There is a new orthodoxy on the left – the notion that Brexit will inevitably mean the break-up of the Union. Scotland will secede. Northern Ireland will vote to reunite with Ireland. These things are indeed possible. But equally possible is that we end up in a post-Brexit creaking UK able still to cling together through a new state overhaul driven from the centre.
Some attention has been given post-election to the Conservative plans for a constitutional commission. But less focus has been given to the significant plans being put together for a re-servicing of the Union. The Policy Exchange think-tank has called for ‘a Grand Strategy to modernise the United Kingdom.’ This is an activist Unionism of a kind only glimpsed before.
Since the 1970s, there have been two significant modernisations of the UK state. The first, the neoliberal Thatcherite agenda based on a hollowing out of the central state, with new central agencies, restrictions on local government’s freedom of manoeuvre, privatisation and deregulation. The second, the New Labour modernisation of 1997-2010, including devolved institutions in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London, the Good Friday Agreement, the Human Rights Act, Freedom of Information and the Supreme Court, with centrally-driven targets for service delivery in England. We are now on the cusp of a third modernisation, outlined in the Conservative manifesto, reinforced in the background notes to the December Queen’s Speech, and fleshed out in a series of policy papers.
Some of this pre-dates the Johnson government. The Dunlop Review of UK Union Capability was established under Theresa May with the objective ‘as the United Kingdom leaves the European Union….to consider how through its institutional arrangements it meets the challenge of strengthening and sustaining the Union in the future’. But the Conservative Manifesto and Queen’s Speech make it clear that this is now part of a strategic programme.
The Conservative Party has usually had a strong focus on the possible uses of state power, even when deregulating and privatising. Alastair Campbell’s second volume of diaries record an observation of the late Alan Clark: that Conservatives were fascinated with him and the Blair project because they recognised a real enthusiasm for power and its uses. The Conservatives now have at the helm someone who understands the uses of state power. Dominic Cummings has, says Rachel Wolf, one of the authors of the Conservative manifesto, been thinking about the UK state for twenty years. Cumminsology, as Alain de Botton called it recently in the New Statesman, involves a focus on the need for a more efficient and modernised state machinery: and a profound fury at the inefficiencies of existing state procedures (which many who have served in governments will share).
Cummings, and his former boss Michael Gove, are often under-estimated by some on the left who prefer caricature to analysis. As I wrote about Gove in 2014, ‘he is a deeply serious, and deeply ideological politician, whose objective is shifting the political agenda strategically’. Ditto Cummings. He is, as Tony Blair’s former political secretary John McTernan wrote in July, ‘a man with a plan’.
The Conservative state modernisation agenda is extensive. If the range of Policy Exchange papers on the Constitution, the Judiciary and Whitehall is accurate, its possibilities range from limiting the powers of the Supreme Court – possibly even re-branding it as simply an Upper Court of Appeal, to remove the sense that it is a constitutional court – to an infrastructure modernisation programme for the UK, a re-casting of central institutions to oversee the Union, with the engagement of devolved authorities such as Mayors within England to address the UK/English delivery confusion, to a series of Whitehall reforms (some of which are pretty uncontroversial) and the creation of a UK form of the American defence-linked research agency DARPA, one of Dominic Cummings’ long-held ambitions.
Some of the approach to an activist unionism has already been rolled out in Wales, where the Wales Office has essentially been re-branded as the UK Government in Wales, central government funded initiatives such as the City Deal have been used to build stronger relationships directly between the UK Government and Welsh institutions including local authorities. A ‘Western powerhouse’ model, bringing together Cardiff, Newport and Bristol, was launched to undermine Welsh Government economic plans. Welsh appointments to bodies under the control of the UK government have been politicised, as Policy Exchange suggests should happen across the UK. In the General Election, the Conservatives even promised to deliver the M4 Relief Road, without the power to do so. The Queens Speech promises a cross-border Marches deal, and many other actions.
This activist unionism may not be enough. The latest state modernisation programme may well do nothing fundamental to resolve the post-Brexit challenges of the UK. It may simply leave us with the latest modernised version of what Tom Nairn three decades ago called Ukania. But no-one should assume that the break-up of the UK is inevitable, or that Gove and Cummings haven’t thought about these things. They have, and their previous experience in respect of English schools shows that they understand the uses of state power and are capable of fast and far-reaching action.
Leighton Andrews is a professor at Cardiff Business School and a former Labour Welsh Assembly member