The Union and devolution Contents

Chapter 3: Risks to the Union

86.In recent years, concerns have been growing about the effect that devolution has had on the stability of the Union as a whole. These concerns were brought into sharp relief by the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, and by the subsequent process leading to the Scotland Act 2016 and its associated fiscal framework.118 We detailed our concerns about these events in our report Proposals for the devolution of further powers to Scotland.119

87.Professor Arthur Aughey, Professor of Politics, University of Ulster, told us:

“In principle, greater autonomy for the parts need not affect the integrity of the whole. But the politics of national identity can foster multinational fragmentation by promoting only the one narrative of differentiation–unless, that is, a countervailing narrative of commonality can establish a renewed post-devolutionary balance. The Committee is correct to be concerned that there is a present popular sense of differentiation rather than commonality. It is this balance which this Committee is considering, defined as ‘a more stable settlement that will preserve and strengthen the Union as a whole’. It correctly identifies the need to give meaning and coherence to the Union.”120

88.We summarise below a number of risks arising from the devolution process to date that we are concerned may undermine key elements of the Union, as described in the previous chapter.

The cumulative impact of devolution on the Union

89.The creation of devolved institutions in 1998–99 does not appear to have been accompanied by any significant discussion of the UK-wide territorial constitution. Little thought has been given to the cumulative impact of the devolution of power to three nations and Greater London.121 The 1997 White Paper on Scottish devolution argued that:

“The Union will be strengthened by recognising the claims of Scotland, Wales and the regions with strong identities of their own. The Government’s devolution proposals, by meeting these aspirations, will not only safeguard but also enhance the Union.”122

90.There has been a failure to ensure that the recognition of identities stressed in the first sentence would lead to the safeguarding promised in the second. Some of our witnesses quoted a statement by a minister in the 1990s that devolution would “kill nationalism stone dead”.123 As Professor John Curtice, Professor of Politics, University of Strathclyde, noted: “insofar as one of the purposes of introducing devolution was to cement Scotland’s place in the Union, it has clearly not succeeded”.124

91.The Institute for Government told us that the UK Government and Parliament had still not adapted to devolution.125 In 2002 and again in 2015, this Committee published reports on inter-governmental relations in the UK, including recommendations on how Whitehall and Parliament should manage those relationships.126 We return to these matters again in Chapter 7.

92.Many of our witnesses were concerned that no attempt had been made to assess the cumulative impact of the devolution settlements on the Union, or on its constituent nations. As Democratic Unionist Party MLA and Minister Lord Morrow explained why it was important to consider the Union as a whole: “The nations of the United Kingdom are not ‘independent’ political entities but are linked by an umbilical cord to the political centre of the United Kingdom. Changes in one nation can have unintended consequences in other areas.”127

93.Many suggested that this problem was exacerbated by what they saw as ‘reactive’ policy-making by successive UK Governments. They argued that devolution policy was often driven as a response to particular events—such as the election of a minority Scottish National Party (SNP) government in 2007 or the Scottish independence referendum in 2014—without any attempt to develop a longer-term strategy.128 Devolution policy was decided in ‘silos’: the Government held separate conversations with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, with little attempt to address matters in a coherent manner on a UK-wide basis.129

94.Dame Rosemary Butler AM, Presiding Officer of the National Assembly for Wales, told us that she had:

“significant concerns about the piecemeal fashion in which our constitution is developing …

New devolution and constitutional arrangements for Scotland are being negotiated in parallel to future devolution for Wales. A form of devolution in England is happening at a remarkable rate. Given this state of flux, and without a clear constitutional framework encompassing all the constituent nations of the Union, it is impossible to determine what the overall outcome, or impact on the wider Union will be. This is not a satisfactory way of proceeding and is unlikely to leave a stable or sustainable foundation.”130

95.Similarly, Professor Charlie Jeffery, Professor of Politics, University of Edinburgh, told us that “we have seen a pattern of reaction and often of tactical response that is very short-termist in its thinking and piecemeal in the way in which it treats each individual part of the UK.” He termed the latest changes to Scotland’s devolution settlement following the Scottish independence referendum “constitution-making by YouGov poll”. He concluded that “no part of the UK’s central political institutions has shown the capacity to give sustained thought to UK-wide coherence and to stand back from the short-term reactions and think in the round.”131

96.Oliver Letwin MP, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and the UK Government Minister responsible for devolution, was unconcerned:

“I do not think that the constitution of the UK is in some terrible state of crisis. It is in a continuous mode over many, many decades, and indeed centuries, of change. I think it is the genius of it that it does change and that it accommodates, progressively, the various demands that are placed upon it.”132

97.Mr Letwin stated that once the Scotland Act 2016 and proposed new Wales Bill had passed through Parliament, and once the Stormont House Agreement was implemented in full, “all those pieces of the jigsaw are in place, so far as the relationships between the component nations of the UK are concerned”. He felt that the Government would then “be able to say that we have reached a new settlement … at least for the foreseeable future I hope that we will have reached a settlement”.133

98.While the UK constitution has proved flexible and resilient over the centuries, it recently faced a serious existential threat in the form of a referendum on Scottish independence. We regret that Mr Letwin, the responsible Government minister, does not recognise the concerns expressed by this Committee and many others at the pressures being placed on the UK constitution by the manner in which the devolution of powers has taken place, and continues to take place, with little consideration of the status and needs of the Union.

99.There is no evidence of strategic thinking in the past about the development of devolution. There has been no guiding strategy or framework of principles to ensure that devolution develops in a coherent or consistent manner and in ways which do not harm the Union. Instead, successive Governments have responded individually to demands from each nation. Devolution has thus developed in an ad hoc fashion, with different constitutional conversations taking place separately in different parts of the country.

100.We do not share the confidence expressed by Mr Letwin that all the pieces for a stable constitutional settlement are in place. Once the forthcoming Wales Bill has completed its passage through Parliament, we recommend that the UK Government commission a thorough evaluation of the impact on the Union and its constituent nations of the cumulative effect of the devolution settlements and its plans for decentralisation within England.

101.The UK Government needs fundamentally to reassess how it approaches issues relating to devolution. What affects one constituent part of the UK affects both the Union and the other nations within the UK. Devolution needs to be viewed through the lens of the Union, with appropriate consideration given to the needs of, and consequences for, the Union as a whole. We recommend how this might be achieved in Chapter 5.

The allocation of resources within the United Kingdom

The economic union: fiscal devolution

102.Fiscal responsibility has become an increasingly important element of recent changes to the devolution settlements. It derives from the principle that those responsible for spending revenue should also be responsible for raising revenue. Until recently, the devolved governments had very limited revenue-raising powers. Instead, the devolved governments were responsible for spending money allocated to them by the UK Government as a block grant. Recent and proposed changes to the devolution settlements have increasingly conferred greater fiscal authority on the devolved institutions, including the ability to vary the rate of (or in some cases, create and abolish) certain taxes.

103.Although the Scottish Parliament has had the power to alter income tax rates since 1999, a power that was expanded from April 2016, they have not so far done so. As well as these increased powers over income tax, the Scottish Parliament currently has power over stamp duty and landfill tax. It will take on almost total control of income tax bands and rates from April 2017, along with control over a number of other taxes.134 In addition, it will receive the first ten percent of VAT receipts in Scotland. The Northern Ireland Assembly will have control over its corporation tax rates from the same date. Meanwhile the Wales Act 2014 devolves stamp duty and landfill tax and provides for rate-varying powers over income tax to be devolved. Within England, there has also been an increasing emphasis on fiscal responsibility, with the Government committing to 100% business rate retention for local authorities by 2020.135

104.A number of our witnesses expressed support for devolving certain revenue-raising powers to ensure that devolved institutions were responsible for raising as well as spending revenue.136 The Institute for Government noted that historically there had been no incentive for “devolved governments to take decisions that increase the size of their tax base.”137 Professor Jim Gallagher of Nuffield College, Oxford, told us that:

“One of the persistent problems of the Scottish political discourse is that devolved institutions are presented as nice people who spend money while Westminster is a wicked institution which raises it. … To that extent, I am very keen on fiscal responsibility.”138

105.Other witnesses drew attention to some of the potential risks of devolving significant revenue-raising powers. Steve Thomas, Chief Executive, Welsh Local Government Association, noted the risk of inequality: richer areas which generally contribute more to central government than they receive would benefit, while poorer areas which might struggle to cover the cost of the services they provide from the tax base in their area would lose out. He suggested, drawing on the example of devolution within England, that it “can lead to regional inequality and even, if you read the local government press at the moment, inequality between the counties and some of the urban areas. There are some real and distinct issues to worry about on that front.” 139 Some witnesses said that increasing self-reliance in funding, particularly at a local authority level, could risk “mainstreaming deprivation” in areas with a low tax base.140

106.Professor Michael Keating, Professor of Scottish Politics, University of Aberdeen, noted that the devolution of tax powers could “provoke … a ‘race to the bottom’, because Governments will be trying to cut taxes and cut expenditure to attract investment and jobs.”141 The Welsh Government was alive to this risk, stating that “a ‘race to the bottom’ would serve only to undermine the UK’s overall tax base and business tax take; this would do nothing to reinforce the Union.”142 Owen Kelly, Chief Executive, Scottish Financial Enterprise, warned that differences in personal taxation could undermine the UK-wide single market.143

107.Lord Empey, Chair of the Ulster Unionist Party, was opposed to the devolution of further tax powers to Northern Ireland. He was concerned about the effect on the Union of diverging tax regimes: “There might be three or four completely separate tax regimes in one country and it would become so complicated that people would give up. I would take great care about going down that road.”144

108.There are additional risks to the coherence of the UK’s economic union if the devolved institutions are granted the ability to run a deficit or to borrow significant sums of money. The House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee heard that while Scotland’s ability to borrow money would need to be expanded following the increased tax powers contained in the Scotland Act 2016, a ‘moral hazard’ was presented by the presumption that Scotland would be bailed out by the UK Government should the Scottish Government be unable to service its debt. The Economic Affairs Committee concluded that a “‘no bail-out’ rule would not be believed by the markets. The assumption that the rest of the UK would bail-out Scotland would prevail.”145 The markets’ perceptions of the UK’s overall economic health would therefore be affected by Scotland’s fiscal decisions.

109.Dr Victoria Winckler, Director of the Bevan Foundation, summed up the benefits and risks of fiscal responsibility neatly:

“The benefits … are increased transparency, the possibility of having a system of incentives and rewards, and giving the responsible body additional tools and levers to achieve the changes that it wants. Equally … there are significant risks. There is the risk of a race to the bottom. There are real risks around redistribution.”146

110.Granting significant revenue-raising powers to the devolved nations will reduce the extent to which the central UK Government provides funding on a UK-wide basis. This reduces the ability of the UK Government to redistribute resources across the country, and means that the UK Government’s role in redistributing wealth and resources must be accomplished using a smaller pot of funds (since more is raised and spent locally). This makes it all the more vital that there is an effective mechanism in place for allocating funds on the basis of need. Professor Jim Gallagher told us that around 50% of the resources for devolved governments should be raised at a UK level. He suggested that this was the level necessary to ensure “a set of common social rights across the United Kingdom … [such as] access to healthcare free at the point of need and at the very least access to free schooling across the United Kingdom”.147

111.Professor Nicola McEwen, Professor of Territorial Politics, University of Edinburgh, told us that countries with federal structures put in place systems for redistributing wealth “so that a poorer region has the ability to deliver a set of services to its citizens that are at least comparable to those in a wealthier region in another part of the country.”148

112.Several of our witnesses questioned the extent to which needs-based redistribution currently takes place with the Barnett Formula as the mechanism by which changes are made to funding for the devolved nations.149 This has been widely criticised, not least in a 2009 report from the House of Lords Select Committee on the Barnett Formula which recommended its replacement.150 Nonetheless, the ‘Vow’ by pro-Union party leaders prior to the Scottish independence referendum promised to retain the Barnett Formula, a promise reflected in the Smith Commission’s report and subsequent legislation.151

113.The First Minister of Wales stated the problem baldly:

“At the heart of the problem for us is Barnett. There are proposals to devolve elements of income tax to us in the future … Our fear is that as we take on income tax-varying powers, unless Barnett is dealt with we will basically lock in what for us is inequality in our funding. … I do not want to see a scenario where, because of the operation of Barnett, a future Government might feel that they have to raise taxes in order to fill the gap that is there because the proper amount of funding is not being made available to Wales because of a lack of an updated, needs-based formula.”152

114.The commitment by the pro-Union party leaders to retain the Barnett Formula, made in the context of the Scottish independence referendum without any consideration of the implications for, or the views of, the other parts of the UK clearly underlines the piecemeal and incoherent approach that has characterised successive UK Governments’ decision-making in relation to devolution.

115.The House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee recently concluded, in its report on the implications of financial devolution to Scotland, that “if the aim is to produce a sustainable, long-term solution, retention of the Barnett Formula is the wrong decision”. It noted that the present system can produce “arbitrary and unfair results” and recommended that the Government look to introduce a “needs-based approach to funding the devolved administrations.”153

116.We support the principle of fiscal responsibility. However, increasing the fiscal powers of the devolved institutions will present risks to the redistributive role of the Union. The greater the amount of revenue raised and spent locally, the less scope for the allocation of resources on the basis of need by central government. This allocation is vitally important to ensure that the social union is supported by a pooling and sharing of resources across the whole UK. In that context, it is our view that to perpetuate the use of the Barnett Formula, which takes no account of relative need, makes a mockery of the Government’s duty to ensure a fair distribution of resources across the UK.

117.We recommend that the UK Government reconsider its use of the inadequate Barnett formula and establish a mechanism that takes into account the relative needs of different nations and regions in allocating funds.

The social union: Shared welfare resources

118.While many witnesses supported transferring at least some responsibility for revenue-raising to the devolved nations, far fewer supported transferring responsibility for funding welfare spending to the devolved nations. Scottish Government Minister Fiona Hyslop MSP was among them. She rejected the benefits of a UK-wide distribution system, equating it with centralised control: “You can have a very centralised system of welfare provision, but some of the most meaningful impacts for people are where you can have rapid reaction to local circumstances and local needs. Not everybody has the same experiences in all parts of the country in relation to what they need.” She argued that devolved decision-making was more responsive to local needs and concerns as compared with “a very bureaucratic centralised system”.154 Former Director of the Scotland Office Alun Evans told us that a more fragmented welfare system was the nature of devolution.155

119.Ms Hylsop’s view is consistent with her party’s position in favour of fiscal autonomy and independence. Most witnesses who addressed this issue, however, took a different view.156 We were told that the social union is one of the primary ways in which resources are redistributed across the UK. The social union provides a UK-wide minimum level of benefits and pensions for individuals,157 so that those receiving support are funded from a central UK-wide pot rather than relying on the resources of an individual nation or region.

120.Professor Richard Rawlings, Professor of Public Law, University College London, encapsulated the views of several witnesses when he stated that: “The more that the Union withdraws from basic universal benefits, pensions and so on, the more that the position of the Union, long-term and historically, will be eroded.”158 We agree. Devolving responsibility for welfare risks damaging the common, UK-wide welfare system that is a key element of the social union.

Minimum standards of welfare provision

121.One of the issues we discussed with our witnesses was the extent to which a UK-wide minimum level of welfare provision could allow the devolution of limited powers to tailor the welfare system in the devolved nations, while continuing to preserve the UK-wide nature of the current welfare system.

122.Claire Baker MSP, Scottish Labour Spokesperson for Democracy, supported the principle of a minimum level of welfare benefits:

“If you have a minimum level, it recognises how the welfare system works: that we pool and share resources from across the UK and, regardless of where you live in the UK, you receive that minimum support from the UK Government. I would be very supportive of that. It is an important factor in maintaining the Union and people seeing the benefit of being part of that Union.”159

123.Dr Winckler told us that there was a “very strong case for having a common standard of provision for some aspects of public service, such as state pensions, maternity benefits and so on”.160 Professor Gallagher told us that “welfare should be regarded as a minimum which is addable to … provided centrally but supplementable”.161 Lord Empey felt that “a coherent minimum level, particularly for things like pensions, may be something worth pursuing”.162 Other witnesses expressed similar views.163

124.Where policy areas that are central to the social union become devolved or—particularly—subject to shared competence, consideration needs to be given to how minimum standards could be set and implemented across the country. The broad approach taken on certain elements of welfare in the Scotland Act 2016 reflects one of these. The UK Government sets UK-wide levels for benefits but the Scottish Government has a broad power to supplement those benefits and significantly increased revenue-raising powers to fund provision above the UK-wide level.164 This approach incorporates both a common pooling of resources and a tailoring to local circumstances. The Scotland Act 2016 goes beyond this in other areas, however, giving the Scottish Parliament a wider-ranging power to create and scrap new benefits in areas of devolved responsibility.

125.Some witnesses felt, however, that if there was to be a formal minimum level of UK-wide welfare support then it would be inappropriate for the UK Government alone to set it. The Welsh First Minister and Leanne Wood AM, the leader of Plaid Cymru, told us that imposition from Westminster would be inappropriate; any minimum provision should be agreed between the four administrations.165 Any agreed level would require each administration (the UK Government for England, and the Welsh and Scottish Governments and Northern Ireland Executive) to provide at least the mutually-agreed minimum level of provision. Professor Jeffery felt this was unlikely to occur, telling us that he did not currently “see a willingness in Whitehall or indeed in the two Houses of Parliament to agree that kind of diminution of the sovereignty of the UK Parliament and of the Government whose legitimacy is based on it.”166

126.Where powers relating to the welfare system are to be devolved, the UK Government should retain the ability to ensure a minimum level of provision. The shared-responsibility model established in the Scotland Act 2016 may provide a useful template, whereby a devolved government may supplement from its own resources (but not reduce) a UK-wide level of welfare support.

Minimum provision in other policy areas

127.We asked our witnesses whether there might be a case for extending the use of minimum standards from welfare provision to other areas of public service. Most of those who commented felt that it was already too late to consider attempting to impose minimum standards in areas that were already devolved. Akash Paun of the Institute for Government stated: “In areas that have been fully devolved, such as health and education, that ship has probably sailed, because any attempt now to impose minimum standards would, by definition, be a limitation on autonomy already devolved”.167 He added that for some “core social citizenship rights, such as access to basic healthcare free at the point of use, there is political consensus across the UK that would anyway constrain moving too far away from that”.168

128.Among others, the First Minister of Wales felt that attempting to apply minimum standards in devolved areas would run counter to the tailoring that is one of the functions of devolution: “it could not be right that the UK Government set [a minimum standard] … as that would undermine devolution itself”.169 Professor Ailsa Henderson, Professor of Political Science, University of Edinburgh, told us that attempts in federal countries to set guiding or framework legislation at the federal government level caused resentment among national and regional governments seeking their own approaches.170

129.Paul Nowak, Assistant General Secretary, Trades Union Congress, focused on employment law and rights in the workplace: “it is important that, wherever you live in Great Britain, you are subject to the same provisions in terms of employment law and you have the same rights at work, whether you work in Glasgow or Guildford”.171 Councillor Julian German, Campaign for a Cornish Assembly, told us that, in the context of devolution within England:

“it is important that we draw some baselines—for example, on healthcare—so that there is a base of service delivery to all the residents of the UK. Some regions may decide to go over and above that. That is their local democratic decision, but to ensure equality—importantly, equality before the law—there should be baselines for any regional or national devolution within the UK.”172

130.Political barriers make it impracticable for the UK Government to attempt to impose minimum provision for public services in policy areas which have already been devolved. Should any currently reserved powers be devolved in the future, the UK Government should address the case for introducing UK-wide minimum provision in policy areas that affect an individual’s rights and entitlements.

Diverging policy and service delivery choices

131.In addition to an asymmetry of powers, devolution leads to another form of asymmetry: differing policies and service delivery choices in different areas. It is an inevitable consequence of devolution that devolved administrations will make different choices regarding service delivery in response to the needs and preferences of their electorates—indeed it is, in many ways, the point of devolution. As Dr David S Moon, Lecturer in Politics, University of Bath, put it: “it allows more tailored politics. Different countries have different situations … and you need different ways to deal with that.”173

132.Professor Philip Booth, Editorial and Programme Director, Institute of Economic Affairs, set out one of the advantages:

“We should experiment a bit—indeed, a lot—with allowing not just the nations within the UK but local areas to have wide differences in terms of the approach they take to welfare. They might learn from each other. They might be able to experiment with things.”174

133.Other witnesses echoed this and called for the different governments to learn from one another’s experiences.175 Dr Moon agreed that the “idea of a legislative laboratory could be a positive thing”,176 but he also described some of the potential disadvantages of policy divergence. He noted that there could be conflicts between different governments “in areas where the policy footprint overlaps between the devolved and non-devolved or reserved areas”. He also pointed out that differences could be emphasised for political purposes in ways which might weaken the Union as a whole:

“Another negative of differential policy is that it can allow political parties to basically attack the other Governments for their domestic audiences. The most obvious example of this for me, being somebody who studies Wales, is the constant attacks on the Welsh NHS by the Prime Minister at Prime Minister’s Questions throughout the last Parliament. … The issue here is that that was not a message for the Welsh people; it was a message for the English people. … This is not good rhetoric, and it is certainly not good for the Union.”177

134.There have always been differences in service delivery, even with a centrally agreed policy. Sir Richard Leese, leader of Manchester City Council, noted that “if we accept that different places are different and if you do the same thing everywhere, as national programmes tend to do, you end up with different outcomes.” He argued that “If you want universality in outcomes, you have to do different things in different places to achieve it.”178

135.Ed Cox, Director of IPPR North agreed: “those who say that devolution leads to postcode lotteries should look at the situation we have right now. There is growing evidence to show that the centralisation of our public services is the primary cause of inequality, because of the constraints on public service providers. … If we devolve greater power, it is more likely that we will see much more adaptable public services … and perceived inequality will reduce.”179

136.Garry Clark, Head of Policy and Research, Scottish Chambers of Commerce, told us that policy divergence was not necessarily troubling for businesses. He suggested that they had grown used to different policy environments: “there are differentials whenever you have local authorities doing one thing over here, environmental agencies doing another thing over here, the planning authorities doing something over here, licensing doing something.”180

137.There is, however, the potential that the public may feel it is unfair for individuals in different areas to be treated differently. Professor Curtice told us that:

“the postcode lottery syndrome is still, potentially, important, and if people think that they are getting different services or paying higher taxation or getting lower benefits because of where they live, it still matters, and what goes on in the rest of the United Kingdom is still, potentially, a frame of reference, even within Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.”181

138.Dr Jan Eichhorn, Chancellor’s Fellow in Social Policy, University of Edinburgh, added that “people accept difference if they feel they benefit from it. That is the key point. … People do not like difference if it means that they can see something better happening somewhere else from their own perspective, obviously.”182 Professor James Mitchell, Professor of Public Policy, University of Edinburgh, told us that: “It is not necessarily just a policy; it is how the policy is perceived, and it could be something very mundane that is perceived as, or becomes, a hot issue that creates the problem.”183

139.This feeling of unfairness risks a consequential loss of solidarity and common identity. This is particularly true if the difference in policy clauses is felt to be the result of an unfair allocation of resources. Mr Cox told us that parts of England feel like they get the worst deal from the distribution of resources.184 We also heard of the extent of Welsh dissatisfaction with its funding settlement and concerns that inadequate funding combined with the devolution of powers over income tax and welfare could have a negative effect there.185

140.Public support is vital for the continuance of the Union. Positive public perceptions are important in maintaining that consent—particularly in relation to the social union which, as we described earlier in this report, helps build the social solidarity that binds the Union together. If people do not feel that the distribution of common resources—more prosaically their taxes and the public spending that affects their lives—is fair, compared with what they observe in other parts of the UK, this risks undermining social solidarity and thus a core reason for popular support or consent for the Union as a whole.

141.Policy difference is an inherent consequence of devolution; indeed it is part of the point of devolving power. However, it creates a risk of real or perceived unfairness in respect of differing levels of service provision or government support which can be damaging to social solidarity. The public should be clear why policy differences exist and who is responsible, so that the appropriate politicians can be held to account for their decisions at the ballot box.

Risks to the political union

142.A number of risks arise from the political elements of the Union. The desire of the devolved nations to have policies adapted to the individual characteristics of each nation has shaped the evolution of the political union for many years. In recent decades the pressure for autonomy arising from the growth of Scottish nationalism, the growing desire for greater autonomy in Wales and the complex and evolving political situation in Northern Ireland have shaped the current devolution settlement.

143.Yet devolution has seen the rise of new political tensions which are now exerting unexpected pressures on the Union. In the case of Scotland, we were told that the new Scottish Parliament gave a greater platform to a party that wanted Scotland to leave the Union: the Scottish National Party. Competing for seats in a devolved legislature, the SNP “became a credible alternative Government for the first time, as it was never going to be credible as an alternative Government at Westminster … that played into the perception that here was a serious party”.186

144.Witnesses pointed to the increasing distinction between the political party systems in the four nations as a potentially centrifugal force.187 Since 2010, the governments of the UK, Wales and Scotland have all been formed of different parties, while the mandatory coalition in Northern Ireland is made up of parties that only contest elections there. Professor Curtice told us:

“in terms of the [UK] party-political system, Northern Ireland, whose relationship was always somewhat tenuous, left in the 1970s. I would now say that Scotland has also left it. The considerations that affected people in Scotland were completely different [to the rest of Great Britain] … politics in Scotland now is primarily about Scotland, and not about the interests of the UK as a whole.”188

145.Labour MSP Claire Baker told us that she was not convinced by this argument: “I am not sure that I would accept [that] there is a vast difference between Scottish politics and the rest of the UK.” She added that “I do not think there is that much difference between what is driving Scottish voters and what is driving other voters across the United Kingdom.”189 Other witnesses from Scottish opposition parties agreed, although Maggie Chapman, co-convenor of the Scottish Green Party, noted that “The basis of politics is maybe not that different, but the way the Scottish people choose to express and choose to act in the culture of politics probably is different. That has been developing over the last few years, primarily around the referendum, but also with other factors.”190

146.Another concern arises in respect of the only nation that has no devolution settlement: England. The asymmetry of the devolution arrangements established in the late 1990s, without any recognition of England as a discrete entity, has created a sense that citizens of England do not enjoy the same political representation as other nations in the Union.191 One witness described England as the ‘damnable question’, as Ireland had been a hundred years earlier.192 Data from the Future of England Survey “demonstrate clear dissatisfaction with the current territorial constitution in England”.193 This has implications for both England and the wider Union: Professor Colin Harvey, Professor of Human Rights Law, Queen’s University Belfast, told us that, “A profoundly and deeply unhappy and resentful England is of no use to the other parts of the UK.”194

147.English dissatisfaction with the shape of the political union has in part been prompted by a by-product of asymmetrical devolution: the West Lothian Question. The fact that MPs representing constituencies in the devolved nations can vote on issues that affect other nations in the Union but not their own has been controversial since the first Irish Home Rule debates in the late 19th century. The Government’s solution, changing the Standing Orders of the House of Commons to provide ‘English votes for English laws’, is in turn seen by some as undermining the principle of representation of all parts of the UK in Parliament.195 We discuss the West Lothian Question and English votes for English laws in more depth in Chapter 8.

The European Union referendum and a British Bill of Rights

148.Further risks arise from the up-coming referendum on membership of the EU on 23 June 2016. The political union may be affected by the result of the vote, whether because a vote to leave is carried despite lacking majority support in each of the four nations, or conversely because the Remain campaign succeeds despite one or more nations voting to leave.196

149.The Government has also proposed the replacement of the Human Rights Act 1998 with a British Bill of Rights. There has been significant discussion over the implications of such a move for the devolution settlements.197 We do not intend, in this report, to take a position on either the Bill of Rights policy or its potential impact on the devolution settlements. We note, however, that the European Convention on Human Rights, to which the Human Rights Act gives effect, is embedded in the devolution settlements with Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland (see paragraph 246) and changes to that Act could have an impact on those settlements and on relations between the UK Government and the devolved institutions.

The cultural union and emotional affinity

150.The Union rests on a balance of unity and diversity. As well as familial links, shared institutions and shared heritage are integral to the cultural union. Diversity must be, and is, accepted but there is a risk that it could trump unity and undermine the cultural union. A number of witnesses felt that too little emphasis was placed on those common cultural and traditional elements which provide a common frame of reference for citizens across the whole UK.

151.Mr Evans told us that “the case for the Union needs to be made forcefully and powerfully”. Echoing Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield, he said that: “one needs to identify the issues that bond the Union and celebrate them more effectively: the Queen, the Armed Forces, the welfare state, the National Health Service, economic stability, the BBC, the UK passport and the Olympic Games”.198 Others agreed that more needed to be done to promote what Professor Curtice called “emotional affinity” across the UK.199

152.Yet there are challenges to such an approach. The NHS has been devolved since 1999 (and was always administered separately in Scotland) and while it is still seen as a British institution200 it is also a central element of national or regional debates about devolved policy. While the common welfare system still exists, the Scotland Act 2016 has devolved a number of powers to Scotland which may obscure the UK-wide nature of the welfare safety net. Professor Adam Tomkins, John Millar Professor of Public Law, University of Glasgow, told us that the BBC “does not enjoy unanimous authority and support across the whole spectrum of Scottish political opinion just now”, and that the monarchy and the armed forces are less of a shared point of common affection and experience than in previous generations.201

153.We consider that the BBC and other public service broadcasters play an important role in maintaining a common British identity. By providing a shared source of culture and information, they act as a unifying force within the Union. It is vitally important that independent public sector broadcasters continue to provide a common UK-wide service in addition to regional and local coverage, particularly in relation to topics such as news and current affairs.

118 UK and Scottish Governments, ‘The agreement between the Scottish government and the United Kingdom government on the Scottish government’s fiscal framework’ (February 2016): [accessed 4 May 2016]

120 Written evidence from Professor Arthur Aughey (UDE0003)

121 Written evidence from the Constitution Society (UDE0019)

122 Scottish Office, Scotland’s Parliament, Cm 3658, July 1997, p. 10.

123 Written evidence from the Political Studies Association (UDE0033) and Professor Charles Lees (UDE0058)

124 Q 63; see also written evidence from the Society of Conservative Lawyers (UDE0028)

126 Constitution Committee, Devolution: Inter-institutional relations in the United Kingdom (2nd Report, Session 2002–03, HL Paper 28) and Inter-governmental relations in the United Kingdom (11th Report, Session 2014–15; HL Paper 146)

127 Written evidence from Lord Morrow (UDE0068)

128 Written evidence from Professor Colin Kidd (UDE0007), Dr Ben Wellings (UDE0032) and A Force for Good (UDE0032)

129 For example, Q 44 (Professor Jim Gallagher), Q 32 (Akash Paun), Q 3 (Professor Adam Tomkins), Q 72 (Brendan Donnelly) and Q 244 (Carwyn Jones AM), written evidence from Lord Morrow (UDE0068)

130 Written evidence from Dame Rosemary Butler (UDE0038)

134 The Scotland Act 2016 provides for the devolution of Air Passenger Duty and the Aggregates Levy.

135 HM Treasury, ‘Spending review and autumn statement 2015’ (27 November 2015): [accessed 7 April 2016]

136 Q 13 (Professor Hazell), Q 52 (Professor Gallagher), and Q 192 (Sir Richard Leese and Lord Porter of Spalding)

137 Written evidence from the Institute for Government (UDE0048)

138 Q 52; see also QQ 290-91 and 294 (Lord Empey)

139 Q 284; see also Q 269 (Dr David S Moon) and Q 275 (Dr Victoria Winckler)

140 Q 215 (Tony Armstrong) and Q 105 (Ed Cox)

142 Written evidence from the Welsh Government (UDE0024)

145 Economic Affairs Committee, A Fracturing Union? The Implications of Financial Devolution to Scotland, (1st Report, Session 2015–16, HL Paper 55), para 72

147 Q 53; see also Q 9 (Professor Adam Tomkins)

149 Q 151 (Professor Michael Keating), Q 258 (Leanne Wood AM), written evidence from the Institute for Government (UDE0048)

150 Select Committee on the Barnett Formula, The Barnett Formula, (1st Report, Session 2008–09,
HL 139)

151 ‘David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg sign joint historic promise which guarantees more devolved powers for Scotland and protection of NHS if we vote No’, Daily Record (16 September 2014): [accessed 7
April 2016]; Smith Commission, Report of the Smith Commission for further devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament, para 95(1): [accessed 5 May 2016]

153 Economic Affairs Committee, A Fracturing Union? p 6

154 Q 128; see also Q 101 (Professor Philip Booth)

156 For example, Q 51 (Professor Jim Gallagher), Q 270 (Professor Richard Rawlings) and written evidence from the Welsh Government (UDE0024)

157 Q 11 (Professor Robert Hazell)

163 Q 35 (Peter Riddell), Q 139 (Baroness Goldie, Maggie Chapman and Councillor Robert Brown)

164 See Q 13 (Professor Robert Hazell), Q 35 (Akash Paun), and QQ 138-39 (Baroness Goldie MSP)

165 Q 249 (Carwyn Jones AM) and Q 260 (Leanne Wood AM)

168 35; see also Ailsa Henderson’s comments on the relative lack of variation in Canada (UDE0065)

169 Q 248; see also Q 131 (Ken Thompson) and Q 260 (Kirsty Williams AM and Andrew RT Davies AM)

175 Q 25 and Q 28 (Sir Kenneth Calman) and Q 237 (Lord O’Donnell and Lord Kerslake); see also Akash Paun, Jill Rutter and Anna Nicholl, Devolution as a policy laboratory: Evidence sharing and learning between the UK’s four governments (February 2016): [accessed 6 May 2016]

178 Q 193; see also 35 (Peter Riddell) and Q 108 (Ed Cox)

180 Q 170; see also Q 35 (Peter Riddell)

185 Q 62 (Dr Jan Eichhorn) and Q 246 (Carwyn Jones AM)

186 Q157 (Professor James Mitchell)

187 Written evidence from Dr Paolo Dardanelli (UDE0033)

188 QQ 65 and 57. Similarly, Professor Arthur Aughey told us that the 2015 general election campaign in Northern Ireland had focused on matters internal to Northern Ireland, rather than what MPs would do in the UK Parliament (Q 302)

189 Q 134

190 Q 134

191 See written evidence from the Campaign for an English Parliament (UDE0012) and Stewart Connell (UDE0006)

192 Q 304 (Professor Arthur Aughey) - the term is the title of George Dangerfield 1976 book on the Irish question in the early 20th Century.

193 Charlie Jeffery, et al, Taking England Seriously, p 21. The authors note that the constitution is not, however, a priority for most English voters.

195 Written evidence the Mile End Institute (UDE0042) and from Christopher Luke (UDE0011)

196 ‘Sturgeon: EU exit would ‘almost certainly’ trigger second independence referendum’, Daily Telegraph (21 February 2016): [accessed 4 May 2016]

197 See Chapter 8 of European Union Committee, The UK, the EU and a British Bill of Rights (12th Report, Session 2015–16, HL Paper 139). See also written evidence from the British Academy (UDE0037) and Q 7 in the Lord Chancellor’s annual evidence session with this Committee, 2 December 2015; and Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law, A Constitutional Crossroads: ways forward for the United Kingdom (May 2015), p 8: [accessed 9 May 2016]

198 Q 93. Professor Hazell also listed the armed forces, welfare state and monarchy (Q 10); similarly, Professor McEwen listed the NHS, BBC and monarchy (written evidence (UDE0061); see also Q 150 (Professor Neil Walker)

200 See footnote 98

201 Q 1 (Professor Adam Tomkins)

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