On Calman and assymetrical power relationships in the Union…

Three Thousand Versts takes Kalman to task for his report on Scottish devolution, and Chekov asks:

Surely this type of tinkering can only emasculate our national Parliament at Westminster and compound the asymmetries which Labour’s constitutional experiment has inflicted upon the United Kingdom?

He goes on to consider the recommendations, but seems unconvinced:

…the recommendations stress the need for different levels of government with responsibility for Scotland; Westminster, Holyrood and down to the local level; to work together. Indeed, it might have noted that an attritional relationship between the Scottish and national governments only serves to bolster the SNP’s campaign for independence. The report offers rather a convincing case for continued Union, as well as a clear exegesis of Scotland’s place within the constitutional fabric of the United Kingdom, but if its practical recommendations would ultimately weaken that Union, then the body has failed to satisfy its remit.

I’ll offer couple of sub constitutional thoughts for the pot. One from my ex River Path colleague, David Steven on Twitter this morning who noted in passing that the unlovable character of local government relates to the fact that it is actually responsible for raising very little of its own budget.

And the Mayoral system (a Labour innovation which is very popular on the centre right) in certain cities in England, where the vote for a populist Mayor in Doncaster is likely to lead to serious clashes between himself and his council, if only in terms of picking a ‘cabinet’.

These tensions exist. The question is less should they exist, but rather can they usefully persist in a settled Union?

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  • Mick,

    Isn’t all politics about managing tensions of one kind or another?

  • So devolution wasn’t an attempt to addres asymmetries in power relations then?

  • Mick Fealty

    Indeed. Though, it’s a question of how (or even whether) these interlocking (and competing) sets of democratic institutions settle down and work.

  • Mick, the paragraph that you open with from my piece addresses instinctive doubts about further devolution of devolved matters, which I acknowledge must be treated on a case by case basis, evaluating the effect on regional institutions as well as the Union as a whole. I am actually reasonably impressed with areas of Calman. But there are holes there which are not addressed. The financial arrangements are piecemeal and would better be addressed by a consideration of the whole UK. I can’t see those suggestions as an end point, by anyone’s estimation. The oversight and cooperation ideas are positive, but they don’t really confront the most pressing problem, which is an us vs. them approach to government fostered by the SNP.

  • The problem with devolution is that some parts of the UK are more equal than others. No matter how you slice it up, there are always going to be arguments over the fairness of block grants versus local revenue. So long as Scotland (and Northern Ireland) are treated as a special case, there will always be a “not special enough” argument, even amongst those who don’t actually want independence. In this sense, devolution has fallen between two stools – either the UK is a unitary state, where everything is decided in Westminster, or it is a devolved state, where regional/national parliaments decide local matters and Westminster decides shared matters. The current hybrid arrangement (devolution for some and not for others) is sticky tape and string by comparison.

  • Alex

    Chekov, in saying that “…the most pressing problem, which is an us vs. them approach to government fostered by the SNP”, you really are being extremely unfair. As far as I can gather, most of the inter-government disputes are initiated by Westminster Labour’s utter disdain of any other party. There is also a good deal less rancour between the administrations than there were under the Mcleish and McConnell govts – you just hear about it an awful lot more now. Consider this – upon his re-election as FM Rhodri Morgan was immediately called and congratulated by both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Similarly for Ian Paisley. Tony Blair didn’t bother calling Salmond at all, and Gordon Brown resolutely refused, only talking to Salmond some weeks later at a Cobra meeting following the Glasgow Airport terrorist attack. There does exist within the present Labour government an aggressive, intolerant attitude to pretty much everyone who isn’t in the Labour party. That those who hold such a viewpoint have now started to cannibalise their own party should surprise no-one.

  • michael


    you seem to suggest that the nationalists being in government is the source of the ‘them vs. us’ mentality. Surely its simple party politics that creates this division.

    If, on the other hand, you’re suggesting that its a simple lack of co-operational structures that creates this, then what incentives do you expect would encourage co-operation between administrations of differing parties in the various administrations?

    Why take a patriotic stance (‘We’re all in this together, etc.’) when you can just blame the guys in London?

  • Alex,

    Of course you’re right that Labour should shoulder its share of the blame. It’s authoritarian streak has mitigated against real cooperation, but the SNP’s central narrative is a struggle between the two parliaments. To an extent, where there are two fulcrums of power whose remits haven’t been clearly delineated and where party rivalries intervene (michael), of course there will be a certain tension. But that doesn’t develop into a central narrative of struggle unless nationalism is involved. Calman hasn’t addressed sufficiently how that poison should be drawn, because it has only alluded to the problem rather than identifying it explicitly.