Blair government floated idea of abolishing separate Welsh and Scottish secretary of state roles, new memo reveals
The government of Tony Blair internally floated the idea of abolishing separate roles for the secretaries of state for Wales and Scotland and creating a ‘Secretary of State for the Union’ instead.
Official documents from the National Archives in London include a civil service memo on the “future of the territorial secretaries of state” dated to May 2000, one year after the establishment of the Welsh Senedd and Scottish Parliament.
The document suggests that Welsh and Scottish secretaries, Paul Murphy and John Reid respectively, had “jobs for now” but were “not full-time Cabinet posts for the long-term”.
It suggests merging their roles into the Home Office but suggests that this might be “disastrous, politically and administratively”.
It then suggests creating a Secretary of State for the Union: “This would combine John’s and Paul’s posts and be adequate for the purpose,” it says.
“But it would be peripheral job, even with Ireland added, and it ghettoises devolution and decentralisation as something for the Celtic fringe.
“I favour the Secretary of State for devolution or centralisation responsible for the devolved administration, regional and local government. This has the potential to be a major Cabinet post, and attract a heavyweight.”
The memo – sent by Tony Blair advisor Jim Gallagher and addressed to David Miliband, who was then a policy adviser in Downing Street, advised no changes before the 2005 election.
“Pre-election, I do not think that a change would be wise in either Scotland or Wales: John Reid has a difficult task in managing the election campaign in Scotland, and Paul still has some tricky issues in the Welsh relationship,” it says.
“The political flak of choosing who this might be – Scots, Welsh or English – would be disproportionate to the benefit in the next 12 months.”
The previously classified memos also show that Tony Blair was advised that the UK Government should take a more active role in the push for a Yes vote in the referendum on the Good Friday Agreement than it had done during the Welsh and Scottish devolution referenda the year before.
The prime minister’s cabinet secretary Richard Wilson said it could be justified because the vote was a “result of a bipartisan policy pursued by the main political parties of the UK”.
He added: “This seems to me to be a defensible position.”
Writing in the spring of 1998, he advised that Tony Blair should use the “government machine” to push for a Yes vote in the referendum on the Good Friday Agreement – but not to the extent that it would risk calling the result of the historic vote into question.
As Northern Ireland’s parties inched towards signing the peace deal in April 1998, declassified state papers reveal that preparations were already well advanced for planning for the referendum which would follow.
The Good Friday Agreement, also known as the Belfast Agreement, was a political deal designed to bring an end to 30 years of violent conflict in Northern Ireland.
It was signed on April 10 1998 and approved the following month by public votes in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
Just days earlier, on April 6, Richard Wilson wrote a memo to Mr Blair setting out what position government ministers should take if a deal was signed and a referendum called.
He said: “My judgement is that – once ministers have decided the prior question of whether campaigning for a ‘yes’ vote is the best course politically – they should go on public record with a statement explaining that they will be campaigning as government ministers and, as such, will continue to draw upon the support of the government machine, including the civil service, in pursuit of their policy objectives.
“I further recommend that the scale and nature of the support given to ministers should be carefully circumscribed… to ensure the playing field is not so tilted in favour of the ‘yes’ campaign as to call into question the validity of the result.”
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