Over on the Radix blog, I have an article arguing the need for a popular constitutional reform campaign.
The New Statesman has published this article from me on the Tories’ new ‘activist unionism’. Below I republish it with links.
There is a new orthodoxy on the left – the notion that Brexit will inevitably mean the break-up of the Union. Scotland will secede. Northern Ireland will vote to reunite with Ireland. These things are indeed possible. But equally possible is that we end up in a post-Brexit creaking UK able still to cling together through a new state overhaul driven from the centre.
Some attention has been given post-election to the Conservative plans for a constitutional commission. But less focus has been given to the significant plans being put together for a re-servicing of the Union. The Policy Exchange think-tank has called for ‘a Grand Strategy to modernise the United Kingdom.’ This is an activist Unionism of a kind only glimpsed before.
Since the 1970s, there have been two significant modernisations of the UK state. The first, the neoliberal Thatcherite agenda based on a hollowing out of the central state, with new central agencies, restrictions on local government’s freedom of manoeuvre, privatisation and deregulation. The second, the New Labour modernisation of 1997-2010, including devolved institutions in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London, the Good Friday Agreement, the Human Rights Act, Freedom of Information and the Supreme Court, with centrally-driven targets for service delivery in England. We are now on the cusp of a third modernisation, outlined in the Conservative manifesto, reinforced in the background notes to the December Queen’s Speech, and fleshed out in a series of policy papers.
Some of this pre-dates the Johnson government. The Dunlop Review of UK Union Capability was established under Theresa May with the objective ‘as the United Kingdom leaves the European Union….to consider how through its institutional arrangements it meets the challenge of strengthening and sustaining the Union in the future’ . But the Conservative Manifesto and Queen’s Speech make it clear that this is now part of a strategic programme.
The Conservative Party has usually had a strong focus on the possible uses of state power, even when deregulating and privatising. Alastair Campbell’s second volume of diaries record an observation of the late Alan Clark that Conservatives were fascinated with him and the Blair project because they recognised a real enthusiasm for power and its uses. The Conservatives now have at the helm someone who understands the uses of state power. Dominic Cummings has, says Rachel Wolf, one of the authors of the Conservative manifesto, been thinking about the UK state for twenty years. Cumminsology, as Alain de Botton called it recently in the New Statesman, involves a focus on the need for a more efficient and modernised state machinery: and a profound fury at the inefficiencies of existing state procedures (which many who have served in governments will share).
Cummings, and his former boss Michael Gove, are often under-estimated by some on the left who prefer caricature to analysis. As I wrote about Gove in 2014, ‘he is a deeply serious, and deeply ideological politician, whose objective is shifting the political agenda strategically’. Ditto Cummings. He is, as Tony Blair’s former political secretary John McTernan wrote in July, ‘a man with a plan’.
The Conservative state modernisation agenda is extensive. If the range of Policy Exchange papers on the Constitution, the Judiciary and Whitehall is accurate, its possibilities range from limiting the powers of the Supreme Court – possibly even re-branding it as simply an Upper Court of Appeal, to remove the sense that it is a constitutional court – to an infrastructure modernisation programme for the UK, a re-casting of central institutions to oversee the Union, with the engagement of devolved authorities such as Mayors within England to address the UK/English delivery confusion, to a series of Whitehall reforms (some of which are pretty uncontroversial) and the creation of a UK form of the American defence-linked research agency DARPA, one of Dominic Cummings’ long-held ambitions .
Some of the approach to an activist unionism has already been rolled out in Wales, where the Wales Office has essentially been re-branded as the UK Government in Wales, central government funded initiatives such as the City Deal have been used to build stronger relationships directly between the UK Government and Welsh institutions including local authorities. A ‘Western powerhouse’ model, bringing together Cardiff, Newport and Bristol, was launched to undermine Welsh Government economic plans. Welsh appointments to bodies under the control of the UK government have been politicised, as Policy Exchange suggests should happen across the UK. In the General Election, the Conservatives even promised to deliver the M4 Relief Road, without the power to do so. The Queens Speech promises a cross-border Marches deal, and many other actions.
This activist unionism may not be enough. The latest state modernisation programme may well do nothing fundamental to resolve the post-Brexit challenges of the UK. It may simply leave us with the latest modernised version of what Tom Nairn three decades ago called Ukania. But no-one should assume that the break-up of the UK is inevitable, or that Gove-Cummings haven’t thought about these things. They have, and their previous experience in respect of English schools shows that they understand the uses of state power and are capable of fast and far-reaching action.
Carwyn Jones’s announcement on Saturday that he was standing down has taken time to sink in, and only now are people beginning to weigh up the immense contribution he made as First Minister. I believe that he will be regarded as a historically significant First Minister and I am glad that he had the opportunity to announce his departure amongst friends and family at Welsh Labour conference in Llandudno.
Where Rhodri Morgan consolidated a devolution project that was very fragile when he became Welsh Labour leader, as I said on the Radio 4 Today programme this morning, Carwyn’s role has been to develop the role of the National Assembly and the Welsh Government. We now have a law-making Assembly with tax-raising powers. It was Carwyn’s bold decision to take forward the referendum in 2011, with the support of coalition partners Plaid Cymru, despite the foot-dragging of the Conservative-led coalition government at Westminster, and it was he who articulated the new name of Welsh Government for the executive body after the 2011 election.
Carwyn pioneered the tax-raising role of the institution with his personal support for a levy on plastic bags that was a pioneering policy now adopted by other parts of the UK. He did that despite scepticism, and some hostility, in the business community.
It is also often forgotten that Carwyn was the first First Minister who was home-grown: in other words, he had grown into political life within the National Assembly, not having served at Westminster like his predecessors. That gave him a healthy distance from what can be a stultifying obsession with Westminster parliamentary sovereignty and an openness to new constitutional developments.
His personal commitment to education, firmly articulated in his 2009 leadership campaign, paved the way for further investment and a substantial programme of school improvement, as well as underpinning the decision to protect Welsh students against £9000 tuition fees.
He has been capable of bold decisions with clear vision, such as the purchase of Cardiff Airport, now expanding with new routes across the world, and new and innovative legislation in areas such as organ donation, introduced despite controversy and articulated clearly by Carwyn himself.
He gave space for a new approach for public service reform, which Carl Sargeant developed and carried through in the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act, that means public service bodies in Wales have to come to the table to work through their public service delivery on a cross-boundary basis. The Violence against Women legislation, which Carl championed, Lesley Griffiths introduced, and I took through the National Assembly, will be seen as another significant achievement.
In the first decade of devolution the taps of public sector investment were turned on: but five months after Carwyn’s election as First Minister a Conservative-led coalition was in office implementing austerity policies which forced difficult choices on all of us in government. Carwyn provided leadership, not least on the economic front, where programmes like Jobs Growth Wales delivered more successfully than Westminster-based work programmes. Where the Conservative-led coalition scrapped the Remploy factories, the Welsh Government introduced a scheme to support employers who took on Remploy workers.
When the steel crisis hit in 2016, and the UK government proved dilatory and unable to act, Carwyn ensured a strong Welsh response which protected Welsh jobs at Tata. That response in 2016 helped turn around Welsh Labour fortunes in seats in Wales which had seemed in the early months of 2016 to be under threat from the Tories.
In electoral terms, Carwyn’s successes in 2011 and 2016 outdid, albeit in very different circumstances, those of his predecessors: and he made a significant personal contribution to the 2017 UK Labour campaign which led to the recapturing of Cardiff North, Gower and Vale of Clwyd.
In respect of Brexit, he identified earlier than most the pivotal importance of the Irish border issue, based on his family connections through Lisa and his own study of the subject.
In his conference speech, he expressed the view that the last few months have been the darkest of times. Bluntly, the last five and a half months have been miserable, indeed hateful. They have of course been darkest of all for the family and close friends of Carl Sargeant, but there has never been any question that they have taken a huge toll on Carwyn and his family. He will know above all the need in Welsh Labour for the healing to commence, and that his decision to stand down will now enable people to come together, as Jack Sargeant has passionately and bravely articulated, in pursuit of a kinder politics.