David Mundell on the Campbell Conversations

Dec 15, 2018

In recent decades, there have been some tectonic changes in Britain's system of government. It has devolved many powers down to its constituent nations, and to some of its cities. More recently, it has struggled with its relationship with the European Union. This week, Grant Reeher speaks with David Mundell, Britain's Secretary of State for Scotland, and a member of the government team working on Brexit. 

Reeher: Let me just start with some basics for our audience. Could you just briefly describe to me your position in Britain’s government and your portfolio? What is it that’s under your rubric?

Mundell: I’m responsible for ensuring that Scotland, which is one of the four nations of our United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, that Scotland’s voice is heard around our U.K. cabinet table to make sure that the U.K. government’s positions and policies are understood in Scotland … I look after the relationship with our Scottish Parliament. So, Scotland, in effect, as I see it, has two governments. We have our United Kingdom government, and I’m responsible for ensuring the relations in regard to that, and we have a Scottish government, which focuses on those areas of responsibility that are given to the Scottish Parliament.

Reeher: You’re, sounds like, a two-way representative and a two-way ambassador in a way.

Mundell: It’s very important to be two-way because we need to ensure that Scotland’s needs, requirements, are understood … But we need people in Scotland to understand what the U.K. government does for them, what the benefits are to continuing to be in the United Kingdom because, as I think you and maybe some of your listeners are aware, we did have a referendum in Scotland itself in 2014 as to whether Scotland should remain in the United Kingdom. And people voted decisively that it should, but we have to keep making the case and showing people what the benefits are of being part of that United Kingdom.

Reeher: Britain’s system of government is still such more centralized than that of the United States, and, in fact, the United States has one of the most decentralized systems in the entire Western world. But, in recent decades, and you alluded to this, Britain has devolved some of its governing power downward to the nations within the United Kingdom, including Scotland and to some cities, most notably London. And I was curious, as a cabinet minister for Scotland in the way that you’ve described your position, curious to hear your sense of how that process has gone over these recent decades in which this has happened. So, first of all, what, for instance, are the most important policy departures that Scotland has made from Britain, given that it’s had some degree of autotomy? What has it chosen to do differently than the rest of Britain?

Mundell: Scotland has had a number of differences over many decades, centuries, indeed even from the coming-together of our parliaments in the 1700s. It had a separate education system, which is quite different from the education system in England. It had its own legal system, a separate jurisdiction. And part of what the devolution settlement does is it enshrines those. It allows that diversification to continue, to be strengthened, even, because that’s one of the reasons people wanted to have a Scottish Parliament – so you could debate education in Scotland, which has always been different. But I think we’ve seen divergence in the way in which the health service had operated. Scotland was fast to bring forward a ban on smoking, which has been followed in the rest of the U.K. There’s a different structure to the way that the health systems are organized.

Reeher: Would it be fair to say, on that point, that all things being equal, the Scotts have opted for a more generous health care system, one with fewer limits on it for the patient? Is that true?

Mundell: No, I don’t think that is true. They’ve opted for a different way in which the system is organized and run, but not in terms, I think, of what is delivered as the output for a patient. I would argue that not all those differences or changes have been positive, but what I do respect is it’s the Scottish Parliament’s right to make those changes and decide how money is spent in the health service. That’s what devolution’s about. I think I’m entitled to have an opinion, but that’s all it is, is it’s an opinion. The health service is run entirely in Scotland and hopefully to meet the needs of people in Scotland.

Reeher: My sense of this … was that the way that one might characterize the main differences that Scotland has opted in a sense for policies slightly [is] more to the left than the United Kingdom. And I thought that health care was one and the way that I’ve described it, so I’ve been corrected. The other one that I had the impression of was education, which you mentioned, and particularly higher education that Scotland went a different direction in terms of how much education should cost the student.

Mundell: Yes, so, Scotland does have different arrangements in relation to the cost of tuition. In Scotland, we don’t have tuition fees, which are payable in England. Although, in England, students can get loans to pay those fees and pay them back. But there always are consequences of decisions, so the one thing that is a situation in higher education in Scotland is there is a cap on the number of students from Scotland that can go into higher education. So, higher education may come without tuition fees, but not everybody in Scotland is able to study in Scotland. But I think as long as that’s understood, you can have the debate because choices are about consequences as well.

Reeher: What are the limits on what Scotland can do for itself different from Britain? Is there a hard line somewhere?

Mundell: We have what’s called the reserved responsibilities, so these are the issues which the U.K. government is responsible for, issues like defense, foreign affairs, macroeconomics, for example. So, obviously, those are areas in which the U.K. operates, delivers services in relation to the Scottish government in the areas which they’re responsible for. They can pretty much do anything. It’s not confined in that way. Obviously, there are always the political checks and balances, which any government’s elected representatives have to have reference to.

Reeher: What is Scotland’s power in terms of budget and fundraising? Can it decide as a nation that it’s going to levy its own extra taxes on its citizens to fund additional programs if there’s support for that?

Mundell: Yes, they can. And I’ve been responsible for devolving to Scotland additional powers over taxes because when the Scottish Parliament [was] established in 1999, it had very limited tax-raising powers. Now, it’s responsible for all income tax in Scotland and therefore can and has decided to have differential rates of tax. And it raises through the taxes and other financial arrangements that it’s responsible for over half of its spending. The rest comes in what’s called a block grant, so that is a proportion of U.K. spending [that] is allocated to Scotland. But it also has the capacity to raise over half of the funding that it requires, and we’re just now having a debate after the U.K. budget, which essentially reduced taxes, whether the Scottish government will reflect that or whether they will have higher taxes in Scotland. And I think that’s a very good debate to be having. I wanted to come out in favor of having lower taxes in Scotland than we currently have. But what I think is this is a sign of the maturity and evolving of these devolved arrangements, that there is sort of this financial accountability because when the Scottish Parliament was just simply handed a block of money … the talk was all about spending the money. There was no discussion about where that money came from and how we should be growing the economy to grow our tax revenue. That just wasn’t part of the equation. Now, it has to be, and I think that’s a good thing.

Reeher: In your experience there in Britain, have there been any major pitfalls that have been encountered from the standpoint of democracy or good government in making this kind of switch?

Mundell: I think the challenge we face in Scotland is obviously that, despite all the opportunity to pursue different policies in relation to the services that people are looking to receive and want and need, we are still very much bogged down in terms of constitutional politics. So, we have a government in Scotland whose position is to take Scotland out of the United Kingdom. We’ve got a United Kingdom government whose position is to keep Scotland within the United Kingdom. And I’m afraid these constitutional issues often intrude into any other discussion, and I think that’s disappointing so that we’re not fully, in my view, using the powers and scope of the Scottish Parliament to its fullest effect because we’re constantly involved in a constitutional debate where the answer … [is] this would be better if we were independent, not this would be better if we organized the health services, the education system in a different way. And I think that that’s my disappointment with what’s evolved. We’ve got one of the most powerful devolved parliaments anywhere in the world, but we’re not using its full potential because we’re bogged down in a stare-out constitutional debate.

Reeher: I want to talk about Brexit a little bit now because that is part of your portfolio, working on the team that’s dealing with that. This is Britain’s exit from the European Union. It was decided by a referendum in the United Kingdom in June 2016. The result surprised many political observers going in, and it has since been seen now, in the rearview mirror, as kind of a precursor to America’s election of Donald Trump as president. … Would it be fair to say that your country [Britain] … is going through some kind of buyer’s remorse on this?

Mundell: I think it’s more that these sort of discussions inevitably go to the wire. That’s what happens. And the EU in particular has a record of taking negotiations and deliberations right to the wire, and that’s what’s happening with these negotiations. In the past, the EU have even gotten to the wire and then have stopped the clock to be midnight for four days in order to get to the point where you get agreement. So, I just think there is an inevitability of being at this point in this type of negotiation. I think most people in the U.K. respect the decision, even if they don’t agree with it, and they want us to get on and deliver on it. And that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re a long way towards getting an agreement. I’m very confident we can. But there are some sticking points, the most prominent of which at this time is the so-called backstop, and that’s basically what happens if we don’t agree [on] a future relationship … what happens in Northern Ireland and particularly in relation to the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Reeher: You’re the first openly gay conservative member of parliament to hold a cabinet-level position in Britain, and the United States is behind Britain on this. We’ve had LGBT members of Congress. We’ve had one bisexual sitting governor in Oregon, but nobody at the cabinet level, unless one counts the secretary of the Army. … Do you feel like a political trailblazer in your country?

Mundell: I didn’t come out to be a political trailblazer. I came out for myself because I knew that it was right for me and my own life, but I do feel a sense of responsibilities in that people can see that at the highest government in our country, there’s gay people playing a full part. And we have, both in Scotland and in the United Kingdom parliaments, we have some of the highest proportions of openly gay members, LGBT+ community members, so I think it’s a positive direction of travel, but I always acknowledge I’m very lucky. In the world I live in, I don’t encounter discrimination or issues that many people do, particularly young people who’re still at school. They encounter homophobia. So, I’m not in any way complacent about these things, but what I do think or accept is there is this sort of responsibility when you’re in the position I’m in to demonstrate that there’s just no impediment to a gay man carrying out these roles and responsibilities.