20 July 2007

Devolution made real

There has been a reaction of horror on the part of Opposition parties to Sir John Elvidge's disclosure that the Scottish Executive is talking to Whitehall on a more formal basis than it previously has done, and also the suggestions that there are tentative moves to create a separate Scottish Civil Service, along the lines of the Northern Irish Civil Service - though, of course, this will be for Westminster and Whitehall to decide.

In terms of the change of relations between Whitehall and the Executive, why the surprise? Did no one ever think ahead to the inevitable moment when there would be a change in government, either at Holyrood or Westminster?

George Foulkes has accused Sir John of being the "latest target of Alex Salmond's bullying tactics" and went onto say, "I simply reject the premise that the civil service initiated this themselves." Well, I doubt that the Permanent Secretary of the Scottish Executive is a man who can be bullied, certainly not by a First Minsiter who can't fire him, can't replace him, can't cut his pay or put him on gardening leave. Elvidge is for all intents and purposes in his job for as long as he wants it, while Alex Salmond is on a four-year contract that the Parliament could terminate at any point before that, so the idea that the First Minister could bully the Permanent Secretary is simply laughable. And having been in government, surely Foulkes should realise that the Civil Service isn't there to initiate things themselves, but to implement the policy of the government of the day, which supports the creation of a Scottish Civil Service?

Murdo Fraser argues that constitutional decisons should be left to elected politicians, and points out that "barely a third of MSPs support independence." However, this isn't independence, just a new level of administrative devolution, and Fraser admits that "a devolved Scotland is the settled will of the electorate."

Robert Brown criticises how the information has come into the public: "I find it extraordinary that an important move like this... should in effect be announced in the form of an interview... during the summer recess. A Ministerial statement in Parliament and full examination by the Scottish Parliament itself would be appropriate." Now, the thrust of the interview was about the Executive relations with Whitehall, which could be (and given the new situation of having different parties in government in Scotland and the UK) the topic for a Committee to investigate, and Elvidge could go into greater detail with MSPs there as to how the two ends of the Civil Service are interacting. As to the separation of the Scottish Civil Service, what good is a Ministerial statement when this is something that would have to be handled by Whitehall? Any move made by Scottish Ministers would only be in the form of talks, and that would only need to be confirmed in an answer to a Parliamentary Question rather than a full-blown Ministerial statement whose only substantive content would be 'we're talking about it'.

Then there's the question about the rights staff would have. Given that other Scottish public servants, in education and the NHS, don't necessarily get the same deal as in England, this isn't a radical departure. Given that different Councils set their own rates of pay for jobs (which is why individual Councils came a cropper over Equal Pay Agreements), why should there be any horror at a Scottish Civil Service offering different terms to the UK one?

Needless to say, I would support the creation of a separate Scottish Civil Service, but I don't see it as a stepping-stone to Independence, but as a necessary consequence of devolution. Elvidge currently serves two masters, and so suffers from the dreaded 'dotted line' on the organisation chart: he has to implement the policies of the SNP Government, headed by Alex Salmond, but is part of the Home Civil Service, of which Gordon Brown is in charge. Now, when Labour were in charge at both levels, and First Ministers would not just be slapped down by junior Home Office Ministers but actually take the telling, that wasn't a problem. Tony Blair was Jack McConnell's leader and John Elvidge's boss. Both reported to the same man in the end. That is no longer the case.

The Act of Union maintained Scotland's separate legal system, and devolution delivered a distant legislature appointing a distinct Executive and passing distinct legislation, enforceable by that distinct legal system. If there can be a Scottish judiciary, a Scottish Parliament and a Scottish Executive, surely it's only logical that there be a Scottish Administration to go with it, rather than the unsatisfactory halfway house of a Civil Service that has to implement the government in Edinburgh's policies, but remains a part of the government in London.

This change shouldn't be controversial: it's not new and it won't in and of itself lead to independence (the separate Northern Irish Civil Service proves this). But it is another level of devolution, and the most important one, creating a real Scottish adminsitration placing legislation and responsibility for those implementing that legislation in the same place.

And that has to be a good thing.


Lord Straf-Bilderberg said...

Will, what's your position on West Lothian?

julie said...

Yeah, our former government has been having a lot of hissy fits recently. All a bit petulant. The fault line here is the fact that Scotland has a separate legislature; I think in actual fact that we are the only country with a separate legislature, but a joint parliament, up until devolution of course.

Really the way I look at it with regard to the West Lothian question, is that if we are getting a block grant from England, then its our business how we choose to spend that money. So if we are more concerned about the elderly and students, if we want to help small business, then why not? Its not cost England any more in terms of revenue than toeing the Westminster line down to the last detail. Theres a lot of play about the fact that Scotland gets more public spending per head; but that's not saying in actual fact how much Scotland produces per head and I think leaving the oil out of the GERS figures is a bit of a con myself. Britain would have never made it through the eighties without it; the number of unemployed could never have been paid for without it.

Will said...

James, in terms of the Constitution I'm pro-independence, which would provide a permanent solution to West Lothian!

But short of that, I can't see any 'solution' that would actually be workable.

'English votes for English laws' gets tricky if you have one party forming a UK Government but the largest number of English MPs are from another.

Regional assemblies won't work as the powers offered to them are pretty paltry (so the question remains) and based on artificial boundaries anyway, so don't succeed in bringing government closer to the people.

An English Parliament could work but only if all the nations' Parliaments/Assemblies had the same powers. Otherwise there's still a West Lothian Question.

And at that point, you're going down the federalist road, which might seem attractive except for one thing... there are very few working federations where one state has such a dominance in terms of population as England would have in a Federal UK, so federalism would, I suspect, resolve English frustration but increase Celtic frustration.

And the status quo is obviously unfair, though the injustice of MPs voting on issues which don't affect their constituents goes back long before 1999: any law the Tories passed affecting only Scotland during their period in government was in effect an 'imposition' on Scotland by English Tory MPs, just as Foundation Hospitals and Top-Up Fees (where Scottish Labour MPs tipped the balance) were in effect 'imposed' on England. The system has never really worked, it's just that devolution has made us notice its faults far more.