6 November 2014

Let Glasgow flourish?

Some muddled thinking has been creeping - and yesterday marched boldly  - into the devolution debate. "Power over housing benefit should be devolved." This way of talking about and conceiving of devolution - as a box of tricks for distribution - is often a useful shorthand, but sometimes it leads us into deep confusion. 

So it is this morning, with reports that the Labour leader of Glasgow City Council, Gordon Matheson, thinks the city needs "more devolution" of its own, and has petitioned the Smith Commission to this effect. The Commission, argue cooncil chiefs, must apply itself not just to devolution within the UK, but also to "devolution" within Scotland. In the Daily Record, Matheson argues that while he shares:

"... the widespread consensus that more powers should be devolved to Scotland, this cannot just be pass-the-parcel between Westminster and Holyrood. Simply moving powers from one centralising parliament to another isn't true devolution."

Precedent for conceptualising greater local authority power in terms of "devolution" is to be found in Labour's Devolution Commission report, which is chock full of references to o'erleaping the Scottish Parliament, and investing civic authorities with additional "devolved" authority. You may or may not agree with Matheson's point about the importance of greater local control over political decision-making. But conceptualising this argument in terms of "devolution," and calling on Lord Smith and his colleagues to give effect to it in a new Scotland Bill in Westminster, entirely misunderstands the legal basis for devolution and - indirectly - calls for the UK parliament to be reinvested with sovereign sway over the shape of Scottish municipal and local government. A funny sort of outcome, for a proposal passing itself off as "true" devolution. Let's take it through in stages.

The bottom line is this: the debate about Scottish devolution is about the powers which Holyrood cannot exercise, what the Parliament cannot change, and which Westminster decisions are to be treated as set in stone. That's the framework which the Scotland Act gives us. It doesn't list powers devolved, but only powers retained. The rest, it commends to the Scottish Parliament's collective judgement.

In law, there is no such thing as a "devolved" power, only a reserved one. And the difference between the two is critical - and totally missed in Matheson's intervention. As things stand, Holyrood cannot introduce its own social security schemes, nor can it modify or repeal the Human Rights Act. What it can do, however, is shape, reshape or even abolish local government in Scotland. MSPs may decide to invest local forms of government with greater and lesser powers, or to diminish their powers in devolved areas. That's their purview. 

Against that legal background, Matheson's idea of "city" devolution is simply incoherent. The only feasible way in which additional powers could be "devolved" to cities by a Scotland Bill is to add local government to the list of things Holyrood can't legislate for under schedules 4 and 5 of the Scotland Act. That's the form of devolution Donald Dewar and his colleagues bequeathed to us in the 1990s, in framing the parliament's founding statute. It's logic is inescapable. What Matheson is - essentially - calling for is for local government to be re-reserved, and for Westminster to determine what form of local government is appropriate for Scotland, immunising Glasgow and its sister councils from unwelcome Holyrood interference. 

We're seriously at risk of conflating two different lines of thinking here. Is it desirable that Scottish local government should enjoy greater autonomy in some areas? Perhaps. There are certainly compelling arguments to be made. Interestingly, this is one of the few themes which Nicola Sturgeon has consistently referenced in her public remarks since the referendum result. Presaging what? Who knows? But it is not, I think, an insignificant choice of topic for the incoming First Minister to expend breath on. 

But the idea that powers should be "devolved" from Holyrood to local authorities by Westminster is a red herring. This could only be achieved by clawing back powers which the UK parliament willingly devolved when Holyrood was founded. It is one thing to agitate in the Scottish Parliament, and to remonstrate with the Scottish Government, for a different vision of local democracy in Scotland to be realised through ordinary legislation. It is quite another to ask for this aspiration to be inscribed, unalterably, in the Scotland Act by Members of Parliament in Westminster. But logically, that's what Glasgow civic leaders are pushing for. 

Is it "true devolution" to have the form and powers of Scottish local government decided by a faraway parliament in the imperial capital, depriving Holyrood of powers it has enjoyed since 1998 and for the foreseeable future? Pardon me, Mr Matheson, but colour me skeptical. 


  1. Nobody is calling for Westminster to do it. Gordon, and many others in Labour including myself, is calling for Holyrood to do it.

    1. Why then is he petitioning the Smith Commission whose remit is to consider increased devolution from Westminster to Holyrood?

    2. Perhaps he's saying what he thinks would be best, as have most people in their submissions to Smith, without getting hung up on frames of reference or remits.

    3. So it makes perfect sense to ask a commission to do something which it has no power nor remit to do because that isn't getting 'hung up'? I suggest you lay off the liquor.

  2. Whatever the merits of transferring powers to local authorities may be, I strongly suspect that Matheson's real reason for advocating this is to diminish the role of the Scottish Parliament. I do not think he would be talking like this if he had any hope that Labour would win in 2016. In other words, it is an attempt to transfer power from an SNP Government to councils, some of which are controlled by Labour.

  3. No, what he appears to be calling for is powers to be transferred from an SNP (or whatever) government in Holyrood over local government, back to Westminster. That's what devolution is- powers DELVOLVED to a pocket-money entity, which can always become "retained" again, by the state parliament, Westminster.
    This brainless arse appears to be asking that Westminster takes back control of local government as a retained power, so look out for your council tax rocketing through the roof (like the A Salmond and V Putin effigies in Lewes) if Glasgow council gets its way.

  4. Regardless of the politics behind the submission, the part on welfare is real back-of-the-fag-packet stuff especially on the bedroom tax. All Gordon Matheson and Glasgow Council have to do is look across the water at Northern Ireland where the welfare system is already devolved to see a warning from history.

    The DWP funds Northern Ireland welfare separately from the Barnett formula on the "Parity Principle". In other words NI can do what it likes with welfare but it will be funded as if it is applying exactly the same rules as Westminster.

    Northern Ireland can "disapply" the spare room subsidy and is flexible enough to develop an alternative system of benefits compliance but their budget is set in direct parity to the rest of the UK. By not cutting benefits in the same way as Westminster they have to find the extra cash to pay from them out of other public services and that has caused a huge political row there.

    If welfare is devolved to Glasgow Council and other councils in Scotland then if they don't apply the same rules as the rest of the UK or have extra "paper" systems in place then they'll have to fund the extras out of other public services. Where's the costing in the submission about keeping benefit levels higher than the rest of the UK?

  5. Despite the devolutionary bungling, I think that Matheson is taking us a wee step forward. Scottish nationalism - or indeed any nationalism - begins to fall apart once you register the obvious disparity between the characters of the nation's cities; the ways in which national currencies and interest rates shackle different economies together; the increasing lack of distinction between nations and cities in their sizes, characteristics, and identities. Perhaps Matheson is reflecting a process which is already taking place naturally, the evolution towards the ultimate democratic ideal: the city-state.

    1. I still like the idea of Scotland's "city states".

  6. tychy
    So, Glasgow as a city-state, like Monaco or Vatican city, rather than a Local Authority governed entity...interesting concept.
    I don't believe that the city-state was ever seen as "the ultimate democratic ideal" , even by those states themselves in loco, who had to make treaties in order for them to even travel outside their territory (Vatican City) Monaco had to accept the governance of France in respect of the provision of military defence.
    Danzig, which was formed as a city-state in 1920, had no such treaties of alliance and was taken over by the Nazis in 1933.
    There were many, many doomed aspects of the city-state, from ancient Greece to the constructs of the last century, not least, political corruption and financial gain. Some aspects which are still apparent in the city-states of the UK, including Glasgow. But thanks for your post, which stretched the brain a bit, which is always welcome.

    1. I don't wish to stretch your brain any further, but Singapore and Hong Kong are better examples. Indeed Hong Kong is at the moment a persistent lump in the Chinese nation which they are still struggling to smooth down. London currently seems to be detaching naturally from the rest of the UK, quietly and via economic means, rather than through a conscious political process. My ideal: for Edinburgh to take the political decisions which transform it into a super-scientific, stem-cell pioneering, technological oasis, which attracts the best scientists and students from all around the world. A bit difficult for any nation to achieve this in sync with whatever programme Glasgow might choose to have.

    2. Yes, the neural synapses are twanging a bit, but here goes.
      Comparing potential Scottish city-states to the likes of Hong Kong, which has a 7 million population and the lowest score in political rights and the highest of inequality of advanced economies, is a shoogly argument. Singapore is an island city-state of five and a half million, so a wee bit different from any Scottish cities which immediately spring to mind.
      Yes, London is already functioning as a city-state and totally detached from the UK, but still reliant on those of the UK electorate who choose to supply it's foreign office and defence requirements.
      I would love to see Edinburgh taking those political decisions you outline. but as part of a nation, and not a mere city-state.

    3. I'm sorry HumVeg, it's much easier for me to get started on the city-state than it is for me to stop. I think that there comes a point when the nation takes more wealth from its cities than the cities get back through the advantage of having national markets. In other words, the nation becomes a system which sucks wealth from prospering cities and transfers it to failing cities, supply regions, the "idiocy of rural life." This is an argument in which long-term economic growth only takes place in cities. And the nation is a system which simply subtracts from this, to subsidise failure.

      We're now a long way from Matheson. But I hope you can see the connection.

  7. The politics of 'beefed up' councils as being 'devolution' is very obvious and deeply cynical. It is to offer a profoundly 'deflationary' vision of devolution and to undermine Holyrood. Oh look the council can decide to offer an extra bin collection there see ya numpties 'we' devolved power etc. Now didnae worry yer wee heads about independence or genuine devo-max please SLAB (and now former SLAB) voters.

    Apart from the see-through tawdry cynicism of the idea to muddy the waters over substantive devolution with this council pish who in their right minds thinks the likes of Rotherham council, or indeed our own corrupt 'rotten boroughs' Glasgow council, et al., should have more power?!?

    Only the dishonest, disingenuous, dullards or the genuinely imbecilic.

    I wouldn't trust the average councillor to run a bath competently. That is certainly true of Labour councillors: many of whom I've personal experience of seeing them in their moribund inaction and sloth

    1. I think you're a bit harsh on singling out Labour councillors for your epithets - I have met Highland independent councillors I wouldn't trust to tell me the time, the SNP councillors in Glasgow as well as Labour are a mixed bag, and I can remember an appalling Tory councillor who should never have been let near a budget.

      But things have got better - across the spectrum in Glasgow, the Tory David Meikle is respected, the Green councillors are on the ball (Martha Wardrop is excellent).

      My feeling is that the parties are going be taking more care now in selection at every level and that can only be good for us all.

  8. A wee comment from Peter Cruickshank, who was having technical difficulties...

    Trying to get away from the party political interests... and getting a bit nerdy...

    I think that most agree that Scotland's local government is remote and underfunded - and its role is unclear and uncertain - and that this is a bad thing in terms of local accountability. Groups as diverse as the Reid Foundation and Reform Scotland have also argued that there is a need for community-level governance beneath the current 32 local authorities.

    The Scotland Act is in effect Scotland's constitution. It is quite common for constitutions to include the role and powers of local government. Indeed clause 17 the draft Scottish Independence Bill acknowledged the role of local government (though its responsibilities and need for funding were not addressed) - so we have a model from the SNP side which suggests that it is right for the need for local government to be acknowledged at constitutional level.

    The Bavarian constitution can be used an example because there are enough parallels with Scotland's situation. It sets out the role of local government and that counties and municipality boundaries should be defined (Articles 9-12). Article 83 sets out competencies and gives a general taxation power - requires that the government assign resources to match delegated responsibilities. It also explicitly gives a role to municipal associations and gives them the right to consultation.

    The UK's model of devolution means that Scottish Parliament is not being allowed to define or amend Scotland's constitution: this means that Westminster's permission is needed to change the constitutional powers of local government, which I think was the point in the original blog.

    On the other hand, the Scottish Parliament would still be responsible for the creating the laws that set out how local government works and finances itself, it's just that local government power would be better entrenched than at present.

    Clear and entrenched powers I think give an incentive for the difference levels of government to work together. A strong local government gives opposition supporters a positive place to direct their ambitions and a way to respond to the geographical and social diversity of our country.

    In summary: I think it is possible to be a nationalist and believe in a strong and diverse local democracy.

  9. think that most agree that Scotland's local government is remote and underfunded"
    Slight correction to that statement, Lalland:

    SCOTLAND is remote from london and, as such, is dolled out pocket money which in NO WAY is sufficient for its needs as a country.