Bill Jamieson: Will Scottish devolution ever be ‘settled’?

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Devolution has become like a never-ending Grand Designs-style building project, writes Bill Jamieson

In many neighbourhoods today there is always a house that seems to be in a state of constant reconstruction – a site overrun by builders, cement mixers, yelping hammers, grinding saws – and a skip overflowing with rubble and waste.

Scotland seems to be continually working on its constitution (Picture: Phil Wilkinson)

Scotland seems to be continually working on its constitution (Picture: Phil Wilkinson)

Welcome to Scotland, the house of ceaseless constitutional rebuild. Barely has a new feature appeared before it is freshly attacked by add-ons, modifications and rebuild. And lest you feel you could do with a rest after some 20 years of this, high-minded policy wonks at the Institute of Government have opined this week that the devolution settlement (sic) now needs to be radically overhauled because of Brexit. The document runs to 48 pages. I will spare you the details. Just when you thought we had exhausted all possible constitutional permutations, it concludes that the devolution arrangements of the past 20 years are “no longer fit for purpose” because of the extraordinary strains created by the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union.

The Institute, comprising some of the finest minds from across the UK Government, business experts and social policy analysts, says the four nations of the UK must urgently “go back to the drawing board” and redefine their relationships to prepare for life outside the EU.

The think tank identified eight key challenges to create a stable system for the future, including new UK-wide frameworks, new regulators, and a mechanism to resolve disputes.

Thus is the door swung open for a new round of argument and disputation over what is euphemistically described as the devolution “settlement”. The SNP administration, which has lost no opportunity to denounce Brexit and all its works, now finds in our disentanglement from the EU all manner of powers it thought belonged to London really reside in Brussels. What an opportunity beckons for a recalibration – better still, a second independence referendum!

Constitutional wrangles? What, again? Yet more upending and upheaval and meddle. The cement mixer is back on the lawn, the builders at sixes and sevens, the architects rowing with the planners, the site inspectors having a go at the roofers, and in the mayhem everyone gets to be project manager.

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Nothing seems to last more than 10 minutes. Do we have the stomach for it? It’s often said that in Scotland devolution is a process, a progression. What euphemism. It’s come to be an obsession, a national neurosis. There’s no end of noise and hammering and banging. It’s constant. I’m reminded of that quip of Noel Coward’s – that everywhere he went he seemed to be followed by a man with a pneumatic drill.

For here is the constitutional equivalent of the Channel Four TV programme Grand Designs. The owners are intent on knocking down a perfectly adequate house for the residential equivalent of an airport departure lounge.

Here in a bulging glass barn, the giant framework imported from ever on-trend Scandinavia, the hyperactive children of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe meddle away in vast rooms of glass and steel, staircases with no visible means of support, a suspended cinema screen for a television and bookshelves without a book in sight.

In the kitchen is a daunting expanse of brushed steel, a cooker with more knobs and dials than a jumbo cockpit, and perched on top of the workplace a rustic bowl hewn by Mongolian peasants, holding a Guatemalan pomegranate and two carefully spaced bananas. For the kitchen is not for cooking. It’s for showing, or for the way it looks, or for the approval of that preening slave to modernism, Kevin McLeod. Or just for having.

The owners press on with their constant innovation for the perfect house – a balcony here, a conservatory there. The cost overruns – coyly confessed, borne with smiling embarrassment – are massive. But the owners will never sell, or say they won’t. But many do. Perhaps the crippling cost of constant change and innovation has proved too much. Or perhaps they discover they do not wish to live in an airport hangar after all. Or maybe they yearn for something simpler, less grandiose, more comfortable, for an environment that doesn’t constantly strive for aching perfection: a home, not a contemporary statement. But they are the lucky ones. With some projects, there is no end. For there are people who love nothing more than a permanent project, that the upheaval itself has become the steady state, the constant refreshments and reconstructions to die for, the spare bedrooms a forever work-in-progress filled with plasterwork and rubble and the exterior scaffolding a laundry-pole cladding for eternity. Tracey Emin would love it. And on the front lawn, a mechanical digger has permanently sunk, surrounded by a moat of mud and enlivened by a sputtering fountain of muck.

This is what our obsession with constitutional politics has come to resemble. Politics is now defined by this constant re-arrangement of the structure of government. And it almost invariably involves extension, addition, enlargement – and expense.

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Basement cinema and media rooms become a must-have. And a Juliet balcony for the bedroom is not enough: better, surely, a first-floor balcony walkway that would exhaust a strutting Mussolini.

Down the lane from my in-law’s house, planning permission is being sought – the fourth near-identical application in two years – to convert a modest bungalow into a ‘Gone with the Wind’ Savannah mansion with obligatory brushed steel spiral staircase and in the basement, in defiance of flood prevention officers, a fully kitted gymnasium: this for a retired couple where the husband is over 90.

Now there is nothing wrong – and much to applaud – in government adaptation and refinement. Circumstances change, as do the wishes and priorities of voters. And there is much in the Institute of Government paper to commend. But what if a stipulation was added that the cost of constitutional change should be met by savings elsewhere and that there should be no additional run-on costs for the taxpayer? How the churning cement mixers and singing hammers would fall silent!

Constitutional politics is also blind to the key concern in Scotland now: poor economic performance. Our growth is anaemic, and our industrial heartland in a state of geriatric decline.

A warning, then, for the constant constitutional fiddlers: just completed the polished granite steps to the entrance and imposing neo-Georgian pillars for the front door? It may now have to be knocked down – for the mandatory disabled ramp and supporting rail.