IN the midsummer madness of the UK 2018, it is still possible to make out just now and again a still, small voice of calm. One came last week from the unlikely direction of the constitutional committee of the House of Commons.

Its report on devolution was in fact a weighty document, needless to say more or less ignored in the English media. But its general conclusion concerns the entire UK. It is that, 20 years on from the re-establishment of the Scottish Parliament and the creation of the Welsh Assembly, not forgetting the successful conclusion of the peace process in Northern Ireland, a systematic review remains to be carried out of how Whitehall should have responded, and ought to respond in future. If the Union is to survive, the report goes on, it must seek novel structures or procedures to cope with a constitutional situation not only deeply changed but also bound to change further. In particular, the senior civil servants in London who need to make a new system work have not received any “comprehensive training on devolution”.

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The chairman of the committee is Sir Bernard Jenkin, a man I met in my own dim and distant Tory past. I chaired a dinner at which he was the speaker, and our conversation has stuck in my mind. Jenkin is now a leading Brexiteer, though that does not give the measure of the man. Rather he is one of a small minority of MPs who, in a Westminster of grovellers and toadies, stands out for his determination to think things through for himself and stick by the conclusions he draws – an equivalent of Frank Field on the Labour side, or our own Tommy Sheppard in the SNP. I always admire such people, even if the substance of their views may put me right off. Governments never give them jobs, but if we did not have them I would fear for the future of democracy.

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One thing Jenkin told me at the dinner was how he wanted to prove in person that people in the south-east of England hadn’t forgotten about Scotland. While on the right wing of his party, he has always been in this specialised sense a One Nation Tory – unlike those colleagues of his today who lose no chance to denigrate Scots. It was a reason behind his first electoral foray at the 1983 General Election, when he came to stand in Glasgow Central (while his wife Anne Strutt opted for Govan). He did so partly on sentimental grounds too, for he boasts Scottish blood. He is the descendant of an eccentric Victorian, Fleeming Jenkin, professor of engineering at the University of Edinburgh and a friend of Robert Louis Stevenson, who published a memoir of him.

The constitutional committee’s report will give me plenty to write about during the long, weary winter of Brexit that promises to follow this long, weary summer. Today I want to focus on one aspect of it that struck me especially: what is going to happen in future to the job of Secretary of State for Scotland? Jenkin and his colleagues think we need, after the legislative upheaval of devolution, a matching executive upheaval – but with the positive aim of finding a system that will not so much endure as evolve.

The National:

It’s often said that Scottish Secretaries come in two kinds: those who represent Scotland at Westminster and those who represent Westminster in Scotland. There’s little doubt which kind the present incumbent, David Mundell, belongs to. The term “legman” might have been invented for him. He allows himself no deviation from the party line, which his political activity largely consists in endlessly repeating. His performances at questions in the House of Commons, flustered and sweating, are a pain to watch.

Even a Tory Secretary of State does not really need to be like this. Under Mrs Thatcher, both George Younger and Malcolm Rifkind stood out for the adroit way they handled her, cushioning her impact, keeping channels open across the political battlefield and putting off the evil day when the apple of her eye, Michael Forsyth, would succeed them. Though both had renounced their former commitment to devolution – the devil’s part of the bargain they made to get into the Cabinet – they at least avoided the centralist conformity imposed on the rest of it.

But since devolution, their office has been on a shoogly peg. At the start, the incumbent Donald Dewar made a seamless transition to First Minister at Holyrood. It was probably an error not to abolish the Scottish Secretaryship straightaway, since it had no duties to speak of. Instead it went to John Reid, the chain-smoking bruiser typical of Lanarkshire Labour, who amused himself picking fights (sometimes in public) with the self-denying Donald. Then Helen Liddell found so little to do that she took extended lunch-breaks from her HQ in the West End of Edinburgh to go window-shopping round its fashionable boutiques.

Alistair Darling followed, combining the job with that of UK Transport Secretary, according to him “a logical solution that recognised the change now that the Scottish Parliament has bedded in”. A similar arrangement was made for Douglas Alexander, then for Des Browne, before Scotland again became the sole portfolio of Jim Murphy.

This continued under David Cameron’s coalition with the post throughout held by Lib Dems, conveniently making up their numbers in cabinet. And so we came to the present government and Fluffy Mundell, in 2015 unavoidable as the only Tory MP in Scotland.

It seems obvious from this brief rehearsal of the history since 1999 that the Secretary of State has lost a province but hasn’t found a role. He runs a make-work ministry, with 68 civil servants (Scottish government: 5000). Perhaps his public-spirited officials find enough to do during our times of political and constitutional upheaval. But that can’t last forever – can it? – and then the question for the UK of a permanent design to fit its greater, and probably still growing, disunity becomes unavoidable.

Which brings us back to Sir Bernard Jenkin. In his report he is sharply critical of the way the UK Government has ignored the concerns of the Scottish and other devolved administrations during the Brexit negotiations. It is under huge and irreconcilable pressures, to be sure, but whose fault is that? In any case, this atrocious experience simply cannot become a model for the future.

What Sir Bernard says is this: “We recommend that the Government take the opportunity provided by Brexit to seek to develop, in conjunction with the devolved administrations, a new system of inter-governmental machinery and ensure it is given a statutory footing. Doing this will make clear that inter-governmental relations are as important a part of the devolution settlement as the powers held by the devolved institutions.”

It is an effort to de-politicise those relations in effect, to end the shouting matches and allow sweet reason to prevail. And a part of it could be the elimination of the Secretary of State for Scotland together with his non-department.

My view is that the quickest and cleanest way to deal with these problems would be to bring the Union of 1707 to an end.

Meanwhile it will be some help if we no longer have to look on as a clammy crawler claims to represent our interests at Westminster.