A data-sharing body with devolved governments is pure fantasy
Given the state the Government is in, Boris Johnson will be hoping that the publication of the Levelling Up White Paper will refocus media and public attention away from his various self-inflicted wounds and back onto what is supposed to be an exciting domestic agenda.
It is a slim hope, not least because he himself has once again poured kerosene on a fire he’s supposed to be putting out with his ill-judged remarks about Jimmy Saville.
Even setting that to one side, Michael Gove’s proposals seem unlikely to be sufficient to revive popular enthusiasm for the Conservatives.
For starters, early reports suggest that there is very little by way of new money, and the UK already spends a fraction of what nations such as Germany have spent boosting their regional economies.
In fact, some in Whitehall have described it to me as “400 pages of academic [redacted]” and that if anything it is teeing up a turf war for control over existing budgets, such as the Shared Prosperity Fund.
Yet maybe the most disappointing report so far is this, from the BBC, that the Levelling Up Secretary has written to Mark Drakeford to suggest setting up a new body to “share evidence and analyse success in devolved policy areas across the UK”.
On the face of it, this is perfectly sensible. After all, if Gove really intends to unleash a ‘devolution revolution’ in England, as the paper promises, some sort of evidence based on how our existing devolution settlement has actually worked seems like an excellent idea.
One might even suggest that gathering such evidence ought to precede concluding that a ‘devolution revolution’ is a good idea. But the notion that this should be done on a collaborative basis with the devolved administrations is nonsense. And there are few people in Government who should know this better than Gove himself.
After all, it was in response to a perfectly reasonable article which the then-Education Secretary penned for the Western Mail, contrasting school performance in England and Wales, that Cardiff Bay ministers attacked him for harbouring “indestructible colonial attitudes”.
This fit of hysterics is merely a particularly memorable example of how the devolved administrations tend to react to any effort to scrutinise their records.
As I have noted before, both the Scottish National Party and Welsh Labour have actually used their control over data-collection to make comparative analysis of things such as public sector performance across Great Britain almost impossible, opting out of standardised international metrics and deliberately collecting data on a non-comparable basis.
Good data is something a stronger Union desperately needs. But the first ministers are not going to collaborate in a programme aimed at undoing all their hard work in drawing a veil over their records.
Westminster has the authority to task the ONS to collect comparable national statistics and mandate compliance across the country, not to mention retake control of the census from the Scottish Government. That’s the ‘devolution revolution’ we really need.