Devo More: The best way forward

Alan Trench examines what devo more would look like in practice

Lying behind IPPR’s Devo More programme is the idea that more devolution is not just compatible with strengthening the union, but vital to doing so for the 21st century. A stronger form of devolution is clearly the ‘settled will’ of Scottish voters, and increasingly so in Wales too. In England, there is growing discontent about what is seen as preferential treatment of devolved parts of the UK, and the unfairness involved in the way it is funded. Finding a way of reconciling these different concerns is key to making the union fit for purpose in a changing world.
What might enhanced devolution look like? First, devolved governments need extensive (though by no means complete) fiscal devolution, accompanied by a grant that is clearly designed to distribute resources in an equitable way. That will mean devolved governments can provide a similar quality of services – a fundamental guarantee of fairness across the UK. A package comprising personal income tax, land taxes, and an assigned portion of VAT would both enhance devolved autonomy and help devolved governments to manage the risks associated with fiscal devolution. Income tax is the first, vital step toward achieving that. None of this would stop the UK Government having substantial tax bases to fund redistribution across the UK if it wished.
Second, social security needs to change. It would be hard if not impossible to devolve the big redistributive benefits like old age pensions and jobseekers’ allowance. But there is a strong case for devolving those benefits which overlap with devolved functions. Housing benefit is an obvious candidate here.
Third, there needs to be greater awareness of the role of the UK government as a government for England itself. England is not simply a residuum of the UK but one of its component nations, and the English public increasingly wants to see this recognized. Decentralisation along the lines of city-regions and city deals – a process that is already underway, with broad political support – could be one aspect of this. But it is also important to ensure that MPs from English constituencies are given a more explicit role in approving legislation that affects England only – something Scottish as well as English voters support when they are asked.
Ultimately, Devo More would see the evolution of the UK into a rather asymmetric, quasi-federal system, in which emphasis could be put on both devolved autonomy and the value of the union. Such a scheme is workable in practical terms, and indeed much of it could be put in place relatively quickly, building on existing arrangements or ones currently in train (like tax devolution under the Scotland Act 2012). It also brings the UK’s overall system of government closer to aspirations for it from voters in Scotland and Wales, without undermining the interests of people in England. This means the package is not merely potentially popular, but implementation would contribute to ensuring the ongoing legitimacy of the government across the UK.
Finally Devo More offers something to each of the major British political traditions and the parties that currently embody them. For social democrats, enhanced devolution reconciles devolved self-government with a framework to assure UK-wide fairness through a system of financial redistribution. For conservatives, the key element is to combine autonomy with devolved fiscal responsibility – which means transparency about spending decisions, so that voters wanting more spent on public services will have to bear the cost as well. For liberals, Devo More offers guarantees of fairness as well as autonomy, so that devolved parts of the UK can make meaningful policy choices of their own. For all, it still enables the various parts of the UK to act together when there is a joint interest in doing so.
Devo More offers a way forward, and making sure Scottish voters can get what they want: a high level of self-government while remaining part of the United Kingdom. It balances autonomy and union, in a way that offers a lasting settlement.

Alan Trench is an academic and the author of the blog 'devolution matters' (

6 thoughts on “Devo More: The best way forward

  1. Mr Trench opens his article with a load of Tosh. Not many concerns are being expressed about funding of English regions except by a few disgruntled failed would be politicians; nor is the considered view of the majority of Scottish voters ‘in favour of further devolution.”

    Your correspondent talks about the need for fiscal devolution and at the same time states that Parliament should set tax levels for so called fiscally devolved areas. Surely a contradiction in terms! Finally, if your writer believes that independent regions of Britain including Scotland and Wales can demand devolution, then spend what they want on funding care, education, local government and pensions – with Westminster paying with a blank cheque without quibble from the other areas’ electors taxes, then he has forgotten the principal “No taxation without Representation!’

  2. You don’t overcome unfair funding by making more examples of what will inevitably be seen as unfair funding. The other problem being that people requiring services don’t generally benefit from this extra funding – the only real beneficiaries are the political and administrative classes on the public payroll. The extra funding is therefore largely a manifestation of the inefficiency in the system which is arguably why the 4 highest funded NUTS1 Regions happen to be the 4 with elected legislatures. Apart from London, they are also 3 of the least competitive but I have little doubt there is a movement working in the UK to try and ensure that the whole of the UK is as inefficient and uncompetitive as possible in order to make the UK less stable and less able to resist the external international socialist forces acting on it…

  3. Alan,

    Whilst the British Government insists that tax progressivity should, by constitutional principle, be a reserved matter (see my post and reference to the Welsh Affairs Select Committee on Stephen Noon’s article), Devo More or Devo Max are dead in the water. How can you have anything other than token fiscal devolution (which is what the Scotland Act and Wales Bill are in effect) if you somehow want to maintain a unitary regime of progressivity at the same time? It just becomes a sham. The whole point of fiscal devolution is variation in both absolute and relative terms, and yes (as Gerry Holtham said) a ‘degree’ of tax competition, or if you choose to see it in more enlightened market terms, a broader spectrum of different national pricing strategies.

    If the British Government doesn’t change its tune on the lock-step and its so-called ‘constitutional principle’ of centralised progressivity, surely no one in Scotland can take Devo Max with anything other than a pinch of salt, can they? Or perhaps they’re hoping that nobody in Scotland is watching the debate in Wales? Or perhaps they hope that Wales will accept a different ‘constitutional principle’ to that which (in some future, yet to be articulated, enlightened Scottish Devo Max settlement) pertains in Scotland?

    Devo Max is dead as a credible proposition until Better Together disown the Welsh lock-step…

  4. I have to say that Peter Hugh Charles Davies’ comments are not only very rude but also ill informed. Not once has Mr Trench mentioned ‘independent regions’ but ‘devolved parts of the UK’.

    He also states that ‘nor is the considered view of the majority of Scottish voters ‘in favour of further devolution.’ Has he actually seen the opinion polls?
    I suggest he chooses his words more carefully as this is a website frequented by intellectuals. It is not the same as the forums on some other sites.

    I am fascinated by Mr Trench’s articles, including his excellent blog ‘Devolution Matters’. I hope the politicians will fully take all his advice on board and use it to build a better form of government for Wales. Diolch Mr Trench

  5. How many times does this need saying? DevoMax is off the agenda, full stop, forget it.

    Only Westminster can deliver DevoMax and although the SNP were willing to have a ‘second question’ or ‘third option’ on the ballot paper, providing some group or groups came forward to campaign for it, Westminster ruled it out. It seems quite clear that were such an option to be included it would sweep the board. It appears to be the most favoured choice, at least for the immediate future, of most Scots.

    Better Together’s strategy seems to be to give the impression that more devolution is on the table, and I think talk of more powers for the Welsh Assembly is part of that ploy. But in fact no one has actually promised a ‘No-voting’ Scotland anything, and there is every expectation that funding would in fact be seriously cut in that event.

    At present the DevoMaxers mostly show up as Don’t Knows in the polls. Time alone will tell which way they’ll jump when the penny finally drops that the only choices available are Independence or its opposite. Which is of course Dependence.

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