FOR and AGAINST: Has Scottish devolution worked?
JAMES BALDWIN argues in favour of devolution
As if we aren’t already used to the Prime Minister saying something foolhardy or reckless, Boris Johnson this week spoke on a Conservative Zoom call and stated that devolution was probably Tony Blair’s “biggest mistake”, and that it had been a “disaster”. This prompted a big outcry from ministers and MP’s within the devolved regions, such as Douglas Ross, the Scottish Conservatives leader. This is a good starter for my argument; that those within Scotland support devolution. If this is the view from the devolved nations, then let them have it.
Since Mr. Blair devolved certain powers to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in 1999, the people within those nations have received much greater powers. Under current constituency boundaries, Scotland holds 59 of the 650 seats in Westminster. Whilst, technically, this is representative of the Scottish population (amazing for a system which is very often unrepresentative), it has also meant that any decision for allocating resources to Scotland could quickly be overturned by the mass of English MPs on the green benches. Devolution has avoided this, allowing the Scottish people more of a say in policy on education, health and justice.
Devolution has henceforth given the people a sense of being closer to the action and having much more direct say in what they are receiving from their Government. Is greater representation not what we want? When talking to the Institute for Government, Mr. Blair stated that the overarching purpose of it was “to bring about a new settlement between the constituent parts of the UK so that decision making was brought closer to the people who felt a strong sense of identity”. Devolution has managed this – and this cannot possibly be thought of as a “disaster”.
The citizens of Scotland are in any case given the opportunity to vote more directly on issues that will affect them. The popular argument against devolution is that nothing has been accomplished since it’s been set up. Again, this is not entirely true, and decisions have been taken from within to go differently to England – whether it be free tuition fees or, more recently, in how they deal with the Covid-19 crisis. But to an extent, there has been a stalemate on far too many issues within the Scottish Parliament. Yet this is not down to devolution, this is down to the Scottish National Party.
Mr. Ross was right when he said that the SNP’s “non-stop obsession with another referendum” had instead been a disaster. Yes, the frameworks of devolution have allowed the SNP to be in a place where they can push for independence. But since polls suggest the majority of the Scottish people want to break with the union, and most currently vote SNP, devolution has simply allowed the majority view to be heard, and argued for, with a SNP Government in Holyrood. Devolution cannot be blamed for accelerating nationalism, it is not a cause. If anything, this can instead be pinpointed to Brexit and an increasing disillusion with the Tory government from Scotland. The Conservative Party – and the near-silent Labour Party – need to get their act together in Scotland to combat the nationalist politics. Devolution provides an agenda for the ruling party to make decisions, and rightly so.
Even if you are going to argue that devolution has been a disaster, what is the alternative? Centralised decision-making is a thing of the past and does not work well. Just look at Public Health England during the Covid-19 pandemic. A catastrophic handling of the Test and Trace system has occurred largely because of the failings of the government to hand powers to regional areas within the UK. If the government wished to truly get on top of the virus, they could have temporarily backed off the ideological, cultural standpoint and decided to save lives by offloading decisions to the local regions, much like Germany or South Korea. But they didn’t. And now they have scrapped PHE.
Strapping back devolution would only serve to make the same errors, giving less say to the Scottish people and allowing the SNP to capitalise. The people of Scotland would be furious and when an inevitable ‘IndyRef2’ does come about, they would vote emphatically to leave the United Kingdom. Devolution is the only resolution to keep the Union alive.
Continued devolution to Scotland and greater devolution to the cities of the UK would help here. City mayors have had a strong pandemic – and they know their citizens better. We only need to look at the recent stand-off between Andy Burnham and Westminster to see that centralised decision-making presents the people of regions and cities with anger.
Devolution has been far from a disaster. You can see that it hasn’t been so by Mr. Johnson’s furious attempts to backtrack at PMQ’s last Wednesday, this time agreeing with Mr. Ross’ early view. Devolution has provided the people of Scotland with greater representation now than ever before. And whilst it is true that nationalist sentiment has rapidly risen in the past decade, this is down to issues beyond devolution, as shown by Wales not being whipped up in this nationalist hysteria, despite also being devolved. Keir Starmer, responding to Mr. Johnson’s claim that devolution had become a threat to the United Kingdom, answered that “the single biggest threat to the UK is the Prime Minister every time he opens his mouth on this”. How true.
MATTHEW ALEXANDER argues against devolution
After Boris Johnson’s comments claiming devolution had been “a disaster north of the border” surfaced last week there has been a period of merry Boris-bashing from all corners of the country, including sections of his own party. These critics all missed a crucial point, devolution has been a disaster. It has failed to strengthen the union, failed to satiate the appetite for independence and failed to improve the governance of Scotland.
Devolution, at the time, appeared to be a magic compromise: Labour would meet the demand of Scottish nationalists by recreating a Scottish Parliament and in return this would shore up the union after years of apparent Tory neglect. Further, localists proclaimed, by bringing power closer to the people, devolutionary government would be more responsive to the specific needs of the Scottish people. After twenty years it is clear devolution failed on each of these fronts.
The first failing results from an ignorance of nationalism. Nationalists will never be satiated until they receive full independence, this is a clear theme amongst nationalists throughout British history whether it is the slide from self-governance to independence in her settler colonies or the rise of Euroscepticism. By conceding ground to Scottish nationalists, it did not lead to compromise but, instead, empowered their nationalism. Devolution granted the SNP two key powers: legitimacy and a platform. It accepts that Scotland is a special case: a nation within a nation. This legitimates the nationalist claim that Scotland is a nation which is trapped within another. Furthermore, Holyrood has given the SNP a platform to push forward and reinforce their nationalist myth. An example of this is the SNP undercutting English universities to ensure young Scots do not venture south. Instead of satiating a nationalist appetite, devolution has fed the beast of Scottish Nationalism resulting in a seemingly inevitable slide towards independence.
Devolution was designed to bring power closer to the people and provide a better quality of government to the Scots. However, it has disappointed on both counts. Scotland has devolved power from Westminster only to centralise power at Holyrood. Police forces and fire services are symbolic of this, both have seen their regional divisions scrapped in favour of a national branch. While England has seen the introduction of business rates retention and further devolution to regions, Scotland has seen no such empowerment of local councils. If the central government had been a success, there would be some sympathy for their power grabs. Instead, the SNP have failed to meet their targets within the public sector: hospital waiting times are long, inequality in life expectancy is rising and their education system is going backwards. Scotland’s stagnation is all despite considerable public spending, Scotland’s fiscal deficit sat at over 8% of GDP before the pandemic hit. In comparison, the largest EU deficit in 2019 was Romania’s at 4.3%. However, due to the importance of the constitutional question, the plurality of Scottish people still vote for the SNP. When people vote by identity it leads to a fall in the quality of government, this is seen time after time across the world.
The status quo is failing the Scottish people and they recognise this. The only major party standing on a platform to tear up the devolutionary agreement - the SNP - is polling at over 50% while the party which delivered devolution, the Labour Party, is polling at its lowest level in over 100 years. The verdict on devolution is clear, it has failed unionists, nationalists, and the Scottish people.
The solution to devolution’s failings is tougher to find. Firstly, and most obviously is Scottish independence. If Scottish people deem themselves Scottish not British, then this is the reasonable next step. This would not necessarily be the disaster many expect: the constitutional blockage would halt, allowing a return to competitive politics and they’d hope to follow the economic development path of their neighbour, the Republic of Ireland, who have grown quickly within the EU.
However, it would be a disservice to the Scottish people if Unionists fail to offer an alternative to the drama and chaos independence would create. The economic cost of separation would be huge, Scotland would inherit a fiscal crisis and the path to EU entry would be harsh and far from certain. Instead, Unionists need to offer an alternative vision and identity for Scots that accepts their special nature but embraces their Britishness. Gordon Brown leads in arguing for a radical solution to bind the country together recognising that special nature of Scotland but incorporating this within a new sustainable constitutional settlement. Whatever the solution, it needs to offer something palpably different from the status quo to ensure a long lasting and harmonious union. It may appear far-fetched that a Conservative government would deliver radical constitutional reform, but Johnson’s government is delivering another, Brexit. As Johnson attempts to rebirth one-nation Conservatism he would do well to remember the words of its father Benjamin Disraeli: “I am a Conservative to preserve all that is good in our constitution, a Radical to remove all that is bad.”
Image Source - Flickr: Andrew Parsons/Number 10