Out of step?

11 Mar 10
Is the Whitehall post of Scottish secretary an anachronism in today’s devolved UK? Yes, say the SNP and the LibDems; no, insist Labour and the Tories. As the row heats up, latest incumbent Jim Murphy tells David Scott what he thinks
By David Scott

11 March 2010

Is the Whitehall post of Scottish secretary an anachronism in today’s devolved UK? Yes, say the SNP and the LibDems; no, insist Labour and the Tories. As the row heats up, latest incumbent Jim Murphy tells David Scott what he thinks

It is a ministerial post that is deeply enshrined in history.  The post of secretary of state for Scotland can be traced back as far as the Act of Union in 1707 and has been held by many famous figures over the years.

Arthur Balfour, who was appointed in 1886, later became prime minister, while Tom Johnston made his mark as a pioneering wartime Scottish secretary. In more recent years, the formidable Labour MP Willie Ross tenaciously fought for Scotland’s interests in the UK Cabinet in the 1960s, and Donald Dewar pioneered devolution and became first minister in the new Holyrood Parliament in 1999.

But more than ten years on, there is increasing controversy over whether a minister for Scotland in the UK Cabinet can still be justified. With Holyrood taking over powers for most domestic functions, such as health, education, justice, transport and the environment, the responsibilities of the Scottish secretary have substantially diminished.

Many commentators believe there is no longer a case for separate posts for the three devolved administrations, including the Institute for Public Policy Research think-tank and the constitution unit at University College London. The political parties, however, remain ­divided. While Labour and the Tories favour the status quo, the Scottish National Party and the Scottish Liberal Democrats are campaigning for the post’s abolition.

‘Since devolution, the remit of the ­Scotland Office has shrunk but its budget has spiralled out of control,’ Angus ­MacNeil, SNP Scotland Office spokesman tells Public Finance.

‘Instead of making an £814m cut to the Scottish budget, the chancellor should start by axing this outdated post, which costs the taxpayer £9m for ­absolutely no benefit.’

LibDem Scotland spokesman Alistair Carmichael says getting rid of the post is a ‘job waiting to be done’.  He believes the creation of a department of nations and regions, covering Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland, would be a more ‘mature response to the constitutional settlement’.

Serious questions about the validity of the office were raised during Helen ­Liddell’s term as Scottish secretary, which ended in 2003.  The disclosure that Liddell was able to include daytime French lessons in her diary was seized upon by critics who saw this as further evidence that she had little to do.

When Liddell left, the post was made part-time. Alistair Darling and Douglas Alexander both had stints covering Transport as well as Scotland. Des Browne combined it with Defence. Before the Cabinet reshuffle 18 months ago, there was speculation that the office might be abolished and a single ministry created for the devolved nations.

However, that speculation ended when, in the reshuffle, Prime Minister Gordon Brown upgraded the post to full time and appointed one of the rising stars in the Scottish Labour Party, Jim Murphy, the MP for East Renfrewshire. Murphy, understandably, is very much in favour of the role continuing and takes issue with the SNP’s negative approach.

‘The SNP don’t believe in Britain – they certainly wouldn’t believe in a secretary of state for Scotland in a British government,’ says Murphy in an exclusive interview with Public Finance. ‘They don’t want any Scot to serve in a British government because they don’t want Scotland to be part of Britain. So at least there’s a consistency – consistently wrong but nevertheless a consistency.’

He adds: ‘Anyone who is patriotic for Scotland would surely take the view that we should be treated at least as well as Wales and Northern Ireland in the constitution of the United Kingdom. That’s where we now are, but it’s for others to decide and reflect on whether it is right or wrong. My personal view is that constitutionally it is the right arrangement after the mistake of splitting the roles.’

Shadow Scottish secretary David Mundell agrees. ‘David Cameron has always been very clear since becoming leader of the Conservative Party that there should be a secretary of state for Scotland. In fact he put it back into the shadow Cabinet. We believe there is a significant role in managing the relationship with the devolved administration and with the Scottish Parliament in enabling there to be a direct conduit from Scotland to the UK government and for Scotland to have a distinct voice at the UK Cabinet table.’

Murphy’s political career began in 1997 when he was unexpectedly elected Scotland’s youngest MP, at the age of 29, defeating the Tories in the former Eastwood constituency on the outskirts of Glasgow, their safest Scottish seat. After holding a series of posts, including parliamentary private secretary, whip, junior employment minister and minister for Europe, he was promoted to the Cabinet post of Scottish secretary in October 2008.

He now occupies one of the most ­desirable offices in Whitehall – the ­neo-classical Dover House with its ­elegant rotunda, circular staircase, grand pillars and stone portico. The eighteenth-century building has been in the hands of the Scottish Office (renamed the Scotland Office after devolution) since 1885.  ­Murphy also has an office in the Georgian New Town of Edinburgh.

Few people would disagree that Murphy has tackled the job with great energy and enthusiasm and has succeeded in giving it a higher public profile than it has enjoyed in recent years. But has he managed to justify the existence of the post?

‘From a purely administrative point of view, no, Murphy hasn’t made the case for maintaining a full-time Scottish secretary,’ says David Torrance, author of The Scottish Secretaries. ‘But from a political standpoint he certainly has. The UK government badly needed a media-savvy, high-profile counterbalance to [First Minister Alex] Salmond and they got that in the form of Jim Murphy.’

As a member of the UK Cabinet, ­Murphy is in a good position to influence government policy, especially on Scottish issues. ‘I would like to think Scotland is getting the right deal in the United Kingdom and perhaps my involvement helps a little,’ he says.  ‘To claim anything otherwise would be kind of arrogant… there’s enough arrogant politicians and I don’t want to join their number.’

Murphy seldom misses the opportunity to challenge the SNP on a range of issues – often backing up his case with detailed analyses and studies. He insists that Scotland’s £35bn budget has not been cut as the SNP alleges and he strongly rejects the claim that the UK government has done little to boost the ailing Scottish economy.

However, he appears anxious to co-operate with the Scottish Government where possible. ‘I think you get more done in life if you try to focus on what you agree on rather than obvious areas of disagreement. I continue to try and I will keep trying to have better relationships with the SNP. The fact is that the CBI, Scottish Trades Union Congress, myself and the Scottish Government have been getting together.  Most people think that is a common sense thing to do but it’s never happened before.’

He adds: ‘It’s happening now quite regularly and I think it should keep happening. It always takes two to tango on this thing and I find when the SNP are in ­trouble the default position is to blame London. That’s up to them. That’s just a waste of energy… I think Scotland wants politicians, business and trade unions to work together during the recession. These ­disagreements are for election times.’

If the Tories become the government at Westminster, an increasing number of people believe – according to a recent opinion poll – that full-scale confrontation will be inevitable and, as a result, the SNP’s case for independence will be strengthened. But the shadow Scottish secretary emphasises his party’s desire to develop a positive relationship with the SNP and encourage an atmosphere of ‘mutual respect’.

Mundell says: ‘You can’t guarantee how others will behave but we intend to work in an exemplary manner, which doesn’t give anybody any grounds for gripe and grievance. There is no benefit in being in competition and confrontation.’

The Tories have already proposed a series of initiatives to strengthen links between Westminster and Holyrood. One of these ideas would result in the Scottish secretary attending the Parliament in Edinburgh on the day of the Queen’s Speech to answer questions on the implications for Scotland.
The latter idea is in line with a proposal made by Sir Kenneth Calman’s Commission on Scottish Devolution, which also suggested increasing Holyrood’s financial accountability. Calman has proposed cutting the Westminster block grant and giving the Scottish Parliament the power to make up the difference, or raise more, by setting a ‘Scottish rate’ of income tax.

So far, the Tories have not made any firm commitment on Calman but they want to bring forward their own plans to increase Holyrood’s financial accountability, Mundell says. ‘David Cameron felt strongly that we should have the benefit of the Treasury’s full expertise to examine the proposals ahead of implementation and that we couldn’t simply rely on the government’s white paper [published in November].’

Labour has already announced that it will implement Calman’s tax-raising plans ‘as a matter of priority’ in the next Parliament. Murphy explains: ‘The Calman proposals, I believe, complete the devolution jigsaw in that there’s been a missing piece, which is financial accountability. The Scottish Parliament only spends money – it doesn’t raise money… I believe that if you’re responsible for raising the money, you take a more careful approach on how you spend it.’

While Labour and the Conservatives currently back the existence of a Scottish secretary, new issues could arise if the Tories win power at Westminster. They could face formidable problems in being able to appoint a Scottish MP to the post if the party failed to increase its current representation in Scotland. Mundell is currently the only Tory MP north of the border.

Would Cameron be forced to appoint a Scot who represents an English constituency to the post, or even a ­member of the House of Lords? 

Alan Trench, a research fellow at Edinburgh University’s School of Social and Political Studies, says: ‘Finding a suitable MP is clearly problematic.’ He believes the key to the Scottish secretary’s role is ‘doing a small amount of work with great effect’. Murphy’s supporters would argue that he has achieved that goal.

However, Trench believes there is no longer a case for having three separate secretaries of state for the devolved ­nations in the UK. It looks as if the need for such a role in Scotland is set to continue to be mired in controversy, ­irrespective of who wins the election.     

Jim Murphy will be
speaking at the CIPFA in Scotland annual conference in Dundee on March 18–19. Also see the feature on Calman’s tax-raising proposals on pages 24–25

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