Stephen Crabb MP: The devolution experiment is leading to socialism and separatism
Stephen Crabb, MP for the Welsh constituency of Preseli Pembrokeshire, worries about the Party's wholly positive line about devolution because of its tendency to encourage continuous calls for greater spending and its potential to cause huge and permanent damage to the United Kingdom.
One of the most enduring images for me of the rugby world cup final came during the national anthems. The camera moved along the line of English rugby players who were pumping out ‘God Save the Queen’ like their lives depended on it. The camera shot then switched to a miserable grey figure in a long coat making odd mouth movements.
The reason Gordon Brown looked so painfully out of place among the excited and optimistic England fans is that he cannot escape his ‘national’ problem. When it comes to projecting an expansive aura of leadership that appeals to all parts of the UK, he just cannot pull it off.
No amount of repetition by him of the words “Britain” and “British” can hide the fact that Gordon Brown personifies the current slide towards national fragmentation.
As well as highlighting the complex psychology that drives our PM, Tom Bowyer’s now widely-read biography of Brown has been useful for the light it sheds on the extraordinary influence wielded by the Scottish Labour Party over British politics during the last ten years. Brown is both a product and champion of this dark corner of the national political landscape and has already played a key role in undermining the Union.
One of the legacies of (Scottish) Labour’s decade of constitutional vandalism is a confused and unstable devolution settlement for the composite parts of the United Kingdom, all generously underwritten by English taxpayers.
If only the problem was as straightforward as just the West Lothian conundrum. When one also considers the current fiscal realities whereby English taxpayers are funding generous benefits in Scotland and Wales which are unavailable and unaffordable in England it is not hard to understand why anger over devolution is rising.
The controversy this week over free prescription charges in Scotland (Wales already has these) suggests that the limits of English patience with this situation have now been reached.
But, as someone with strong roots in Scotland and Wales, I remain a ‘devo-sceptic’ for other reasons.
Over the last ten years my opposition to devolution in Scotland and Wales has been driven by a belief that, far from satisfying the nationalist tendencies in these countries, devolution would foster and feed an increasingly separatist and socialist discourse in which sensible Conservative policies that could promote national cohesion, economic liberalism and smaller government would find little oxygen for survival.
Although other colleagues in the party have reversed their previous opposition to devolution, I maintain that the devolution experience so far has proved rather than disproved my original concerns. By giving institutional expression to the forces of separatism, devolution has given these a new lease of life.
While there are plenty of petty rows in the Welsh Assembly to fill the pages of the Western Mail each day, what is striking about the Assembly now is the huge level of agreement between all the parties. In fact, the principal political fault-line lies not between the parties in Cardiff Bay but between all the Assembly politicians and what is known down there as “Westminster”.
In the aftermath of the election in May, all the parties at Cardiff Bay were in negotiation with each other to form a coalition. At the heart of all their sets of proposals was a united aim to secure greater devolution for Wales (disregarding the views of Welsh people who only voted by the tiniest of margins for a limited form of devolution at the referendum).
Much of the current background noise of Welsh politics is a rising chorus of anti-Westminster rhetoric from all parties. It is the “Welsh Government” versus the “Westminster Government”. And this is with Labour in power in both places! Just wait until there is a Conservative Government in London and then the full anti-Westminster venom will be unleashed in a spectacular way.
Furthermore, devolution has created a politics which is based overwhelmingly around calls for greater public expenditure and freebies for various sections of the population. In Wales we have seen the implementation of free bus travel, free swimming lessons, free higher education and free prescriptions for certain deserving groups. Not to be outdone, our own manifesto at this year’s Assembly elections promised free lightbulbs (low energy) for all households.
With political decisions over many public services now devolved but the entire fiscal system reserved to Westminster, the dominance of socialist rhetoric is guaranteed. It is implicit in the nature of the devolution settlement. In the absence of any mechanism to ensure a line of accountability between Welsh taxes and Welsh expenditure, all Assembly politicians are incentivised to ramp-up calls for greater spending in Wales. Short-term tactics aside, I cannot see how this situation is desirable in the long run.
Our official party line on all this can be summarised:
“Devolution has made the Union stronger and Conservatives are committed to making the devolved institutions work for the people of Scotland and Wales.”
But I am not alone – either among Welsh or English colleagues – in worrying about this position.
So what are the options for a future Conservative Government?
Abolition of the devolved institutions is not currently saleable. It is very difficult to see how abolition could happen unless the administrations in Scotland and Wales proved so catastrophic that this became a necessity. Thanks to generous funding from English taxpayers and EU grants (English taxpayers again) this kind of collapse would probably never occur.
This means that we should now be looking at a re-balancing of the devolution experiment.
The case for some form of law-making body for just England is certainly becoming irresistible. This could include a First Minister for England. The UK Prime Minister would then become a kind of Head of State (which is presumably what Brown was pretending to be when he paraded alongside Presidents Sarkozy and Mbeki in Paris on Saturday).
Reform of the relevant Whitehall machinery is also necessary. The roles of Secretary of State for Scotland, Wales and (to a lesser extent) Northern Ireland have become emptied and somewhat meaningless under devolution. Peter Hain did two of the jobs for almost three years. Throw in Scotland as well and we can have one streamlined Department of Celtic Affairs. A reduction in the number of MPs in Wales and Scotland would go hand-in-hand with this.
A future Conservative Government could even look at some form of limited fiscal devolution to create the impression of a fairer and more responsible devolved system.
But I am not convinced that a re-balancing of the one-way devolution project will ultimately make it safe.
Together with uncontrolled immigration and relentless European integration, devolution has the potential to cause huge and permanent damage to our country. The United Kingdom is being slowly dismembered and hollowed-out in full view, and with the tacit consent, of the political classes.
By creating multiple and competing poles of national authority and decision-making, and by financing them in such an egregiously unfair way, Brown and his Labour colleagues have sown the seeds of deep division and resentment and set in motion the break-up of the Union.