Philip Rycroft, who was permanent secretary for the Department for Exiting the European Union and worked on preparations for the 2014 independence and 2016 Brexit referendums, also described devolution as an “unsatisfactory halfway house”. Writing for the Institute for Government, the former civil servant who also worked within the Scottish government, said devolution has failed to “rekindle enthusiasm” for the UK as a political entity.
Mr Rycroft, whose paper is the first in a series of guest papers as part of the IfG’s Review of the UK Constitution, suggested one way to ensure constitutional change was taken seriously and subject to a higher degree of scrutiny would be to “raise the political bar”. This, he writes, could take the form of a required majority of two-thirds of Westminster MPs for the repeal or amendment of constitutional law. This would include legislation required to allow an independence referendum, but would also extend to issues such as voting rights, the House of Lords, and changes to the devolution settlement.
The former civil servant, who advised the UK Government on constitutional matters, criticised the major political parties for failing to “sustain an overall coherent programme of reform”, highlighting Labour’s failure to seriously the House of Lords and the Conservative’s focus on Europe “despite the evident risks to the Union”.
Mr Rycroft was also critical of the way devolution has been handled by the UK Government, stating that the policy engagement with the devolved powers has “as it had always been...low down on departmental priorities.
He added that devolution has also failed to achieve a key objective of “rekindle[ing] enthusiasm” for the union, with it remaining an “unsatisfactory halfway house”.
He writes: “Devolution in the UK remains an unsatisfactory halfway house, a tale of missed opportunities to remake the constitution of the UK in order to distribute power equitably across the nations and regions while retaining the coherence of the whole. For those living in the periphery and for many in the regions of England, the way in which their interests are reflected in key decisions taken at the centre of government remains opaque.
"The centre of government, for its part, has largely absolved itself of the need to reform its own practices and has shown neither the capacity to see governance across the UK as a coherent whole nor the discipline to refrain from sudden lurches of partisan intervention.”
The expert also said that the muddled approach to the constitution has also left Scotland “stuck” due to the approach taken to both the EU and Scottish independence referendums by David Cameron, highlighting the failure to have claims made by each side of the campaign independently scrutinised.
He said the failure to define what the conditions for a second referendum are leaves Scotland with “no certainty as to when or if another turn of the political wheel will make the prospect of another referendum real.”