Ever looser Union: What Smith means for rUK?

Published: 27 November 2014

The implications of the Smith Commission's report for the rest of the UK were highlighted both by the Prime Minister and leaders of English local government within a few hours of its publication. Richard Wyn Jones suggests that Smith may well have serious implications on the other side of the Tweed - and the Severn.

In a deliberate inversion of language familiar from the European context, the respected Edinburgh political scientist James Mitchell once spoke of the UK becoming an ‘ever looser union’. If he his right – and who can now doubt that UK is in the midst of a fundamental process of change – the publication of the Smith Commission report represents another significant milestone on that journey.

That the Smith recommendations are hugely significant for the future governance of Scotland can hardly be gainsaid. But they are also hugely consequential for England and Wales too.

In England, the granting of significantly greater autonomy to the Scottish Parliament will inevitably strengthen the increasing clamour for English Votes for English Laws or EVEL. Indeed, long term advocates of specific recognition for an English dimension to post-devolution UK politics such as John Redwood have already been quick to link the Smith proposals to the case for EVEL. But there are also intriguing signs that at least some backbench English Labour MPs are increasingly willing to speak out on the issue.

The party elite, however, remains wedded to more powerful English regional and local government as a way of ‘rebalancing’ the UK’s territorial constitution. Regionalism and localism rather than any recognition of any all-England dimension. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Smith proposals have also led to English local government leaders calling for more powers to be devolved within England.

These initial responses to Smith clarify what is likely to be an important battle line in the next UK general election. The Conservatives are clearly set to foreground their long held support for EVEL. Labour, by contrast, seem determined to resist any explicit recognition of an all-England dimension: an aversion that we might now term Thornberry-esque. Given that evidence from the Future of England Survey suggest very strong public support for EVEL and minimal support for regionalism, this appears at the very least to be a risky strategy.

For Wales, the Smith proposals impact in at least two ways. First they are certain to become the yardstick by which any proposals for Wales are measured. It is worth recalling in this regard that First Minister Carwyn Jones has already made clear that he expects any new powers offered to Scotland to be offered to Wales (though not necessarily accepted.) Meanwhile the new Secretary of State, Stephen Crabb, has initiated a process that should lead to all party agreement on proposals for more devolution for Wales by St David’s Day (1st March) 2015. The Smith proposals will inevitably be at the heart of that process. Recent history would suggest that, on devolution, where Scotland leads Wales ultimately follows.

But Smith will also have an indirect impact. As support in England grows for recognition of England within the UK, this inevitably calls into question the future of those remaining ‘England and Wales’ elements of the political and, indeed, judicial system. Thus for Wales, devolution may well becoming a matter of English ‘push’ quite as well as Welsh ‘pull’.

Although Smith has been a Scottish dominated and Scotland focused process, it matters to all of us.

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