Annual Policy Review 2014


Constitutional Reform

Constitutional Reform

Achieved

  • Succession to the Crown Bill
  • No ‘Devo plus’ in Scottish independence referendum

More to do

  • Avoiding Scottish independence

The unexpected

  • MP pay rise recommendations

Dangers

  • Northern Ireland political settlement undermined by ongoing negotiations
  • Scottish independence

 

The Coalition’s track record on constitutional matters is one of frustrated Lib Dem ambitions and very limited change.

Some of the major cracks in the Coalition Agreement have been over Conservative unwillingness or inability to push through changes in the voting system or deliver reform of the House of Lords, with Conservative ambitions for boundary reform scotched as a result. The Coalition has had some small successes, such as the Succession to the Crown Bill receiving Royal Assent in April, although even this was not as easy a win as predicted.

However, an even bigger challenge remains on the horizon in the shape of the Scottish independence referendum.

The Government was forced into the referendum by the SNP’s popularity, although it has ensured that Scots will face a straight yes/no vote with no ‘Devo plus’ option. The risk of that vote going against Westminster is limited, with polling consistently indicating the Scottish people are unconvinced by the independence case.

There is of course some distance to go, and what remains unclear is what will happen in the event of a no vote. Alex Salmond will hope that a substantial but insufficient vote for independence gives him a mandate to negotiate more devolved powers. If David Cameron avoids being the Prime Minister who lost the Union, he may well hand over those functions to Holyrood with a sense of relief.

There has been some progress on devolution elsewhere in the UK. Following the first report from the Silk Commission on Welsh devolution, Nick Clegg and David Cameron pledged to provide for a referendum on devolving income tax-varying powers to the National Assembly.  The Government accepted in whole or part many of the Silk Commission’s 33 recommendations – notably a series of measures to enable the Welsh government to invest in transport infrastructure and devolved Landfill Tax and Stamp Duty Land Tax.  The Commission will report on the non-financial aspects of devolution this year.

Power-sharing in Northern Ireland has existed in a reasonably steady state over the course of 2010-2015. There is a risk this may not remain the case after months of talk led by former US diplomat Richard Haass around the most divisive issues that have hampered the peace process fell through at the beginning of the year.  Westminster Ministers can only look to steer that situation to a non-dramatic next phase.