretary of State then so should London

Sunday, January 14th, 2018

Graphic: The last two general election results in London via the BBC

We were promised a New Year reshuffle.  In the end, it resembled not so much a game of musical chairs as musical statues, with only Justine Greening, Patrick McLoughlin and James Brokenshire falling over.  Theresa May was unable to impose herself more fully on her Cabinet.  The chief points of interest were in the adding of social care to the Secretary of State for Health’s remit and the adding of Housing to the Communities Secretary’s remit.  All the Prime Minister seemed to be able to do is give out some stinking badges.

So let’s have a look at some of the stinking badges.  As with so many aspects of the British constitution, the role of the Secretaries of State has developed haphazardly.  The title of “Secretary of State” came into existence under Queen Elizabeth I, though the role itself dates back to at least the reign of Henry III.

Originally there was just one secretary, but from Henry VIII’s time onwards, two held the office.   The number of Secretaries of State fluctuated between two and three between 1708 and 1854.  From 1858, this increased to five.  After the First World War, grade inflation resulted in there being eight Secretaries of State.

After the Second World War, numbers were briefly reduced to five, but when Harold Wilson became Prime Minister he began the present practice of making most Cabinet ministers Secretaries of State.  The current Cabinet includes 18 Secretaries of State (the other full members of the Cabinet are the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the Leader of the House of Lords and the Chairman of the Conservative Party).

It is a curiosity that while Secretaries of State are allotted different responsibilities, their powers under legislation are not usually confined by government department.  If legislation gives power to a Secretary of State it can normally be exercised, at least in theory, by any Secretary of State.  No Act of Parliament is required to create one.  This explains in part why the Prime Minister can chop and change responsibilities of Secretaries of State so freely.

The remits are not particularly obviously thought-through.  Three are geographical (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland).  The rest are thematic.  Two are directly Brexit-related.  Two others (Foreign & Commonwealth Affairs and International Development) are also international in theme.  The other 11 cover those areas that Prime Ministers past and present have deemed most important.  Few of the roles are of any great antiquity.

Theresa May indulged in a bit of tinkering, as noted above, but the whole layout looks ripe for a proper rethink, as and when Britain gets a Prime Minister who is strong enough to bruise egos.  Let me give a bit of help.

Devoting four different Secretaries of State to different aspects of international affairs seems extravagant, even at the time of Brexit.  But a still greater anomaly is the fact that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are each allocated their own Secretary of State.  After the early decades of the 18th century, Scotland made do without a Secretary of State until 1926.  Wales didn’t get one until 1964 and Northern Ireland had to wait until 1972.  So none of them have any particularly antique constitutional claim to a dedicated Secretary of State.

All three have had extensive devolution in the last 20 years, so they now have plenty of politicians looking after them locally – or should do, in the case of Northern Ireland.  Wales and Scotland were allocated only part of Secretaries of State under Labour between 2003 and 2008.  Civilisation did not obviously crumble.  A Martian might wonder why there isn’t a single Secretary of State for Devolution.

The contrast with the governmental status of London is stark.  London is more populous than Scotland and Wales put together.  Its GDP is bigger than Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland put together.  Its Mayor has far more limited devolved powers than Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.  It is disproportionately important to the economy of Britain as a whole and the tax revenues it produces keep the rest of the country in the style to which it has become accustomed. 

At the same time, some of the worst examples of deprivation are found in London and it faces very pressing social problems largely absent elsewhere.  London is more different from the rest of the country than any parts of the rest of the country are from each other.

You might have thought that London would merit a Secretary of State, given its obvious great importance, unique nature and unique problems.  But in fact it has only a part-time junior minister, who is separately expected to act as a minister of state for transport.  (Lest this be thought to be a party political point, it should be noted that Labour does not have a shadow minister for London.)  It seems that London barely registers in the government’s thinking.

As things are currently set up, the government is unthinkingly treating London as a cash cow and sending out the signal that London’s needs are of third order importance to it.  With London profoundly alienated from the present government in the wake of the Brexit vote, that looks a dangerous line to take in the long term.  There’s only so long that Londoners will put up with being taken for mugs.

Alastair Meeks


How the United Kingdom is changing almost without comment

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2015

Union Jack

Alistair Meeks on the “Secret Federation”

On Wednesday, John Swinney stood up to deliver his draft budget for Scotland.  The consensus was that the event was a damp squib.  With no changes to income tax and only copycat changes to stamp duty on second homes, it was less of a fiscal fiesta and more of a monetary mundanity.  The SNP showed themselves to be a party more intent on not risking re-election than in demonstrating a different Scottish way of doing things.

Beneath the surface, however, new currents are forming.  As from 2017/18, the Scottish government will get considerably greater tax-raising powers.  It will be able to set its own bands and rates of income tax (it will also get control over some of the VAT raised in Scotland, air passenger duty and new powers in relation to benefits and welfare payments).  40% of all Scottish revenue-raising will be controlled in Scotland and 60% of all spending will be controlled by Holyrood.  Devolution is taking place at an accelerating rate.  Whether or not this is some form of Devomax, it is certainly Devoplus.

Scotland is not alone in seeing further devolution.  Almost unnoticed outside the province, George Osborne announced in the Autumn Statement that Wales will be granted partial control over income tax in the coming years.  Details are sketchy – so far as I can see, we have no more to go on than what George Osborne said on the floor of the House of Commons, which was as follows:

“My Right Honourable Friend the Welsh Secretary and I also confirm that we will legislate so that the devolution of income tax can take place without a referendum.”

Clearly the Welsh Conservative party leaders had been given some warning that this was coming because they rapidly pledged to reduce basic rate tax by 1% and higher rate tax by 5%.  Others were caught on the hop. It remains to be seen what tax and spend pledges other parties come up with in advance of next May’s Assembly election.

This is part of an ongoing theme of further Welsh devolution.  Slipstreaming in Scotland’s wake, the Welsh Assembly is being granted extra powers over energy, transport and the running of its own affairs, including such matters as setting the voting age and renaming itself a Parliament.

There has been some controversy as the government has sought to bring Wales’s devolution settlement more in line with that of Scotland and Northern Ireland.  At present, the Welsh Assembly only possesses legislative competence on those subjects that have been specifically granted to it. By contrast, the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly can legislate in all areas other than those explicitly reserved to the UK Parliament.  The draft Wales Bill seeks to bring Wales into line with the broader approach taken in Scotland and Northern Ireland.  This has been done in a cack-handed manner, as explained in more detail here.

Nevertheless, without very much attention from the media, devolution is being much more firmly entrenched in Wales as well as Scotland.

Northern Ireland has not been forgotten.  The journey from conflict to self-government has been taken in a supermarket trolley with a wonky wheel, but after another crisis earlier this year Northern Ireland is set to resume its progress under a new First Minister, Arlene Foster.  George Osborne in the Autumn Statement has made sure that the six counties haven’t been left out of the party.

As well as throwing some money at the problem, he announced devolution of corporation tax to allow the Northern Irish government to set at the rate of 12.5%.  While the Welsh hadn’t particularly asked for a say over income tax, the Northern Irish had assiduously lobbied for devolution of corporation tax so that they can compete with the Republic of Ireland.

What of the English?  What indeed.  The government has shown no inclination to set up formal devolution of the type that the other home nations benefit from, nor has it explored regional assemblies of the type once favoured by Labour.  It is pushing for the delegation of increased powers and awarding infrastructure projects to cities throughout the UK under what it calls city deals, but these cannot be compared with the much more extensive powers being granted to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

London, whose economy is bigger than all those three put together, is not apparently under consideration for tax-raising powers, though it (along with the Core Cities) has called for this.  Taxes generated in London sustain the devolutionary settlements in other parts of the country, so expect these calls to increase in volume and ferocity.

Piecemeal devolution will lead to problems for any organisations that are set up on a UK-wide basis.  Employers will need to deduct tax from earnings on multiple bases, depending on where their employees live.  Keeping track of the tax statuses of employees will become still more of a headache.  An employee who works in Liverpool might move from Wrexham to Chester and not bother updating HR.  A pensioner might retire from Glasgow to Bournemouth without feeling the need to tell the insurance company paying them.  The more that devolution takes hold, the more such problems will arise.

English nationalists object to the inferior treatment which they perceive that they receive.  The danger of a piecemeal devolution that excludes England is in fact the opposite: if Westminster by default becomes the English Parliament from which the other home nations are devolved, far from strengthening the constitutional settlement a colonial relationship will be created by stealth.  Further change is required and it’s far from clear that anyone in government is thinking that far ahead.  The present proposed arrangements are unstable and unsustainable.   The government needs to make time for some further thought.

Alastair Meeks