A Lopsided Union

Following its inquiry into the future governance of the UK, the Constitution Committee of the House of Lords has published its report: Respect and Co-operation: Building a Stronger Union for the 21st century.

In the report respect and co-operation are called for to build a stronger union for the 21st century.

The committere inquired into:

The United Kingdom as currently constituted marks its centenary in 2021. It is also under strain. Both Brexit and the differences in the public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic between the UK Government, the devolved administrations and English local government have highlighted long-standing tensions in inter-governmental relations.

The Constitution Committee is exploring how power can best be shared within the UK to establish stable and effective governance arrangements throughout the UK for the 21st century. The inquiry will consider issues such as:

  • The current balance of powers within the UK
  • The current challenges for multi-level governance in the UK
  • The current approach to devolution within England
  • The common purpose of the UK

These words: “the differences in the public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic between the UK Government, the devolved administrations and English local government have highlighted long-standing tensions in inter-governmental relations” – suggest the report is written very much from an English point of view, one where devolved administrations should not have had the temerity, nor been allowed to have different policies on tacking Covid. England (otherwise the UK government) is always right. The devolved parliaments wrong. But that’s not the view in Scotland or Wales.


The mention of respect will make many hoot wryly as scant respect has been shown by Westminster to Scotland and that respect has been spiraling down to near zero in recent years.

Yet a report by Westminster’s Constitution Committee into the future governance of the UK took no heed of the desire in Scotland (and Wales) for independence and went on to consider the current balance of powers within the UK, the challenges for multi-level governance, the approach to devolution within England, the role of Whitehall and the UK funding arrangements.

The Committee believes the Union remains a vehicle for improving lives in all its constituent nations, but accepts that for confidence to be maintained in the Union, “its current strains need to be addressed without delay.” It calls for “the creation of a revitalised, better-functioning and less rancorous Union”, setting out how in the opinion of its members “such a union of respect and co-operation can be achieved”.

Did the committee provide answers or suggestions as to how the Union could be improved? Doesn’t appear so, but make up your own minds.

The House of Lords Constitution Committee

The Constitution Committee is a committee of the House of Lords which examines all public bills for constitutional implications and investigates broad constitutional issues. It’s members are:

Lord Falconer was born and brought up in Scotland before moving to London. Lord Hope is a retired Scottish judge. Baroness Suttie was born, brought up and educated in Scotland. So twelve members of whom three are Scots, though two of the three haven’t recently spent their working lives north of the border. One Labour, one Liberal Democrat, and one Crossbencher. No representation from Scotland’s governing and largest party as the SNP doesn’t accept honours so doesn’t have representation in the House of Lords. However with three Scots we might expect some recognition that in Scotland the Union is viewed by many with very jaundiced eyes.

And as respect is on the agenda then perhaps the committee needs to start with its own government, indeed its own Prime Minister who shows scant respect for Scotland and its democratically elected politicians as was in evidence in the last few days. Respect for those who died, or the relatives of those who died during the covid pandemic wasn’t in evidence either.

In recent years powergrabs, shenanigans over the Sewel Conventions, dragged out of the EU in an English desired Brexit, steamrollering of legislation without Scottish government consultation and driving a coach and horses though the devolution settlement, has rendered the Tories as extremely unpopular north of the border. And a refusal by the Labour Party to acknowledge a desire for independence has seen them plummet in the Scottish polls. The LIbDems are widely seen as irrelevant.

Nevertheless the House of Lords Constitutional Committe has prodiced a report, the synopsis of which can be found here, from which there is a link to the full report.

Devolution – desirable or disaster?

The report calls for more meaningful dialogue between the UK Parliament and devolved legislatures on legislative consent issues. Perhaps the committee needs to remind itself that the Westminster parliament passed legislation enabling it to completely ignore legislative consent, so calling for more dialogue is meaningless. It also supports devolution within England as it considers that will aid economic performance. But as Boris Johnson, and many of his Tories have made clear they believe devolution for Scotland has been a disaster, so it’s unclear why it’s now thought devolution would be desirable for English regions. Were they lying about it being a disaster in Scotland?

So, what other goodies does the committee have on its wishlist? Well, surprise, surprise, “the House of Lords should strengthen its scrutiny of bills that engage the Sewel convention” as the committee members believe it more appropriate for Parliament to scrutinise this than the courts. An undemocratic body on which the democratically elected ruling party in Scotland is not represented is going to decide what the Scottish Government can and can’t rule on. Hmmm! What was that about respect?

A compelling vision

Greater transparencty over relations with devolved administrations is wanted. As there has never been transparency I won’t hold my breath. Though the committee does call for a significant culture change in Whitehall, including the end of its top-down mindset. That kind of culture change takes years, decades even, to implement and it’s never going to happen under the present (or any future) Tory administration.

Their lordships are very keen for some kind of devolution in England, calling for “a principled devolution framework, in cooperation with English devolved authorities, to provide a clear baseline for further devolution of powers within England”. This to include fiscal powers. It is not said how much overview the committee will have over English devolved authorities compared to Scottish and Welsh devolved administrations.

Baroness Taylor of Bolton, Chair of the committee concluded: ““The Government needs to articulate a compelling vision and narrative for the United Kingdom in the 21st century.”

For many of us a vision, compelling or otherwise, of a Union well past its sell-by date will have little appeal. Too little, too late.

The Constitution Committee and the Tory government need to show some respect for the wishes of people in Scotland and tell us what mechanism there is for achieving self-determination and independence.

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