OPINION - From Indyref2 to TfL, devolution is a hot mess

 (Ben Turner)
(Ben Turner)

The ruling from the Supreme Court was unanimous and clear: the Scottish parliament does not have the power to legislate for a referendum on independence without the consent of the UK government.

This was not a surprise. Constitutional matters are reserved to Westminster. The 2014 referendum required legislation in the UK parliament, though the Scottish government continued to claim that a referendum was already within its devolved powers.

Lord Reeds, president of the court, rejected SNP arguments around self-determination, taken from Kosovo and Quebec. The problem with this claim, as pointed out in the judgement, is that self-determination is essentially limited to former colonies or where a people are oppressed, for example under foreign military occupation. This cannot be said to describe Scotland.

Swiftly following the ruling, first minister Nicola Sturgeon called the next general election a “de facto referendum” which sounds good, but is largely devoid of meaning. However, Sturgeon is unlikely to be too disappointed by this result, which reaffirms an SNP rallying cry while she attempts to hold her impatient party together.

More broadly, this ruling highlights the fact that the devolution settlement in the UK is an incoherent mess. When I was a civil servant, I spent some time working on policy relating Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland but it was hard to get anyone outside my immediate colleagues (indeed, my immediate family) to care.

Lord Dunlop, who led a review into the government’s approach to the Union, has said he found the machinery of government at the UK-wide level had “not really changed” in response to devolution and that the prevailing attitude in Whitehall was to “devolve and forget”.

To borrow wholesale from Philip Rycroft – a former senior civil servant who has written a fascinating paper for the Institute for Government on the erratic evolution of the British constitution since 1997 – the devolved settlements are extremely unsettled.

But it’s not just devolution to nations or cities which are unfinished or unsatisfactory. Our constitution is packed with half-baked ideas, most notably the House of Lords, which hasn’t seen major reform since the first Blair government, when all but 92 hereditary peers were removed. That our political system has been unable to generate further renewal, despite all parties supporting various changes at various points, is fairly damning.

Gordon Brown has conducted a constitutional review for Keir Starmer, the most eye-catching recommendation being to abolish the Lords and replace it with an elected chamber. Suggestions such as these often lead to eye-rolling from the political classes (some of whom must be eyeing up a lifetime appointment to the legislature). No one cares about the Lords, it is said. Let’s focus on the economy instead.

Except, it is hard to fix things when the system itself – from the Lords to the devolution settlements – is sclerotic, unfinished and crying out for a government with the bandwidth and will to reform.

In the comment pages, Labour’s doing curiously well, says Ayesha Hazarika — but it’s a long time until the next election. Martin Williams, CEO of M & Gaucho restaurants, writes that businesses like his need EU workers to succeed. While Claire Cohen says Alex Scott’s presence in Qatar is achieving more than a boycott ever could.

And finally, because you’ve just put up with 550 words on devolution and constitutional reform, check out the most extravagant advent calendars on offer this Christmas, from Fortnum & Mason’s £200 spread to Lark & Berry’s £10,000 filled with twelve tiny boxes, each containing a piece of fine jewellery. One each?

This article appears in our newsletter, West End Final – delivered 4pm daily – bringing you the very best of the paper, from culture and comment to features and sport. Sign up here