This year marks the 20th anniversary of devolution.
The political landscape has changed markedly since the first years of devolution. Yet, little has changed in the way intergovernmental relationships are managed in the UK. With this in mind, my cross-party committee at Westminster launched an inquiry into the relationship between the UK and Scottish Governments, for which the Centre on Constitutional Change provided invaluable evidence – reflected in the report we have published today.
Our Committee has found that the personal relations and political alignment which underpinned the relatively smooth start to intergovernmental relations have now all but vanished. For many years, relations between the two governments were aided by Labour being in power in both Westminster and Holyrood, meaning there was little the two governments disagreed about and there were strong personal relations between politicians to resolve any disagreements that did arise.
However, policy divergence between London and Edinburgh increased significantly in 2007 as the election of an SNP Scottish Government brought an end to nearly ten years of Labour Party dominance in the UK. Trust broke down further in 2014 due to the Independence Referendum. Against this background of a steady decline in effective cooperation, UK-Scottish relations have come under renewed strain after the UK voted to leave the European Union in 2016.
Since then the relationship has been characterised by mutual distrust and political stalemate. Indeed, we heard from former senior Scottish Government civil servants who described Brexit as “the worst crisis devolution has faced to date”.
The relationship has deteriorated at a time when goodwill and cooperation are needed most, as Brexit will require an unprecedented level of intergovernmental cooperation and coordination. Therefore, if the UK Government is serious about improving intergovernmental relations, it needs to fundamentally reconsider its approach to devolution and work to restore trust and cooperation, which has disappeared at a time when it is vital.
While strong political relations are essential to effective intergovernmental relations, they also need to be supported by strong systems and my Committee also exposed inadequacies in the existing formal mechanisms for intergovernmental consultation and communication (the JMC), and mediation dispute (the JMC’s dispute resolution process); which are buckling under the pressure of the two Government’s polarised positions on Brexit.
A more authoritative, formalised, and robust JMC is needed to cope with how devolution operates today. Our report agrees with many of the key recommendations made to us by the Centre on Constitutional Change, particularly those on the frequency of meetings, transparency, and the need for an independent secretariat.
A key area of focus for our inquiry has been the JMC’s dispute resolution process, which we found the Scottish Government does not have confidence in. Indeed, one Scottish Minister described it as “farcical”. In some cases, the UK Government has simply refused to acknowledge and progress a dispute – for instance, in relation to disagreements about the DUP confidence and supply agreement. For this reason, my Committee is calling for an end to the UK Government’s unilateral right to block formal dispute resolution proceedings, so that the devolved administrations can have renewed faith in the process.
We also recommend that some form of third-party mediation is introduced, to ensure that when disagreements do arise, there is a resolution process in place which commands the confidence of all four administrations – something that’s a feature of many international systems. A robust dispute resolution process would not only provide a way out of deadlocked disagreements, it would also inspire confidence in intergovernmental relations more widely.
Ministry for the union?
Our inquiry questioned whether the Scotland Office adds much value to the relationship between the UK and Scottish Governments, beyond its role in major devolution events such as the Scottish Independence Referendum. My Committee found that day-to-day intergovernmental relations are handled by officials working in the relevant policy department, rather than by the Scotland Office. As such, our report recommends that the UK Government should review the role of the Scotland Office and the Secretary of State for Scotland, including considering whether a single department responsible for managing the Government’s relations with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland might better reflect how devolution works today.
A properly functioning devolution system should be a continuous learning curve and the UK Government should welcome regular reform to intergovernmental processes. The fact that a cross-party group of MPs has been able to coalesce around the reforms in our report is indicative of the strength of evidence we have received, and the broad consensus that the time has come for the UK Government to take a serious look at the relationship between the UK and Scottish Governments. As the Cabinet Office’s continues its review on this topic, we hope and expect that the UK Government will consider carefully the broadly-supported and evidence-based recommendations we put forward in our report.
First published by the Centre on Constitutional Change