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The original 1997 devolution settlement was based on an expansive philosophy that meant the powers of the new institutions could grow over time. Under successive Labour, coalition, and Conservative UK governments, the powers of both the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales were significantly expanded.
Brexit and the legislation required to implement it have threatened to undermine the consensus around such an expansive approach to devolution and to end its ‘forward march’. So far, it is the passage of the Internal Market Act that has provoked the most dispute, culminating in a legal challenge by the Welsh government. The Welsh and Scottish Governments believe that the Act diminishes the competence of the Welsh and Scottish Parliaments, granting ‘Henry VIII’ powers to the UK government to override devolution. The act would also allow the UK government to spend money in areas of devolved competence on the basis of the political priorities of the UK government.
Subsequently, the Covid-19 pandemic, which over a short timeframe led to significant additional funding to the devolved administrations, provided a UK-wide media platform for the Welsh and Scottish governments as their policies began to diverge from the approach of the UK government after the Prime Minister announced England’s plans for an easing of lockdown on 10 May 2020. The pandemic also exposed existing tensions in intergovernmental relationships. Opinion research has shown a contrast in people’s trust in the Scottish and Welsh governments and in that of the UK government. Indeed, the results of the devolved elections in May were seen as evidence of the effectiveness of the devolved incumbent governments, indicating something of a competence boost for devolution.
Unionism today takes four distinct forms. Passive unionism relates to the tendency to allow the devolved administrations significant leadership space within their own territories. Prominent Conservatives have referred to this as the ‘devolve and forget’ strategy, which has arguably resulted in some ham-fisted approaches to UK-wide or Britain-wide policy initiatives, such as Universal Credit. Activist unionism involves a more organised and visible presence for the UK government, with social media feeds rebranded as ‘UK Government in Scotland’ or ‘UK Government in Wales’. The vaccine rollout has become the emblem of a successful Union.
Muscular unionism is strategic; it has a particular agenda to undermine the devolved administrations in their own backyards. In Wales, for example, central government-funded initiatives such as the City Deal have been used to build stronger relationships directly between the UK government and Welsh local authorities. Similarly, the Scottish Secretary has said that he wants the UK government to deal directly with Scottish local authorities in the way that the European Union might have done. This is the movement from ‘devolve and forget’ to ‘devolve and forestall’—and potentially, to devolution in name only. Today, there is not a common progressive unionist agenda, although some attempts to develop such a theme can be seen in initiatives such as the Constitutional Reform Group, We, the People, and the Welsh government’s proposals for reform of the Union.
Muscular unionism as statecraft
Richard Hayton argues that ‘the cornerstone of Johnson's statecraft is Brexit itself’, with a victory, achieved through popular sovereignty, to reassert the sovereignty of the Westminster Parliament and regain the authority of the executive government or ‘Crown in Parliament’.
Meanwhile, culture war narratives enthuse the support base and distract opponents into tactical rather than strategic engagement. The calculation is that a Scottish independence referendum does not need to be conceded. The UK can stumble on, as it has before, while an activist unionism of state modernisation is developed in policy and infrastructure terms, supplemented by the muscular unionist approach of the repatriation to Westminster of specific powers and funding previously available to the devolved governments – as demonstrated in the Internal Market Act.
The English localism to which the Conservative Party is committed—the patchwork of elected mayors, combined authorities, police commissioners, single authorities, and local enterprise partnerships—may not look like a coherent constitutional future, but it is at the heart of their proposals for a reawakening of the Union, with relationships built between the paternalist centre to support a new local clientelism.
The pitfalls of constitutional determinism
There is a tendency amongst supporters of more fundamental devolution—what some call ‘radical federalism’—as well as supporters of independence, to assume that without change it is inevitable that the crumbling state that is called the UK will wither away or be shocked out of its crisis by the independence of one or more of its parts.
In his 1978 Marx Memorial Lecture, ‘The forward march of Labour halted’, Eric Hobsbawm cautioned against believing in ‘a simple form of historical determinism’ to restore Labour’s forward march. In similar vein, I want to caution against the recent ‘constitutional determinism’. There are real dangers in assuming that the UK state is destined to unravel unless radical reform takes place, identifying only weakness and instability rather than strength and flexibility.
Progressive unionism requires a Labour Party capable of winning more seats in England and Scotland as well as Wales—and of reaching out to other progressive forces, including other parties, who share a progressive unionist agenda. UK Labour is constitutionally wedded to Westminster’s parliamentary sovereignty. Developing a shared vision, and establishing it as core to a post-Brexit, post-Covid agenda, essential to a modernised protective UK state, is an urgent task. It is also essential to understand the new Conservative strategy, to counter it, to clarify how it diminishes the power and freedoms of the peoples of Wales, Scotland and England, to build support for a new Union on a cross-party and non-party basis.