The prime minister has promised that his new government’s relationship with the devolved regions will be distinguished by ’respect’. He envisages an era of cooperation and communication between London and the executives in Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh.
’Daveolution’ received a cautious but cordial hearing when Cameron toured the UK capitals. However, the four First Ministers’ substantive response emerged at a meeting in Stormont last Monday. There they discussed forming a common front against spending cuts imposed by Westminster and demanded a slice of London’s Olympic regeneration money.
Cameron is acutely aware that he will have to govern with sensitivity if he is to be considered a prime minister for the whole of the United Kingdom. Nationalist separatism on the Celtic fringes is one thing, but many unionists in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales are also rabidly anti-Conservative and increasingly protective of their regional independence.
Add an incipient feeling in England, that it is disadvantaged by devolution elsewhere, and the Conservative - Liberal government has inherited a potentially volatile mix. Those English grievances, if they were to gather momentum, could yet prove the greatest threat to the UK’s integrity.I praise the government's flexibility over deferring cuts.
The decision to offer Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales a chance to defer spending cuts until next year is a clever move by Chief Secretary to the Treasury, David Laws. It sidesteps an early confrontation with devolved executives, who have already set their budgets twelve months ahead, and puts the ball firmly back in their court.
This flexible attitude could form a leitmotif for the Cameron government’s relationship with its regional counterparts. The prime minister is an instinctive decentraliser who is prepared to hand over initiative to Executives, local councils and even the general public, if they are willing to accept responsibility.
The difficulty is that, although devolved administrations might urge Cameron to give them as much leeway as possible, they will still rush to palm off any subsequent criticism on his government. If the prime minister’s first instinct is to mollify the three executives, he will store up problems for the future.
Salmond et al will be particularly anxious to ensure that England is required to shoulder a disproportionate burden when it comes to reducing the deficit. Some unionists’ pathological regionalism, and the anti-Tory agenda of Labour politicians in Scotland and Wales, will amplify a clamour from separatists to spare the devolved nations and hit the English hard.
Cameron should resist their call. Already there is an undercurrent of dissatisfaction at the government’s use of the Barnett Formula to divvy up £6 billion worth of cuts across the UK. The perception is growing that the Formula is unfair, particularly to impoverished regions of England which suffer levels of deprivation comparable to anywhere in Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales.
The first set of ‘efficiencies’ are largely deliverable by reducing waste but dissatisfaction could turn to revolt if cuts in front line English services are not replicated across the UK. Nationalism in England, to date, has been content to shelter rather coyly under the umbrella of a Campaign for an English Parliament, but it is primed to exploit any change in the public mood.
Cameron and his government are aware of the balancing act they must perform to avoid inflicting damage on the Union. But awareness is not enough. The ‘respect agenda’ must be accompanied by action, as well as words. And the neglected, but spectre of English grievance cannot be ignored.