Friday 17 February 2023

Valuing outcomes over process


One of the things I learned about running projects during my working life is that process is as important as outcome. And at the risk of being accused of a gross act of gender stereotyping, it also appeared to me that it was often (but not exclusively) men who fixated on outcomes, whilst women were often at least as interested in the process by which those outcomes were achieved. Success – at least in terms of carrying people with you – necessarily involves paying attention to both aspects. One of my great hopes for the Senedd (or Assembly as was) was always that achieving a gender balance might lead to a kinder form of politics in which the process of arriving at outcomes was given rather more importance than ever seemed to be the case in Westminster – that is to say that it would harness the best of both approaches. I haven’t been entirely disappointed, but then neither have things worked out quite as I would have hoped (especially, it has to be said, from the Conservative ranks).

At first sight, Rishi Sunak’s decision to use the Section 35 process to block the Scottish Gender Recognition Reform Act might well look like a clever move. After all, there are elements of the Act which leave some SNP MSPs – to say nothing of party members or voters – very unhappy, and if you’re going to choose a battlefield, one where the enemy is divided is better than one where he is united. It is, though, a classic example of confusing outcomes with process. And probably deliberately so. The problem doesn’t start and end with Sunak and the Tories either. Labour’s parliamentary opposition to devolving the right to Wales to review gender recognition rules here (despite the views of Labour MSPs), and what looks like implicit support for Sunak on this issue, seems to be based on similar considerations. It’s not at all clear whether, or to what extent, the problems over this particular legislation played a part in the announcement this week of the Scottish First Minister’s resignation, nor whether her successor will do what she said she was going to do and challenge the UK government’s decision in the courts. Given the divisions within the SNP on the substantive issue, it’s a tough call; but leaving the decision unchallenged serves only to emphasise the reality of devolution: real power remains in London.

A few days ago, Simon Jenkins wrote a column for the Guardian in which he argued that there has always been another route to independence, via the infamous ‘devo-max’ referred to by Gordon Brown and others at the time of the last independence referendum. I suspect that he’s entirely right in his suggestion that had that third option been on the ballot paper in 2014, it would have secured an easy majority over both independence and the status quo. That’s partly, at least, because ‘devo-max’ is – and always has been – an ill-defined proposition which means different things to different people. The likelihood that legislation passed by either the Tories or Labour in London would have matched the expectations raised by the term must surely be close to zero, meaning that it would have resolved nothing. We have, after all, seen what they did with the famous ‘Vow’, which was effectively gutted by the parties who signed up to it. But, even supposing that ‘devo-max’ legislation had been written and passed, both Labour and the Tories would certainly have inserted the equivalent of Section 35 somewhere; at the end of the day, whatever the extent of devolution, however the legislation is framed, power devolved will always mean power retained.

There is one, and only one, way of bringing about anything remotely resembling a federal UK, and that is to start from a position where each of the member countries is assumed to be independent and they then come together as equals to agree which powers (if any) are better pooled and shared. Voluntary pooling of sovereignty on the one hand, and the centre ‘allowing’ specified powers to be exercised for the time being by devolved legislatures on the other, are two completely different animals. It’s not a distinction which the main UK parties are capable of making; for them, achieving their desired outcome (maintenance of a unified state) will always trump considerations of process and buy-in.

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