After devolution, referendums and possible succession[s], what’s happening to our politics?

Janan Ganesh is an outstanding new talent in the UK political press. His columns for the FT are fresh and sit outside the niggly media bubble of Westminster.

A few days back he outlined an apparent effect within the political political system currently more pronounced on the Tory side of things, but which may also have echoes elsewhere. He argues

As the biggest parties weaken as corporate entities, individual politicians and factions within them become more powerful. So even personal patronage, the one lever that only a prime minister can pull, cannot be pulled very far. Mr Cameron, Mr Blair and his Labour successor, Gordon Brown, all abandoned plans to demote one cabinet member or another for fear of reprisals from their supporters.

In fact, resignations by influential ministers – a kind of reverse patronage – can be more potent than patronage itself. Mr Blair discovered as much in 2006, when the departure of a hostile minister forced him to announce that he too would be gone within a year.

Running deeper than any of these constitutional and political changes is a new culture of centrifugalism in the country. There is a vague but insistent belief that power is essentially dirty and should be smashed into a thousand particles and scattered around the public realm. Mr Blair divested power to the courts, to self-running public services, to the Bank of England, to Scotland, Wales and London.

Mr Cameron has largely run with this and, even if Scots vote to preserve the union in next month’s referendum, more powers are on their way to Edinburgh. Referendums themselves are becoming semi-regular events, taking great questions of state – from the electoral model to EU membership – out of the prime minister’s hands.

In Ireland Referendums come thicker and faster than ever. The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which has been much in the news recently, was passed in October 1983, making eight referendums in forty six years. There have been twenty five in the thirty one years since.

As Paul Evans has perceptively noted

Referendums are often used to deal with the difficult questions that political parties dare not address during elections. They allow politicians to park awkward or divisive questions when they’d be better offering joined-up answers. They provide a way of letting the political class off the hook.

Ganesh suggests there’s a process of alienation in play here, not least in consideration of Labour’s resilient poll lead over the Tories when Ed Miliband’s personal ratings are so poor compared to the PM. The explanation? Perhaps the electors have figured…

…that the office of prime minister is shrinking, and this has political implications that are already visible. There is a question detaining people in Westminster: how does a leader of the opposition with personal ratings as bad as Ed Miliband’s manage to remain competitive? Why is Labour still ahead in the polls nine months before the general election?

True, the party does well out of the Conservatives’ reliably noxious reputation, which puts a cap on Mr Cameron’s vote share. But there is a cruder explanation. Voters might simply think the job of prime minister does not count for much any more.

Denuded of executive power, trammelled on all sides, the nominal head of government is no such thing. So what David wants or Ed wants matters little to the people choosing between them.



  • Comrade Stalin

    Not sure if you missed it or not Mick, but the DUP announced via Edwin Poots that they were planning on withdrawing from the executive today unless the welfare reform issue is sorted out.

  • mickfealty

    I did. Been watching drama of the classic type all evening.

  • chrisjones2

    On the main issue I think that the problem for politicians si the wider scrutiny today. They face challenge by many more fragmented and uncontrollable outlets (like Slugger in its own small way)

    Faced with that, their instinct is to devlove responsibility (ie Blame) while,seeking to control and direct activity via the purse strings or legislation

    We need a politician to really restructure the constitution – its starting to look broken and ineffecticve as we cannot hold to account those who matter

  • chrisjones2

    PS if you want to combine this with classic drama try House Of Cards – the BBC version

  • chrisjones2

    What Poots actually said was:

    “Speaking on BBC Radio Ulster’s Nolan Show on Thursday, Mr Poots said that if the Northern Ireland Executive would not agree to allocate more money to health then they would have to find another minister to introduce the cuts.

    Mr Poots said: “I am not going to impose cuts which will have such a negative consequence that it will damage the health of the Northern Ireland population.

    “We’re talking here about cancer services, we’re talking here about cardiac services, we’re talking about care of the elderly, we’re talking about emergency departments, we’re talking about out-of-hours doctors.””

    and again a diffdernt take in the News Letter

    “In a radical move, the DUP minister warned he will not approve a significant number of potential cuts earmarked by officials, opening up the possibility of an overspend he estimated at “many tens of millions”.

    Mr Poots said he would instead outline the proposed cuts to the Stormont Executive as a whole, leaving fellow ministers to vote on whether they should be implemented.

    He said if cutbacks were then approved it would be a “Northern Ireland Executive position”, not his.”

    So now withdrawal …..but a tactial ploy to blame the shinners for the cuts

  • Comrade Stalin

    The Shinners are to blame for the cuts.

  • Morpheus

    The Shinners are the ones standing on the way of £XXX,000,000 leaving the NI economy every year which will have XXX impact on the people and economy of Northern Ireland. If you can fill in the XXX values then I am all ears.

    I have seen NICVA’s analysis of what the XXX values are and it’s not pretty, what are your XXX values based on?

  • kensei

    So, on topic, I wonder how much of the power of the Prime Ministers office is a loss of will rather than potency. I think Blair at his peak could have sacked Brown. It would have had heavy cost to his government, but he’d had survived and as long as the economy was doing well, he’d have won the election and could shaped the party more in his own image. And delivered a lesson. Even at the end, it would have been a bold move with probably a mixed reaction.

  • dougthedug

    Janan Ganesh is an outstanding new talent in the UK political press.

    Not if he writes stuff like this:

    even if Scots vote to preserve the union in next month’s referendum, more powers are on their way to Edinburgh.

    Have you read all the devo-proposals Mick? I’ve read every one. Devo+, Devo-More, the Lib-Dems, Labour and the Conservatives and the idea that Scotland is getting “more powers” is foolish.

    Without money a government is powerless and under all these proposals the only constant is that Scotland will be funded to the current Barnett formula or less. Certainly not more.

  • mickfealty

    Depends which end of the telescope you’re looking down. Giving away even spending powers means diminutive of actual executive power at Westminster.

    In that regard Janan is spot on in outlining a certain centrifugal force that may end up destroying the current political institutional establishment as we know it.

  • dougthedug

    But Westminster is not giving away spending powers in the sense of losing control of the Scottish parliament budget.

    It will do as it always has done which is to regard the Scottish Parliament as a government department and fund it accordingly.

    The Scottish parliament cannot spend more than Westminster gives unless it hits the Scottish population with income tax rises above the UK rates and keeps the excess. A certain route to losing an election.

    The 1998 Scotland Act funded the Scottish Parliament using the Barnett formula and allowed the Scottish parliament to vary income tax up or down if it wished. The Scottish parliament could keep the excess tax above the UK rates or fund any tax cut below the UK rates out of its block grant.

    Every devo scheme proposed so far sticks to that principle. Every one a hall of smoke and mirrors which spins “tax powers” and “fiscal responsibility” into a fairy land of fiscal independence.

    The Westminster government cannot pull a “devo-max” or a “devo-anything” rabbit out of the hat even when faced with the threat of the UK breaking up.

    Why these “outstanding” commentators think that the mythical more powers rabbit is going to pop up out of the hat when the independence threat is gone after a no vote is beyond me.

  • mickfealty


    Before the last Irish election, we had the current Tanaiste saying that going into the Troika was tantamount to giving away Ireland fiscal sovereignty.

    It was sort of right, and sort of nonsense. I get what you are arguing for in Scotland, and you are right to look for more power (through independence).

    But it is nonsense to suggest that Ganesh is in error here. Westminster IS giving away both power and control in a way that creates some resentment in England.

    Okay, I get the unpopularity of raising income tax higher, but technically speaking it is just a control you are simply unwilling to use.

    Referendums, devolution and most forms of direct democracy tend to diminish representative democracy. Simples.

  • dougthedug

    The only resentment in England is about the validity of the Barnett formula and the advantage it gives Scotland not what Scotland does with the money it gets under Barnett.

    Westminster isn’t giving away anything in terms of funding as that will stay at Barnett, or more likely, will be cut to a new needs based formula as recommended by the Holtham Commisson.

    The only thing the Scotland Act 2012 does is to allow Scotland to play with its income tax in a slightly more complicated fashion than the Scotland Act 1998 but the surplus and deficit are calculated against the Barnett formula standard funding based on UK tax rates. It’s exactly the same principle as before.

    All the rest of the devo proposals are simply vapourware at this point but since they all adhere to the same funding principle as the Scotland Act 1998 that is neither here nor there.

    Anyone who writes that vague, undefined “more powers” are on their way to Edinburgh after a no vote has no insight into the realities of either the UK parties devolution proposals or Scottish politics.

  • chrisjones2

    We cant do that. Where will all the children of Senior Civil Servants work? All those Oxbridge Degrees in Greek, PPE and 17th Century Swahili wasterd!

  • Comrade Stalin

    They aren’t standing in the way. The money is already being taken out of the economy and they can’t stop it. They are the only ones who believe that these cuts are reversible.

  • Morpheus

    Really? Last I heard was that we were getting fines for not implementing the cuts.

    But you didn’t answer my question. Do you or anyone else for that matter know what the XXX values are or do we simply hack away and see what happens? If the fighting was done a long time ago then there has been ample time to create an impact assessment, where is it?

  • Reader

    You keep making this point, and I think it’s a red herring. I work with people who certainly give the impression that they feel important, and who ask for more and more detailed information about an onrushing situation as an *alternative* to making a decision. Eventually the decision makes itself.
    This executive failed to make a decision about welfare reform/cuts, and now they have departmental cuts instead. They could have had reams of detailed analysis in front of them and these numpties would still have have faced the same either/or decision; still have failed to agree; and still have had to settle for the default imposed solution.

  • Kevin Breslin

    To be fair to PPE graduates, they are not all useless, I mean look at Michael Mosely a qualified doctor and TV presenter. It goes to show people don’t have to be useless simply because they’ve done a useless degree like PPE. They can always do something else after,

  • Kevin Breslin