The case of fracking presents an interesting thought experiment about further devolution in Scotland: should you just push for the maximum devolution in each case or encourage the sharing of powers between many levels of government? Of course, it very much depends what you want to do, but I wouldn’t assume that further devolution means reduced drilling activity – largely because the party of government will change over time, even when the level of government responsibility does not. What seems like a good decision now (keep fracking away from the business-friendly UK Tories) may not in the future (and fracking, to me, seems like a very long term concern).
In general, the case for a ‘devo max’ attitude is quite clear: there is high support for further devolution and the more you devolve the more you satisfy a large part of the voting population. This can be exploited quite effectively by a Scottish Government minister arguing that the UK Government is depriving it of powers.
What is the case for not devolving all you can? Let’s use fracking as an example.
What if an explicit decision to share powers makes it less likely that one or two levels of government can control the process? In this case, you might need to go through four obstacles to produce a fracking decision:
- Satisfy the European Union that your activities would not contravene directives on water and air quality.
- Satisfy the UK Government that you are a fit company to receive a drilling license, and that the rules on drilling are appropriate.
- Work within Scottish Government guidance on how to plan land use to produce energy (shale gas, renewable, oil, nuclear) across the whole of Scotland.
- Satisfy local authority concerns about the effect of a drilling site in a particular area.
To me, that sounds a lot trickier for a private company, already facing a lot of opposition, than the concentration of power in a smaller territory. Or, at least, the thought process prompts us to ask: what are we devolving these powers for? Is it to satisfy a constitutional desire, or to satisfy a policy-based desire? The chat I see on twitter, aghast at the UK exercising power in this field, suggests that you can address both questions with further devolution – but I’d like to think about that a bit more before I agree.