Theresa May: Buying Votes with Pork?
SNP leader and first minister Nicola Sturgeon criticised the Tory-DUP deal as “the worst kind of pork barrel politics, which has shredded the last vestiges of credibility of this weakened Prime Minister.” She added that these concerns were shared by the first minister of Wales and that she would proceed to arrange discussions in order to defend the interests of their respective nations “for basic fairness.”
Sturgeon said that by increasing financial support to Northern Ireland was an act that undermined the UK’s devolution settlement.
There are two questions arising from the above statement. What are the exact funding guidelines for the devolved governments and what does it mean to refer to the deal as an example of pork barrel politics?
Devolution affects many facets of socio-political life in the UK. For example, according to the UK’s devolution, there are three important reasons to consider when working on policies or managing social services. These involve the different ways that certain policies might affect parts or the whole of the UK; how “not devolved” issues should be discussed with the devolved administrations so policies are implemented successfully; or devolved issues could be better understood by officials being open to different approaches.
More importantly, when it comes to the kind of relations established between the UK government, the Welsh Assembly government and the Northern Ireland Executive, these are set out in the guidance notes on the “Common Working Arrangements.” Although they are not a binding agreement, they are offered, nonetheless, as a guide of good practice. One of the points, refers to good communications between administrations and that “If one administration is planning action that impinges on the responsibilities of another, it should give adequate forewarning.”
In terms of funding the devolved administrations, the funding arrangements are under detailed scrutiny to ensure that the budget of each of the devolved administrations “is clear, unambiguous and capable of examination and analysis by the devolved Parliament and Assemblies and the United Kingdom Parliament.” As the “Introduction to the Statement of Funding Policy” (SFP) states: “In determining and operating the system of devolved finance, the Government and devolved administrations work together in a spirit of mutual respect, and aim to reach agreement wherever possible.”
The devolved administrations’ budgets are provided from the government as a block grant (assigned budget) which each devolved administration can spend as needed and with the approval of the devolved legislature. As the government’s official documents attest: “The United Kingdom Government applies certain principles in allocating public expenditure between the countries of the United Kingdom. These are based upon the Statement of Principles to govern changes to the devolved administrations’ budgets set out in the Chief Secretary’s reply to a Parliamentary Question answered on 9 December 1997.”
The Barnett formula determines the changes in the devolved administrations’ budgets: “Under the Formula, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland receive a population-based proportion of changes in planned spending on comparable United Kingdom Government services in England. Changes in each devolved administration’s spending allocation is determined by the quantity of the change in planned spending in departments of the United Kingdom Government, the extent to which the relevant United Kingdom programme is comparable with the services carried out by each devolved administration and each country’s population proportion. The introduction of resource budgeting means that this approach is applied to resource and capital budgets but the principles remain the same.”
UK Scottish Secretary David Mundell said he "won’t support funding which is deliberately sought to subvert the Barnett rules. We have clear rules about funding of different parts of the United Kingdom. If the funding falls within Barnett consequentials, it should come to Scotland."
These guidelines regarding the devolved administrations’ funding seek to commit the government to fair funding for all the countries of the UK. Building a more united country depends on making sure that the bonds that sustain co-operation and mutual respect between England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are respected and strengthened. As the Welsh first minister said, the Tory-DUP deal “represents a straight bung to keep a weak prime minister and a faltering government in office. Only last week, we were told that the priority was to 'build a more united country, strengthening the social, economic and cultural bonds between England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales'. This deal flies in the face of that commitment and further weakens the UK, and as currently drafted all but kills the idea of fair funding for the nations and regions.” He added that "It is outrageous that the prime minister believes she can secure her own political future by throwing money at Northern Ireland whilst completely ignoring the rest of the UK.”
Plaid Cymru's leader in Westminster, Liz Saville Roberts, said: "Any commitments for Northern Ireland should be matched for Wales. If reports that the DUP has secured a £1 billion increase in public spending in Northern Ireland are realised, Wales' population share would be around £1.7 billion - a substantial boost to the Welsh economy that must be delivered."
Pork Barrel Politics
Pork barrel is a political Americanism that derives from the barrel in which salt pork was given to slaves in pre-Civil War America. In 1919, in the National Municipal Review, Chester Collins Maxey explains the origins of the phrase pork barrel. In his article, he dates the phrase to the time of southern plantations where rations of salt pork would be distributed to slaves. Pork, packed in salt barrels, would be offered to slaves who, at times, would have to fight for the meat or grab as much as possible for themselves.
Richard Andrews gives a clearer definition that helps explain modern understandings of the phrase as political corruption and self-interested politics. He says that pork barrel refers to “the practice of seeking expenditures of federal funds to benefit one’s own region at the expense of another.” In this sense, one’s geographical area is advanced at the expense of the common good.
According to the US political scientist Tom Lancaster: “Pork barrel politics is the process that allows a legislator to attain central government projects for his geographic constituency by directly influencing appropriations … A characteristic of a pork barrel project is that the benefits are geographically targeted whereas the costs are dispersed through general taxation.” In other words, this is what happens when spending is used to benefit a politician’s constituents in exchange for their political support, while getting taxpayers across the country to pay for it.
And this is where the pork comes in
In her attempt to secure a majority, Theresa May needed to buy the votes of the DUP. It is weird how history is repeated. In April 2015, the DUP leader Peter Robinson said that it would be “vulgar” to seek £1bn for Northern Ireland in exchange for its support to the government. But he didn’t deny the pork: “After an election we will sit down with any potential government of the United Kingdom and we will see to what extent they can help us deliver our plan for Northern Ireland and how we can help push forward their plans for the United Kingdom as a whole.” Back then, when Ed Miliband and David Cameron were trying to get a majority to become the next PM, they were warned about the hefty price they would have to pay for the precious votes from other parties. Theresa May has paid that price.
But people feel DUPed by the deal, as Tim Farron said. May would need to explain to her critics, the devolved governments and, as the Guardian pointed out, to NHS staff and public service workers “why the 1.8 million inhabitants of Northern Ireland, each of whom already receives more financial support from the British taxpayer than those in the rest of the UK, are entitled to another dollop of the extra public spending that has been so long denied to the other 63 million. In short, she has to explain why the millions who voted for change in Britain on 8 June are being denied the spending that those who voted for no change in Northern Ireland are receiving.”
This would make British people mistrust the government and become suspicious of Northern Ireland. Further, it has made everyone wonder about this magic money tree, and if there is one, shouldn’t everyone have a fair share of it?