Tomkins fits the bill, and Cameron needs someone with nous to advise him, writes Brian Monteith
When I wrote last week that David Cameron has now a great opportunity to recast not just our failed devolution settlement but also bind the necessary changes into a much larger reform of the United Kingdom’s institutions and how they all relate to each other, I did so with the intention of developing the case further by arguing that now is also the time to appoint a new adviser to assist him.
Little did I know that he was about to ennoble his existing Scottish adviser, Andrew Dunlop, so that he could appoint him a minister at the Scotland Office – and thus create a vacancy.
The SNP reacted to Dunlop’s promotion in typical Pavlovian fashion, seeking to make political capital out of the fact that the Scot had not been elected and that more than a quarter of a century ago he was a (much greener) adviser on Scottish and taxation affairs in Thatcher’s office. Needless to say, the SNP would like to make out that Dunlop is single-handedly responsible for the introduction of the Community Charge when of course it was another Scot, Douglas Mason, a local councillor from Glenrothes, who bears that honour.
No disrespect to Dunlop, but in the 80s he was only a small cog in a large machine, and as is a matter of public record it was Scottish Conservatives that lobbied for the Poll Tax to be introduced first in Scotland, not Downing Street.
Not for the first time, the SNP missed the point; what was odd about making Dunlop a peer was that Annabel Goldie was passed over. How much less open to attack the prime minister would have been if he had chosen Scotland’s favourite auntie instead. Goldie is still a serving member of the Scottish Parliament and therefore carries some democratic legitimacy. She has recently served on the Smith Commission, from which forthcoming legislation will be a vital part of Cameron’s evolving reforms, and being on first name terms with Scottish Government ministers Goldie already enjoys cordial relations that could provide useful.
Another alternative could have been to ennoble Struan Stevenson, who recently retired as a Scottish MEP after over 40 years as an elected politician, including as a Conservative council leader when such positions were not unusual. Stevenson’s knowledge of national politics and the people in it, as well as his support for Scottish devolution when it was unfashionable, would have made him a strong and insightful minister to help David Mundell through challenging times.
That Cameron has instead plumped for his own former adviser tells its own story about how much he must rate and trust him, possibly more so than he does Mundell himself. It will be interesting to see how Dunlop performs in public now that he is out of the shadows. In the best interests of bringing fiscal rectitude, constitutional calm and social harmony to Scotland and the rest of the Union, I can only wish him well.
What, then, is Cameron to do as he considers how to replace Dunlop? The task facing him is daunting. There is a need to make the devolution settlement lasting; the practice of continually drawing a line in the sand only to see it washed away by half-hearted and ill-thought out changes from one party or another, only to be replaced with a new line that will not last out the year has brought the whole process into disrepute.
It is this failure to consolidate constitutional change that creates the public’s sense that independence is inevitable. Any new reforms must therefore be firmly anchored – and the way to do this is to tie them into changes across the whole of the UK, including England.
To respond in his short timeframe available of three to four years the Prime Minister needs to develop a rolling policy programme for constitutional change and bring the country with him. That means establishing either a constitutional convention or a form of consultation that gives people across the UK a say. The emerging proposals must satisfy the latent demands for localism while ensuring accountability for those decisions and the taxes and spending that will arrive from them.
There is also a crying need for greater scrutiny of legislation and regulations at all levels, from the local councils through to the devolved parliaments and the houses of Parliament.
What the Prime Minister needs to do is appoint an adviser who understands how constitutional systems interrelate, how they legally exist and what is required to reform them in a manner that can be tested in courts of law – so that they are dependable.
Cameron must surround himself with the best minds available and there is no better mind that could advise the prime minister than Adam Tomkins, the John Millar professor of public law at the University of Glasgow.
I do hope Adam Tomkins will forgive me for proposing him so publicly but his recent participation as a member of the Smith Commission and his experience as legal adviser to the House of Lords constitutional committee makes him the obvious candidate.
Through the long two years of the independence referendum, Adam Tomkins gave evidence and wrote eloquently about the legal processes that would have to be followed for the process to be legitimate or how procedures worked. Time and again he called out the mistakes of a variety of politicians – not least the First Minister – and time and again he was proven correct.
He recently wrote a compelling case on his blog for a new Act of Union that would seek to strengthen the UK and explain how to build solidarity between our people.
For Cameron time is of the essence, if he is to find the right legal blend for a lasting solution he must appoint now. Surely Glasgow can spare Tomkins a sabbatical?