Devolution: A Decade On - Justice Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-45)


13 NOVEMBER 2007

  Q40  Chairman: Some would say that is because Canada owes so much to Scotland.

  Professor Jeffery: I could have changed Canada for Germany and said Germany instead, and that probably would not work in the same way. I suspect that if you really want to build a sense of commitment to the Union, one needs to go beyond values. They might be important in a symbolic sense but I think there should probably be a rather stronger reference to the shared interests which union can deliver. For example, social security as a Union-wide policy, delivering benefits irrespective of location. I think that kind of concrete demonstration of the benefit of the Union, of sharing risk in as big a pool of people as possible, is probably an articulation of the benefit of the Union which has more grip on ordinary people than a loose statement of values.

  Professor Hazell: If I may, I would like strongly to support that. I think Britishness depends on much more than values. The United Kingdom and the Union state rests on far firmer foundations than you might believe simply from reading the Prime Minister's speeches on values. It depends, critically, on the shared interests that Professor Jeffery has just referred to, of, for example, the tax and benefits system, which are both reserved functions fulfilled by the UK Government, and which lead to very significant redistribution amongst the whole population of the UK; shared interests of defence and national security; and you can go through all the list of reserved functions and show how they support shared interests of all peoples in the UK. Lastly, I would also mention common institutions, institutions like the BBC, like the armed forces, like this Parliament at Westminster, which are all British institutions and are fundamental to the governance of the UK, but also, I think, part of people's shared vision and understanding of what it is to be British. If you just talk about values, I do think you miss two very important pillars of Britain and the UK, which are the pillars of interest and of institutions.

  Mrs James: Listening to what you said earlier and those responses now, it seems to me that it bears repeating, and repeating often, that we have these shared interests and that we have these shared pillars, because I feel that in the interest surrounding devolution we could have lost sight of those at times, how strong that does make us, in addition to the benefits of devolution. It is interesting to hear those thoughts. Thank you.

  Chairman: That probably does not need a response. It was a statement.

  Q41  Dr Whitehead: If I could reflect, Professor Hazell, on your last thought, is there not any sense in which, as the EU becomes a more secure economic framework within which to live, what it is to be devolved takes a different form in the public view, that is, you can actually have a "breakaway nation" without it making any difference whatsoever in terms of your overall economic and structural security? As we have seen recently, Belgium, at the heart of Europe, has existed apparently reasonably well without any government at all for 150 days, and it is conceivable it would break up into two constituent parts with no effect whatsoever on the economy and well-being of Belgium. Is that a factor, do you think?

  Professor Curtice: The decision of the SNP in the late 1980s to go for independence in Europe is central to the whole debate. The point is that the kind of independence that the SNP is promoting is one that would not make any difference to the freedom of labour, to the freedom of capital; whether it would make a difference to the currency depends on whether it decides to stay with sterling or to go to the euro but, either way, Scotland is not going to have its own currency. It probably would not mean any change to passport controls because presumably you would have exactly the same arrangement as the Irish Republic has with the UK Government. It need not even necessarily make any difference to citizenship insofar as if the British Government is still prepared to allow people to have dual citizenship, and therefore those people in Scotland who wish to retain their British identity, British citizenship, can do so, but at the same time people are allowed to take up Scottish citizenship if they want to as well. Again, lots of people have both Irish and British citizenship. Yes, precisely in other words, one of the reasons why it is possible for the Scottish National Party to put up a case in favour of independence is because independence does not necessarily mean as much as it once did. That is fundamental to the whole debate. Indeed, if you listen to a lot of the more serious debate about the subject, it is essentially a debate about what is the best way of positioning a relatively small country within a globalised world; is it better to be playing on the international stage as part of a big player or is it better to have your own team, albeit one that in some respects may not be so strong or have as big a voice? That is essentially what the debate is about.

  Q42  Dr Whitehead: Is there then, putting it round the other way, a sense in which—not in Scotland; in England—the public's attitude, and we saw earlier constitutional preferences in England, which with substantial plurality is "What is the problem? Carry on as we are." Is that informed by the other side, in your view, of that particular debate, i.e. people think "Well, actually, what is the problem? We can continue to go on with devolution in this asymmetric way." I suspect if you went on the doorsteps and ask people "What do you think about asymmetric devolution?" you would get a rather short reply. Is it the case that they think "Well, we can carry on like this" or is it the case that the issue simply has not been addressed in most people's minds in England and, if it were addressed, they might come to different conclusions?

  Professor Curtice: I think the answer is, leaving and awaiting the results of my 2007 research, so far the evidence suggests that people in England do not see the need for devolution for themselves. As I said earlier, they do not seem to feel the need for whatever distinctive identities they have to be reflected in having a distinctive body of politicians. Indeed, the argument that is used, and for example was used in the regional assembly referendum in the North East, is "Why do we want more politicians?" It is extra politicians we do not need as opposed to extra politicians that might symbolise our distinctive sense of identity. There is not that connection being made. Having said that, obviously, the open question is whether or not the apparent unfairnesses of the asymmetric situation so far as England is concerned means that, while it may be true that originally England did not want some form of constitutional change—let us leave aside what it might be—maybe that opinion will change, maybe, for example, as a result of political parties campaigning on that issue and therefore politicising the issue, public opinion in England becomes more aware and begins to divide more strongly on this issue. All that one can say is that, as it were, those who wish to politicise this issue and to make it more salient have a task in front of them, which is that they are having to make an English audience which so far at the moment seems relatively unaware and relatively unconcerned about these issues more concerned than they have been so far.

  Q43  Dr Whitehead: Professor Hazell earlier implicitly pointed to the emergence of various regional bodies—you did not say this exactly—which are essentially accountable to nobody and had been set up, or might be seen to be set up for the purposes of administrative devolution, perhaps coming into the public consciousness over a period of time and perhaps therefore informing that view that maybe something more needs to be done. Is that in any way in evidence in your polling?

  Professor Curtice: I have not, in truth, asked about it since 2003 but certainly between 2001 and 2003 we were asking people "Have you heard anything about your regional assembly/chamber/regional development agency?" and I have to say that—I cannot remember the exact figures—but the proportion of people in England who said they had heard anything very much at all about those bodies in their region was absolutely minimal. The North East of England was the one that had the highest level of visibility but even there it was not that dramatic. The truth is that these are not bodies that have made that much impact on the public consciousness so far. You are right, of course. It may well be true that if we establish stronger, more visible regional institutions by fiat, that might help to encourage a sense of identification with these institutions, might persuade the public in England that they might want them. But I would again simply say to you, in exactly the same way as those who want to make people concerned about England's unfairness for Scotland have a task of persuasion to perform. Those who wish to try and promote a sense of regional identity and a requirement that that identity be reflected in distinctive political institutions also have a task of persuasion to perform.

  Q44  Dr Whitehead: I ought to add, for the record, that I was not proposing that the regions should be brought into place by fiat. In terms of written constitutions or the moves towards the preparation of constitutions for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, would that underline the asymmetric devolution, in your view, or would that hasten perhaps the development of regional constitutions for the United Kingdom as a whole? Would the politics of catch-up perhaps develop?

  Professor Curtice: I am not sure I am getting the force of your question. Scotland and Wales in effect have constitutions as provided by the Scotland Act and the Government of Wales Act and their subsequent amendments, so various aspects of constitutional procedure that are still largely a question of convention here or indeed of royal prerogative are laid down by statute in those two bodies. It is already asymmetric in that respect. I am not quite sure where your question was taking us.

  Q45  Dr Whitehead: My question really is a thought that we have in the air, shall we say, some discussions about whether there should be a written constitution for the UK, which, one might say, could be a sinecure for that view of national identity, i.e. there is a constitution for the UK, therefore that binds the UK together, but in practice what has happened, as you say, is that you have a sort of constitution subject to the UK Parliament for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

  Professor Hazell: Very briefly, I do not know of any country in the world which has codified its constitution in cold blood. Generally, there are pretty seismic political circumstances which force a country to write a constitution, or a new constitution. Those are, classically, following a revolution, like in France or the United States in the 18th century; following defeat in war, like the post-war constitutions of Germany or Japan; following the grant of independence; or following the complete collapse of the authority of the previous system of government, as we saw in South Africa post apartheid or in the Soviet Union post-Communism. There is opinion polling showing that when people in Britain are asked do they want a written constitution, they say yes by majorities of around 80%. But for me—Professor Curtice is the expert—it is the classic kind of cost-free polling question that Dr Palmer was referring to earlier; it is all upside and no downside. It is asked without any context about what the consequences of a written constitution might be, namely greater power for the judiciary, much more difficult to change the constitution, possibly more frequent referendums. If all the potential or likely consequences were considered, I think you might get a much more nuanced response. Shortly, I do not see any growing demand for a written constitution, either as a consequence of devolution or indeed in general.

  Chairman: Time is calling these proceedings to a close. I just want to say that there is one other issue which we have not got time to delve into today but which Professor Hazell and others have certainly commented on, which is of course the whole funding basis of devolution, the Barnett formula—not a subject I am going to open up at two minutes to six but we shall certainly be returning to it. I am very grateful to the three of you for your assistance this afternoon. Thank you very much indeed.

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