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Against ad hocery: we need a more democratic approach to UK devolution

We need a process for determining devolution that is more considered, democratic and which tackles devolution in the context of the wider failings of the UK state.

Martin Smith and Dave Richards
17 April 2015
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Flickr/Captain Roger Fenton. Some rights reserved. Image: Flickr Captain Roger Fenton

The newly published report on the Future of Devolution after the Scottish Referendum is a worthy attempt to bring some order to an often confusing and conflicting debate concerning where devolution goes after the election. Strikingly, the Committee notes that since the September 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum, rapid developments have been made in bilateral ways which pay little attention to the overall nature of the Union.

What the Committee has identified is the extent to which devolution is happening in the UK in an ostensibly ad hoc way. The sizeable body of evidence underpinning the Report highlights the extent to which the process so far has been piecemeal, rushed and segmented; all deterring from a reflexive and joined-up approach. Its recommendations include calling for a commission to review proposals for further devolution, a Convention for England to ensure representation of the public view and greater oversight of the intergovernmental machinery.

For historians of constitutional reform, such ad hocery comes as no surprise - it bears the hallmark of the British way of doing things.  The absence of strategic thinking is explained away as a manifestation of the flexible British constitution, of whiggish-like adaption to new circumstances, seeking out pragmatic ways that take account of the different requirements of the four parts of the Union. We would suggest that this approach to devolution is highly problematic for three reasons:

The first is the elite nature of the process. The process of devolution that has occurred since the Scottish Referendum is one we would argue has ostensibly been a top down exercise based on political calculation. Here it should be remembered that in the September referendum, the majority voted against Scottish Independence and there was no devo-max option. In the days prior to the vote, devo-max was promised by the leaders of the three main Westminster parties, as a panicked attempt to shore-up the ‘No’ vote. It was tactical and not based on any democratic process – [further symbolized by the paucity of widespread, grass-roots consultation of the subsequent and brief Smith Commission] – and without proper debate. In many ways it could be argued that the process was highly unconstitutional with none of the pro-Union party leaders having any mandate or legitimacy for making the promises they did.

Since September, the devolution process in England has been even more elite-driven. Essentially, devolution packages have been agreed with cities on a case by case basis with the minimum of public discussion. Beyond those involved in negotiating devolution, there is considerable lack of clarity concerning the process or the powers that have been devolved to cities. It is essentially Whitehall devolving powers, where it believes cities have earned the rights to exercise certain responsibilities. It has the potential to create a patchwork system of devolution based on Whitehall concessions and not democratic rights. But the whole process and indeed the wider debate it has triggered, pays little heed to considering the rights of the citizen. The fundamental assumption is that power, in zero-sum terms, belongs to Whitehall and it may release some to a local elite if they are deemed to be responsible and can demonstrate they will behave well (i.e. not make too much fuss about the scale of cuts in local government spending).

The elite driven nature of the process speaks directly to the second problem: the lack of consideration of goals and objectives of devolution. What is the aim of devolution? Is it about accountability or efficiency? Is it to maintain the Union? Is it to increase democracy and the control over central government? Is it to improve economic efficiency? Is it about giving people control over their own lives and a response to political enchantment? As this Select Committee report reveals, these issues have not been properly debated.

Again, the process has been tactical and not strategic and no one knows what the end point is. How many powers are to be devolved from Whitehall? Is asymmetric devolution to be translated into infinite models in England, of variable, localised scales of civic participation and engagement? In the case of devolution to UK cities, the key focus seems to be on devolution as a mechanism of economic regeneration? Yet, this raises many questions that have not been discussed. What happens to Cities outside of the hub of a City/Region? What happens if devolution does not produce economic growth? In other words, we are on the way to some form of devolution, but none of the fundamental questions about what it is meant to achieve have been properly debated.

Third, the lack of clear goals is indicative of a much wider and fundamental issue: how do processes of devolution fit into the wider constitutional and political framework of the UK? What the debate has yet really to grapple with is that we are about to go through an election that is going to illustrate some major problems with the British political system. Hansard’s most recent Audit of Political Engagement reveals that only 49 per cent of the population are certain to vote in the May General Election, only 30 per cent of the population feel a strong attachment to a political party and only 20 per cent feel that they have any influence over local decisions. The 2015 election could well-produce situations where, for example, the SNP has a pivotal vote or one of English Votes for English Laws [EVEL] in which Labour supporters are disenfranchised in the way the Scottish electorate has been in the past. 

It is a distinct possibility that the outcome of this General Election is going to see very little relationship between votes and seats and produce a new government elected by a very small proportion of the electorate. The outcome is likely to illustrate the inability of the electoral system to reflect the desires of the voters or produce a clear electoral outcome (in other words the main argument for FPTP seems to be going out the window). All of which creates the possibility of a further delegitimation of the system and more alienation of the voters. Hence, in the context of political disillusionment and the emergence of an age of anti-politics, it is hard to abstract the discussion of devolution from wider constitutional questions. The fundamental issue is how are people to be re-engaged in politics and what role do constitutional changes play in re-energizing the political process. Yet, this has not formed the centre-piece for the current discussions on devolution.

We have both long been staunch critics of what Brian Barry used to call Britain’s ‘power-hoarding’ model of governance, often euphemistically referred to as ‘the man in Whitehall knows best’. We advocate a more bottom-up, devolved and participatory democratic settlement. But any lasting settlement can only be secured through what can be referred to as the ‘3Cs’ – consultation, consensus and consideration - of the whole political framework. Discussion of the devolution process should come with a debate around the electoral systems, the role of the civil service, the power of Whitehall and Westminster and fundamentally what sort of democracy does Britain want to have in the twenty-first century. The scale of the potential political crisis looming is such that it is going to need more than a Westminster-led process of devolution to sort it out.

This article was first published at Manchester Policy Blogs.

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