Devolution and dissonance

Dealing with the UK's devolved governments is complex now different parties are in charge

After the decisive election of Alex Salmond’s SNP north of the border, and the increasing effectiveness of the Labour-Plaid Cymru coalition in Wales, the real test for devolution has arrived.

No longer is Labour securely installed at Westminster, Holyrood and Cardiff Bay. With three different agendas at the compass points of Britain’s political map, many – including the Calman Commission – are asking how devolution can be made to work. To steal a phrase from other times, Britain isn’t working – and it hasn’t been for a while.

It is undeniable that the individual devolved institutions work in isolation. Salmond was savvy enough to get his budget through in the end. And in Wales the Local Competency Orders show a political system finding its feet.

It is the interrelationship between the devolved institutions that is problematic. While Labour was in power across Britain there was little call for formal arrangements to agree joint app­roaches, resolve conflicts or settle turf wars. These were dealt with thro­ugh an extension of ‘sofa government’, but do not think that Tony Blair or his ministers were constantly on the phone to their Celtic colleagues. Their attitude towards them was generally one of benign neglect (hence Scottish ministers were not adequately consulted on the implications for the Scottish legal system of the UK Supreme Court) punctuated by fits of frustration over critical policy divergence such as free personal care or higher education funding.

Issues were always managed informally so they didn’t become crises. In the end there was a political imperative for the  Labour Prime Minister and First Ministers to co-operate.

But now that Labour’s monopoly of power has been well and truly broken, that imperative no longer exists. And without it, we are left with a creaking constitutional framework.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown has pinned his devolutionary hopes on the Calman Commission. Its initial report, expected in June, will almost certainly provide a wise and intelligent appraisal of the devolutionary settlement bet­ween London and Edinburgh, and some signposts for a more productive and less fraught way forward.

But how will Cameron – instinctively suspicious of devolution – respond to the devolution process should he win the next election? To win that election it is very likely he will need the support of one or more of the parties in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The electoral arithmetic means that the Tories need a clear eight-point lead to secure a majority of one. Hardly comfortable, and the reason there has been much talk of a hung Parliament even though  the first past the post system is designed to produce a winner (only once in recent times, in 1974, has it not done so).

If this is the case, parties such as the SNP, Plaid Cymru or the Democratic Unionist Party will be able to wield real influence. It is absolutely no accident that Cameron was the keynote speaker at the Ulster Unionist Party annual conference in December 2008, or indeed that the two parties have formed a new alliance under which candidates in Northern Ireland will be fielded on a joint ticket.

Navigating the complexities of these relationships is going to be essential for businesses and organisations that ope­rate across the UK or in more than one of the four nations. Canny operators are alr­eady developing strategic communications programmes that take acc­ount of the range of potential electoral outcomes and identify opportunities to influence policy by raising issues in Scotland or Wales.

Views in brief
What effect would a compulsory register of lobbyists and clients have?
I don’t think there is anything to fear from a register per se – we make public names of our clients and our public affairs consultants through the APPC register. However, I do think we need to be wary of adopting regulation in response to a perception of undue in fluence rather than on evidence of it.

Your yacht is moored off Corfu but Mandelson, Osborne, Rothschild and Deripaska aren’t available. Who is on your fantasy guest list?
Josh Lyman (from The West Wing), Malcolm Tucker (the government PR man in The Thick of It), Carmela Soprano and Harry Redknapp.

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