What connects criminal justice policy and the National Health Service? The first answer is that they are two of the three prongs of the governments messaging, the third being its commitment to delivering Brexit on or before 31 October, whatever it takes. But the second, which might turn out to be pretty important, is that they are both devolved. The vast majority of criminal justice policy – including sentencing guidelines and police powers – are devolved in Scotland while a bit is also devolved in Wales. The National Health Service is devolved in both kingdoms.
Does that matter? My entirely anecdotal impression from covering by-elections, local elections, devolved elections, general elections and referendums in both countries is that it doesnt matter in Wales. The average persons knowledge of what is and isnt devolved is fairly patchy. People are aware that the NHS is run by the Welsh government but seeing as the major strategic purpose of the governments healthcare announcements is to blunt Jeremy Corbyns messaging in an area where Labour tends to enjoy large leads, that is mission accomplished. In any case, the third of those three prongs – a hard Brexit by any means possible – is fairly popular in Wales.
But in Scotland I think it does matter. The man in the street has a pretty good grasp on what is and isnt devolved, partly because an integral part of the ruling government in Edinburghs political project is reminding people what they run and what Westminster runs, and to use that as a showcase for how much better life would be in an independent Scotland. Added to the fact that a majority of Scottish voters opted to remain in the European Union and dont want a no-deal Brexit and the governments three big messages are, respectively: devolved, devolved, and toxic to the Scottish electorate.
Thats a bit of a risk – remember that the Conservatives have 13 seats in Scotland, and if they fall back in that country they are further increasing the size of the strides they have to make into Labour territory in England and Wales even before we factor in any losses to the Liberal Democrats – but its also an opportunity. It creates the space for the party in Scotland to fight a distinct campaign – a word which here means “a noun, a verb, and a series of reminders that Nicola Sturgeon wants to hold another independence referendum”.
But it underlines that while the government has a healthy lead in the polls, we are still unclear as to how that will play out under first past the post – and that the downside risk for the government is large.