Plans for new devolution "super-department"

Guy Aitchison
27 July 2008

Guy Aitchison (London, OK):The territorial departments of state are set to be scrapped as part of Gordon Brown's autumn reshuffle according to Wales on Sunday. Under the plans the Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland offices will be merged into one single Department for Nations, Regions and Local Government. The move is long over-due. The existence of individual territorial secretaries of state was always an anomaly once devolution was introduced. It has become even harder to justify now that the National Assembly and Scottish Parliament have become assertive and well-established bodies, demanding and - in the case of the Assembly - receiving ever-more powers from Westminster. The absence of any comparable English "voice" at Cabinet has also contributed to the perception that the other nations of the UK are receiving privileged treatment.

The Constitution Unit has been calling for this move for years. It has advised the Government that a single department with overall responsibility for the nations and regions would be in a much better position to develop a joined up and coherent policy on devolution. As it is government thinking on devolution has been a complete mess. (It's not hard to think of examples; think Prescott's lame plans for regional assemblies, the out-dated Barnett formula and Wendy's embarrassing call to "bring it on".)

Precious little thought was given to how the devolved bodies should relate to each other and to Westminster. There was no framework and no overall vision. This worked fine when Labour was in power in Scotland and Wales. Then, relations were largely conducted informally though party channels and there was little conflict between governments. But, in a metaphor now beloved by Tories talking about the economy, the Government didn't fix the roof when the sun was shining. They are now paying the price for this neglect. With nationalists in power in Wales and Scotland, Labour has been forced to take a reactive and defensive stance on devolution. The results of this can partly be seen in the SNP victory in Glasgow East, which was about much more than just the economy. Lack of coordination has also meant there has been no interest in the ways in which new asymmetries of power and representation would generate fresh grievances, not least in England.

If Wales on Sunday is right about the new devolution "super-department" then the Government will have gone some way to addressing these concerns. I just can't help thinking that they're several years too late.

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