THE constitutional future of the UK is not stable and the question of a future Scottish referendum won’t go away just because of the crisis facing the SNP, a former top UK civil servant has said.

Professor Ciaran Martin, from the University of Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government, said the “big constitutional questions” were currently being conflated with the day-to-day actions of government.

But he said just because the SNP appear to be in “freefall” and the “immediate” questions of a referendum have “gone away” does not mean the constitutional future of the UK is stable.

Martin, who was involved in preparations for the 2014 referendum when he was constitution director in the UK Cabinet Office, also cast doubt on whether a Labour government in Downing Street would be “genuinely interested” in giving more powers to Scotland.

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And he raised the possibility that devolution could face being rolled back if a “head of steam on the right builds up” calling for devolution to be reversed.

Martin made the comments last week at a webinar held by University College London’s (UCL) Constitution Unit, looking at the UK-wide implications of a recent major cross-party report on the future of Wales.

An independent commission concluded independence for Wales is “viable” and the status quo and current devolution settlement are “not sustainable”.

Martin (below), who is also former head of the National Cyber Security Centre, part of GCHQ, highlighted a point made in the report which argued that people always conflate “big constitutional questions” with the day-to-day actions of government.

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He said this could apply to both voters and political pundits - and it was happening right now.

He added: “The fact that the SNP seem to be in freefall and their immediate questions of a referendum in Scotland have gone away does not mean the long-term constitutional trend in the United Kingdom are in any way stable or these big issues won’t come back.”

Martin also pointed to evidence coming out of the UK Covid Inquiry, which he said could be summed up by Boris Johnson’s statement that the UK is not a “mini-EU with four equal partners”.

“That is the attitude that sort of sums it up,” he said.

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“Now there is an element of that I think in Labour.

"It doesn’t talk very loudly, but I am still scarred by the March 2000 budget and the internal debate within the Treasury - where I was then working - about whether you portrayed UK-wide health figures when Gordon Brown opened the spending taps and we started to invest heavily in health.

“There’s a bit of Whitehall - whichever party is in power - that just thinks of the UK as a single entity, whether that is statistics, whether that is policy direction and so forth and struggles with it.

“And therefore going the full distance towards parity of esteem between the capitals is a big leap.”

Martin said a Labour UK Government could potentially tackle some issues; for example, taking action over the Sewel Convention, which says Westminster will not normally legislate in devolved areas without Holyrood’s consent but has been repeatedly breached in recent years.

But he questioned whether a Labour government would be “genuinely interested” in the issue of “substantive” changes to the devolution system that “to some would look like quasi-federalism”.

He raised the example of a pledge made by Keir Starmer in his leadership campaign to abolish the House of Lords, with the idea mooted it would be replaced by an elected "Assembly of the Nations and Regions".

However, this was later rolled back on with Labour’s then shadow leader of the house Thangam Debbonaire reported as saying it would take a back seat as constitutional change “takes time and it drains energy".

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Martin said: “I would be sceptical - it’s a lot of effort, it’s a lot of work. You can see some of the rowing back for example on the proposals to entrench to governments beyond London via the second chamber, so will they park this?” 

“Secondly I think - particularly if the constitutional debate is parked for a few years - will a head of steam build up on the right which actually gives rise to another option which is to begin to partially reverse and ultimately bring to an end devolution?”

He added: “Being of a certain age, there is a bit of me that remembers Euroscepticism in 1997 which looked dead and buried.

“There were a few people starting to write articles in The Daily Telegraph about you really needed an organised movement to begin to think seriously about EU membership - and we all know where that ended up.”