We need to talk about Westminster

Michela Palese, former Research and Policy Officer

Posted on the 4th June 2021

Debates about the future of the union and devolution to the UK’s nations and regions continue to dominate the constitutional sphere, as we have set out before, with the results of the May 2021 elections throwing into sharp relief not only the role of the devolved governments, but also that of metro mayors and local leaders as important players in UK territorial politics.

But less attention has been paid among the broader commentariat to the role that Westminster and Whitehall themselves play within the UK’s constitutional set-up, and how they approach issues of territorial management. The unreformed nature of the central British state and how it has struggled to adapt to the constitutional changes that have taken place over the past few decades are not being addressed.

There are some notable exceptions. For example, the long-awaited review of UK government union capability undertaken by Lord Dunlop, published finally in March. Dunlop highlighted the scant attention paid to the implications of devolution on the way the union runs noting that ‘the focus has not been on the machinery and arrangements which enable the UK Government to discharge sensitively its own unique duties to people across all parts of the country, and to work constructively with devolved governments where responsibilities overlap.’

A report commissioned by the Constitution Society on the British state and devolution similarly pointed out how the state has found it difficult to ‘internalise the implications and realities of devolved governance’ and how there is an ‘ingrained disinclination’ to properly engage in a meaningful way with its territories, with Whitehall displaying ignorance and indifference towards devolution and politics outside of England.

Further, the House of Lords Constitution Committee has recently launched an inquiry into the future governance of the UK and is likely to consider issues of territorial politics.

In addition to looking at what can and should be done in the nations, regions, and localities of the UK, we need to make sure that we also talk about Westminster just as much and address the deficiencies inherent in its set-up.

Westminster’s disinclination to engage

The current balance of powers within the UK revolves around Westminster, with its centralising and power-hoarding structures and culture. The current First Past the Post voting system lies at the heart of much of Westminster’s centralising approach and culture. Being granted unfettered power on a plurality of the vote means there is little incentive for government to form consensus and collaborate with other parties and legislatures, to formulate a long-term vision, and share power in a more balanced and equitable manner.

Despite devolution across the UK (albeit in a much more limited form in England), this centralisation and disinclination to genuinely share power permeate the British state’s relationships with the UK’s territories, acting as a barrier to meaningful and long-term collaboration, trust and parity of esteem. Rather than improving over the years, as the devolution settlements have become more embedded, the central state’s approach, particularly as articulated by the current government, has been one of ‘assertive and muscular style of unionism’, focused on strengthening the profile and influence of the centre in the devolved territories.

Westminster’s long-standing failures at governance

Successive governments’ approach to devolution and territorial management has been to ‘devolve and forget’ – without setting out a clear, long-term and comprehensive constitutional vision and purpose, which takes into account the UK as a whole and how its constituent parts (including England as separate from the UK) interact with each other and with the central state.

Relations between the UK’s governments and parliaments continue to be informal, thus allowing the UK to preserve Westminster’s parliamentary sovereignty and the legitimacy and authority of the constitution, while letting the devolved legislatures enjoy de facto autonomy in their areas of competence.

Mechanisms for intergovernmental and interparliamentary discussion and dispute resolution have not been properly developed over the years, with consequences for the effectiveness of governance arrangements among the different territories of the UK. Current systems are falling short, and do not offer a genuine voice to the constituent parts of the UK in relation to the UK government, which continues to dominate such forums.

Reforming Westminster

Some proposals have already been made for reforming Westminster’s approach to the union, including by Lord Dunlop, who recommended, among other things, the creation of a new Secretary of State for Intergovernmental and Constitutional Affairs as a new senior Cabinet position to ensure that the union and devolution are at the heart of the UK government and policy-making.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Devolution also made suggestions on how to improve relations between the centre and localities, calling for a culture shift in Whitehall so that local government is granted parity of esteem.

The government itself appears to be re-engaging with its commitments to strengthening the union, improving its relationships with the devolved administrations, and ‘levelling up’ the nations and regions of the UK, having made a series of new appointments to this effect and published an update of its review of intergovernmental relations in the past few months.

Proposals to reform the culture and approach of the British state to adapt to the new constitutional landscape are important and urgent, as both the Brexit and pandemic experiences have highlighted. But we need to go much further.

Moving to a proportional voting system would tackle Westminster’s over-centralisation and foster a more stable balance of powers between the central state and the devolved areas. Reform of the second chamber as a senate of the nations and regions would strengthen and enhance the UK’s governance arrangements, recognising the UK as it is, not as a pre-devolution, unitary state, and serving as a forum in which issues of territorial politics could be raised and discussed.

In addition to such institutional changes, powers should be dispersed more widely across and within the constituent parts of the UK, especially within England, and brought as close as possible to people and communities, in line with the principle of subsidiarity, allowing for local policy-making and citizen involvement through deliberative democratic processes.

Tackling both economic and democratic inequality should be part of the agenda for any government committed to ‘levelling up’. While the government have talked much about the former, it’s now time they made clear how they plan to address the latter too.

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