Administrative Devolution: What's the Plan?

September 30, 2017



A valid question that could be posed to the suggestion that legislative devolution should be replaced with the administrative variant is: What’s the plan for introducing it and how would it be introduced in practice? It's all very well having grand theories about political ideas, but it's always an exceptionally good idea to think through how they would work in real life before applying them. History is replete with clever people who have had 'the grand idea' which has seemed outstanding in theory, but has not subsequently translated well into practice (George Orwell, the author of ‘1984’ warned people never to trust any political system with ‘ism’ on the end of its name- Stalinism and Nazism being two apposite examples). It is rarely a good idea to design these ideas by committee, as such processes tend to be devoid of any real concept of how theory plays out in the real world. Such attempts at producing an idea tend to be populated by ivory tower dwelling ingénues and ideologues who want to use the political system to force their political theory to work, though usually such ideas are extreme and devoid of genuine merit. It's usually far better to look at an example of a pre-existing system that has been working well in the real world for a substantial period of time and try to adopt it's working systems to serve your purposes.


As has been stated in previous articles, administrative devolution has been running in England since its introduction there in the 1990’s by the administration of John Major (perhaps the only substantive success of his entire seven years in office.) It is this model of administrative devolution that we should look at as our example and try to adopt it so that it could be applied across the entire UK and be modified to fit the particular circumstances that exist in each region.


Major’s local government reforms began shortly after his victory in the 1992 General Election. He set up The Local Government Commission for England which was charged with reviewing the structure if local government in England by the Secretary of State. The Commission, headed by John Barnham, was to carry out a review of all the non-metropolitan counties of England (only) and made several recommendations in its report, presented in October 1994. As a result of its review several changes were made to the previously two-tier structure of local government in England and several authorities went from having a dual structure to becoming unitary authorities. Accompanying these structural changes, local government had several matters that had previously been the province of central government devolved to their control. After this transfer, English local authorities had power over areas such as housing, education, transport, strategic planning, local planning, social services, council tax collection, libraries, regional development, consumer protection, licensing, Police and fire, amongst several others.


This represented the biggest transfer of powers from central to local government until the advent of legislative devolution in the late 1990's. It also represented something of a return to an earlier Anglo-Saxon model of de-centralized and powerful local government. In the Anglo-Saxon period, government had been diffuse, with various forms of local administration providing checks and balances to any attempt by the centre to become over mighty. After 1066, the Normans introduced a policy of centralization of government as they attempted to consolidate their power over the newly-conquered and still rebellious country. Major's re-organization of English local government was a much-welcomed (by the public) return to this style of more open, democratic and fair system of government. Government was generally perceived as being more accountable, at the local level, and more accountable to the localities they served as, indeed, there was a pronounced dislike of being ruled by far away London as it was felt that it had no real feel for what really mattered in the regions. Local people knew far better than a distant, disconnected administration what was best for their own area.


There are some important lessons that can be learned from this example that can be applied to the rest of the UK. These reforms were instrumental in satisfying the need for localism in England and thus preventing a more fragmentary regional devolutionary idea from taking hold. In other words, Major's reforms stopped certain clarion calls for England to be broken up into self-governing regions that would have led to certain areas of the country breaking away completely and becoming independent. The most obvious example of this is Cornwall, which has had a 'nationalist' movement for several decades now. This movement, Mebyon Kernow, 'The sons of Cornwall', has been agitating for a Cornish parliament since the 1950's and, whilst still a minor political force, have become increasingly strident over the last few years. Such fragmentary pressures, whilst appearing to be unimportant in the ordinary course of events, can have very serious ramifications for English unity in the presence of a magnified sense of local democratic deficit. Thus, Major's reforms had the extremely beneficial effect of satisfying the need for local accountability in England and prevented its growth leading to the possible disintegration of England as a unitary state.


This is perhaps the most important lesson to be gleaned that can be applied to the rest of the UK. If Major's administrative devolutionary reforms had the effect of forestalling calls for legislative devolution in England, they would do the same in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Major was too distracted by Conservative Party infighting over Europe, perhaps, to realize that he could have extended his reforms UK wide and seen off the proposals of New Labour under its leader one Anthony Blair, which had revived the idea of devolution from the 1970's out of respect for what previous Labour leader John Smith had called his 'unfinished business' and because they wanted to consolidate their hold on power in the regions of the UK. Administrative devolutionary reforms in Scotland, Wales and NI would have satiated any feeling in these areas (real or not) over rule from far away London and forestalled the rise of nationalism, with its false promises of better governance, and the consequent call for legislative devolution. However Major didn't extend his reforms and Blair picked up and ran with the idea of introducing legislative devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and the mess that his constitutional 'settlement' created continues to pose a clear and present danger to the integrity of the UK to this very day.


Administrative devolution is democratic, fair (even to nationalists) and a guarantor of the Union. Legislative devolution has the fundamental flaw that it leaves the door open for nationalists to make a subsequent comeback after losing power in the devolved 'national' assembly at a later date after being voted out of office and begin again trying to break up the UK. Indeed, the SNP, and other UK nationalists, can be voted out of office, but this might only be temporary and they can inveigle their way back into power at a later date and begin the neverendum all over again. This process of the nationalists continuously getting back into power could end with them eventually succeeding in their aim of independence. It is foolish to keep endangering the UK by playing dice with the Union in letting this dangerous process, enabled by legislative devolution, go on and on until it succeeds. The ONLY safe way to permanently stop the nationalists’ neverendum is to disable their ability to pursue it: abolish Holyrood (and the Welsh assembly and Stormont.)


But this is undemocratic people may say. There is a way that you can both guarantee the Union and solve any democratic deficit issues. Under administrative devolution, in which Holyrood (and the other devolved executives) are abolished and power over local matters is given to local councils, it is still possible for the SNP, or any other nationalist party, to get into power in an area if the majority vote for it. They will still control that area if they win a majority of the council seats. Similarly, it's true that nationalists could still control their part of the UK (IE Scotland, Wales and NI) if the electorate vote them in to all of the local councils in Scotland, Wales or NI. Therefore, administrative devolution is PERFECTLY democratic. What they CAN'T do is abuse their devolved remit and use their 'national' assembly to push for independence, as it is undeniable that the SNP have been doing with Holyrood over the last 10 years they've been ensconced in power. Thus, the Union is one hundred per cent guaranteed.


So, what's the plan? How can administrative devolution practically be introduced into the regions of the UK? The United Kingdom is a unitary state, and as such the central government, in our case the House of Commons, retains full national sovereignty after it has devolved some of its powers to a region within its borders. It is completely within its right under constitutional law to remove any powers it devolves by repealing the acts of Parliament that set them up in the first place. There is absolutely no requirement for the permission of, or consultation with, either the devolved executives or the population of their regions in which they are. There is also no need for any vote agreeing to such a move in the devolved executive or regions.  Thus, a first step in the plan to introduce administrative devolution would be for the Commons to formally legislate for the repeal of legislative devolution. This would formally abolish Holyrood, the Welsh assembly and Stormont. The powers of these institutions would then go to one of two places, local councils or the House of Commons, depending on what is most appropriate to where they would be most useful. Any powers that concerned the governance of local affairs would be given to local councils. Anything that was relevant to the UK as a whole would reside with the Commons. All the Commons would have to do is pass legislation that transferred powers to the councils and those that it needed to itself.


Some people may have concerns with this process. Some may think that it would cause civil unrest as nationalists and pro-devolutionists would use it as an excuse to stage protests. Whilst it's certainly true that such people would indeed make a lot of unpleasant noise and be very violent, all the UK Government would have to do is stand firm and this phenomenon would fizzle out eventually. More importantly, some people would argue that it is impossible to reverse devolution as it has been running for twenty years now. As previously stated, it is still one hundred per cent possible for the UK Government to simply reverse Blair's legislative devolutionary 'settlement'(even though it's been going now for twenty years) by simply abolishing the House of Commons acts that set it up in the first place. Under constitutional law, Theresa May (or whoever is Prime Minister) can do this perfectly legally and there is no need to consult with, or get the approval of either the devolved legislatures or the population of the devolved region. This would permanently stop the independence neverendum. The following except from a briefing paper from the House of Commons library proves this point;


‘Devolution is the process of devolving power from the centre to sub-national units. It is different from a federal system of government, since under the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty devolution is in theory reversible and the devolved institutions are constitutionally subordinate to the UK Parliament. The legislative framework for devolution is set out in the Scotland Act 1998, the Government of Wales Act 1998 and the Northern Ireland Act 1998’, Research paper 03/84, ’An introduction to devolution in the UK’, ’Summary of main points’, lines 1-4,17th November 2003, House of Commons Library.


The period of time that legislative devolution has existed is immaterial-it can be repealed as and when. You only have to look at the European Union issue to see that long-standing constitutional arrangement can be easily reversed. The UK has been a member of first the EEC and then the EU since 1973. We've been a member for 44 years and yet we are going to leave that bloc in 2019 simply by repealing the act that took us in in the first place.


There is a clear path forward for reform of the UK's constitution. It's a plan that is practicable, can be easily achieved, if there is a strong enough will to do it and which provides a balanced, fair and democratic alternative to the current crisis produced by New Labour's 'settlement'.


© 2017 Stephen Bailey.

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