Devolve and not Forget: The Conservatives’ dilemma

Richard Parry discusses considerations facing Theresa May as decision time approaches on a second independence referendum. 
 
Theresa May’s speech in Glasgow on 3 March developed a line of argument that opened up a new perspective on devolution and the Conservative Party’s role in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland: 
 
“For too long the attitude in Whitehall has been to ‘devolve and forget’… we are all diminished when any part of the UK is held back, and we all share in the success when we prosper. In Government that principle is called ‘collective responsibility’. We need to build a new ‘collective responsibility’ across the United Kingdom, which unites all layers of government, to work positively together to improve the lives of everyone in our country. As the Government serving the whole United Kingdom, formed in a Parliament drawn from the whole United Kingdom, the UK Government exercises a responsibility on behalf of the whole UK that transcends party politics and encompasses all aspects of our national life.’
 
As with the notorious ‘if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere’ phrase at the 2016 Conservative conference, May and her speechwriters may not have realized the line they were advancing. Devolution depends upon the UK level renouncing any superordinate claim to impose their own policies which, by definition, would be seeking ‘to improve the lives of everyone’. The history of UK central-local relations is littered with attempts to constrain decisions in areas where the UK majority is a local minority. With the Scottish Conservatives currently the largest of these minorities and Ruth Davidson winning leadership credibility at UK level, May was tempted into a crowd-pleasing line that sums up a continuing UK dilemma about what devolution actually is. 
 
Related to this is a surprising diffidence about outlining a UK position on IndyRef2. Basically four are available. In 2012 it was facilitated on the basis that all Holyrood parties supported it as a test of opinion (and so the Referendum Act was not per se an attempt to repeal the Act of Union); this does not apply in 2017. A second approach would be to issue a Section 30 order at the request of the Scottish Government (presumably backed up by a resolution of the Scottish Parliament whose debate would defuse the politics of the issue). This is what the SNP say they expect but it would amount to a permanent referendum-holding power. A third variant is to offer some kind of legal security only after a potentially illegal Referendum Bill is passed (under Section 33 of the Scotland Act 1998 the UK then has a  four week opportunity to refer it to the Supreme Court as being outside legislative competence, giving a window for negotiation). Possibly the date would come into play for the UK, but this time to delay rather than accelerate the poll.
 
A final possibly is the ‘Spanish’ strategy of resisting a referendum by any political or legal means available. Some of the more hot-blooded Tories in Glasgow seemed to want this but no ground is being prepared for it. This may reflect lack of confidence about whether the Supreme Court would actually throw out a referendum bill; there is a surprising level of untested assumption that an advisory referendum on a reserved matter is illegal without UK sanction. It might reflect fear of alienating Scots. Or it might include some of the 2012 temptation that a clear No vote is a glittering prize for unionists. It’s probably a mixture of all of these. One thing is becoming clear: Theresa May is providing every reason why, on the SNP’s stated criteria, IndyRef2 should proceed and much difficulty for Nicola Sturgeon should she not wish to do so before Brexit.
 
 

Comments policy

All comments posted on the site via Disqus are automatically published. Additionally comments are sent to moderators for checking and removal if necessary. We encourage open debate and real time commenting on the website. The Centre on Constitutional Change cannot be held responsible for any content posted by users. Any complaints about comments on the site should be sent to info@centreonconstitutionalchange.ac.uk

Richard Parry's picture
post by Richard Parry
University of Edinburgh
10th March 2017

Latest blogs

  • 19th February 2019

    Over the course of the UK’s preparations for withdrawing from the EU, the issue of the UK’s own internal market has emerged as an issue of concern, and one that has the potentially significant consequences for devolution. Dr Jo Hunt of Cardiff University examines the implications.

  • 12th February 2019

    CCC Fellow Professor Daniel Wincott of Cardiff University examines how Brexit processes have already reshaped territorial politics in the UK and changed its territorial constitution.

  • 7th February 2019

    The future of agriculture policy across the United Kingdom after Brexit is uncertain and risky, according to a new paper by Professor Michael Keating of the Centre on Constitutional Change. Reforms of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy over recent years have shifted the emphasis from farming to the broader concept of rural policy. As member states have gained more discretion in applying policy, the nations of the UK have also diverged, according to local conditions and preferences.

  • 4th February 2019

    In our latest report for the "Repatriation of Competences: Implications for Devolution" project, Professor Nicola McEwen and Dr Alexandra Remond examine how, in the longer term, Brexit poses significant risks for the climate and energy ambitions of the devolved nations. These include the loss of European Structural and Investment Funds targeted at climate and low carbon energy policies, from which the devolved territories have benefited disproportionately. European Investment Bank loan funding, which has financed high risk renewables projects, especially in Scotland, may also no longer be as accessible, while future access to research and innovation funding remains uncertain. The removal of the EU policy framework, which has incentivised the low carbon ambitions of the devolved nations may also result in lost opportunities.

  • 1st February 2019

    The outcome of the various Commons votes this week left certain only that the Government would either secure an amended deal and put it to a meaningful vote on Wednesday 13 February, or in the overwhelmingly likely absence of this make a further statement that day and table another amendable motion for the following day, the Groundhog Day that may lead to a ‘St Valentine’s Day Massacre’ for one side or the other. Richard Parry assesses the further two-week pause in parliamentary action on Brexit

Read More Posts