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Sensemaker: Devolution disaster

Wednesday 18 November 2020

What just happened


Long stories short

  • Thailand’s parliament is today voting on proposals for constitutional amendments, but will likely reject a motion to reform the monarchy despite months of protests.
  • The US plans to withdraw thousands of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan in January, raising concerns about increased violence in both countries.
  • Iran’s foreign minister pledged to implement all the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal if Joe Biden lifts sanctions.

Devolution disaster

Boris Johnson has a habit of saying tactless things at inopportune moments. Most recently that the last two decades of Scottish devolution have been a “disaster” and that it was Tony Blair’s “biggest mistake”. With six months to go until Holyrood’s elections, his remarks are unlikely to endear the Scottish Conservative party to voters. Any suggestion that Tories in Westminster are derisive of Scotland’s self-determination is likely to be harmful to the prospects of their Scottish counterparts, instead driving support for the SNP and Scottish independence.

Johnson’s comments were swiftly clarified by Downing Street. “The PM has always supported devolution but Tony Blair failed to foresee the rise of separatists in Scotland,” said Number Ten. “Devolution is great – but not when it’s used by separatists and nationalists to break up the UK.” If that’s what Johnson actually meant, then he has a point. Cast your mind back to 1995, when Labour pronounced that greater autonomy for Scotland would “kill nationalism stone dead” – clearly that has not been the case.

The Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross likewise asserted that Johnson “believes in devolution”. The disaster is not devolution, he said, it’s “the SNP’s non-stop obsession with another referendum – above jobs, schools and everything else”. The complaint that the SNP is a party of campaigning and not of governing is often repeated by Conservatives, but it is true that many of Scotland’s services are in need of attention:

  • Education: Scotland’s most recent scores on PISA tests – an international benchmark for reading, maths and science – put Scotland behind England on all metrics. Science and maths scores fell, but Scotland’s students did show an improvement in literacy after years of decline, restoring reading scores to 2009 levels.
  • Police: Despite a £37 million increase in funding in the 2020 Budget, Scotland’s police service faces a funding gap of £49 million and a “staffing crisis”.
  • Health: Nearly 30 per cent of patients in Scotland are waiting more than 12 weeks for treatment, the worst performance since waiting-time targets were introduced in 2012. Data in 2019 showed that some 12,000 patients waited six months for treatment within the last two years.

Despite these problems, Nicola Sturgeon is performing well in opinion polls, and – even before Johnson’s gaffe – polling suggested that the SNP will increase their majority north of the border in May. Meanwhile, data from Ipsos MORI in October showed record support for Scottish independence.


Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Prime pills
Not content with TVs and hardbacks, the world’s richest man Jeff Bezos is now dealing in insulin and steroid creams: Amazon has launched its own online pharmacy in the US. As a result, Amazon’s two big US competitors in the market, CVS and Walgreens, yesterday saw their shares fall by 8.6 per cent and 9.6 per cent respectively. There’s plenty of revenue for Amazon to gobble up – the US pharmaceutical industry alone is worth more than $300 billion, and Amazon has also filed for pharmacy trademarks in UK, Australia and Canada – and it is promising discounts of up to 80 per cent on generic drugs for Prime subscribers. Low cost and high convenience is an easy sell.


New things technology, science, engineering

Green reset?
Boris Johnson has finally revealed his long-awaited, self-styled green revolution. The ten pledges include planting 30,000 hectares of trees every year, investing £1 billion in the insulation of homes and public buildings, and banning the sale of diesel and petrol cars by 2030. The plan has drawn some praise from environmental groups, and bringing forward the diesel ban by a decade is refreshingly bold. But money talks, and only a third of the £12 billion programme is new spending. The think tank IPPR indicates that this government would need to spend an additional £33 billion a year to put the UK on the path to net zero. For now, Johnson’s revolution is more of a ripple.


The 100-year life health, education, living, public policy

Manchester anger
The embattled University of Manchester has agreed to a 20 per cent rent reduction for students in their first term. This comes after a fortnight during which: the university’s security officers pinned a Black first-year student against a wall; a protest was met with riot vans and heavily armoured police officers; and the university erected an £11,000, six-foot-tall metal fence around student accommodation. Against this backdrop, a group of students has been occupying a hall of residence for the past week and asking for a 40 per cent reduction in student rent, as part of a wider protest against the university’s response to coronavirus – so the university is only meeting them halfway. This isn’t remotely sufficient given how students have been treated.


Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Duelling dinos
The skeletons of two dinosaurs locked together in combat have been sold to a North Carolina museum after spending more than a decade hidden away. Discovered by a brimmed-hatted amateur dinosaur hunter in 2006, the fossils are a paleontologist’s dream: a T. rex and Triceratops preserved for 66 million years in what seems to be their final tussle. But subsequent legal battles over who owned the fossils kept them out of public view (fewer than 100 people have seen them), until, in June, a US appeals court ruled that the fossils belonged to the owners of the land’s surface rights, giving a Montana ranch-owning family the right to flog them. Now, thanks to a cool $6 million paid by private donors, the bones are heading for display.


Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

A promised land
Barack Obama was elected as the first Black president under a tagline of Hope, but two years later the Democrats had lost a disastrous 63 seats in the House. “It just proved,” Obama writes in his new memoir, “that I’d failed to rally the nation, as F.D.R. had once done, behind what I knew to be right”. The book betrays an elegiac weariness at the forces working against him, whether it be filibustering Republicans or his own race (he recalls his support among white voters plummeting more than at any other time in his whole presidency after he gently criticised a police officer who arrested a Black academic on his own porch). Perhaps saddest of all is the recollection of his famous 2004 Democratic National Convention speech, where he described a country that was not Black or white, red or blue, but united. “I’d intended it more as a statement of aspiration than a description of reality,” he writes. Quite right. We all know what came twelve years later.

opinion: laura round

Advising after Cummings

The departure of Boris Johnson’s controversial aide could free up others to do better work

This has not been a great year to be a special adviser in government. And it’s not just the political and social challenges posed by the pandemic. There have also been various other frustrations, concerns and demands – many of them pre-dating Covid.

When Dominic Cummings entered Number 10 with Boris Johnson in 2019, it was clear that he was eager to reconstruct the machinery of government. But because he had been a special adviser himself, to Michael Gove during the years of Conservative-Lib Dem coalition, many were surprised when he began to target special advisers. Lines of reporting now led directly to Cummings; lunches with journalists were banned; and sackings were unceremonious. Wings were clipped.

Having previously been a special adviser, I know it’s a delicate (and sometimes controversial) role. Whilst civil servants are neutral participants, special advisers are explicitly political appointments, coming and going depending on the party in power and on their minister staying in post. It’s their job to protect both the government and their minister. They work closely with the civil service to ensure the government’s agenda and priorities are implemented, not impeded, by Whitehall. They are responsible for securing positive coverage of government announcements and for spotting (and preventing) incoming fire. In theory, a special adviser only has as much power and influence as their minister allows them.

Towards the end of Theresa May’s tenure, the power dynamics shifted. It was clear that, with a leadership election looming, the loyalties of special advisers lay increasingly with their minister rather than with the incumbent prime minister, resulting in an endless slew of media leaks. It was an unhealthy and untenable balance for governing, so it’s easy to understand why the Johnson administration wanted to signal a clear change. However, the changes went out of kilter and came at a cost.

Ministers were given limited independence; special advisers even less. There was a sense among spads, and even among some ministers, that it was wiser to keep a low profile and not suggest any ideas lest they not be to the liking of the new administration. Nobody dared ask questions in weekly meetings. As some have put it, there was a culture of fear.

The exit of Cummings could be a moment for a reset of sorts. There are a number of areas where a reinvigorated group of special advisers could help to advance the interests of the government.

Firstly, in the past year, there has been too tight a grip from the centre. This administration needs to start trusting senior ministers and their advisers; to give them the necessary space to work and to empower them to deliver on the government’s priorities. It’s hard for ideas to incubate in a monoculture, and there’s reason to hope that, in a less overbearing environment, any policy ideas will be more likely to be shared across government. People will also be less afraid to identify and raise potential problems early on, so they can be averted.

What’s more, special advisers have a crucial role to play in maintaining Johnson’s relationship with his backbench MPs, as well as with the political party as a whole. There’s already a type of backroom facilitator – parliamentary private secretaries – who works to bring ministers and MPs together. However, a good special adviser always makes sure that they engage with the parliamentary party and that their minister is speaking to and, most importantly, listening to those MPs. Embarrassing U-turns and rebellions can be avoided this way.

Similarly, special advisers should also be talking to journalists. Under Cummings, there was a ban on special advisers going out for lunch with the press – presumably from fear of leaks. Yet spads play an important role in promoting announcements and defending government policy to the media. Fewer meet-ups means fewer ways to temper the media response to new announcements and policies.

Lastly, relationships with people outside of Westminster are also in need of repair. For someone who was said to be so passionate about looking outside the bubble, Cummings’ tenure, was, above all else, characterised by a striking insularity and bunker mentality. This administration has, at times, seemed cloth-eared to the legitimate concerns of businesses (both big and small), industry bodies, unions, and others. Special advisers are well placed to help build and reinforce bridges between the government and the wider world.

Ultimately, being a special adviser is a unique, and in many ways privileged, job; one that should instil a sense of pride, passion and duty. Hopefully, that will be the case – uncomplicatedly – in 2021. A new year beckons.

Laura Round is a former special adviser to the defence secretary and secretary of state for international development.

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Ella Hill
@_EllaHill

Xavier Greenwood
@XAMGreenwood