Saturday 15 November 2014

What is devolution for?

What is devolution for? Ask different people and you’ll get different answers. Those old enough will remember the Scottish Constitutional ConventionThe parties and organisations that met more or less were united in what they thought devolution was for. It had two goals. The first and most important was that if England voted Conservative, as it had been doing in the 80s and early 90s, then Scotland would still be ruled by the left. The second goal was that devolution would kill off the SNP. The Liberals and Labour, the main two parties that were part of the Constitutional Convention, thought they had a clever wheeze. The expectation was that there would be a permanent Lib/Lab pact in the Scottish Assembly. For this reason, I suspect, neither the Conservatives nor the SNP took part. The Conservatives knew it was a stitch up and the SNP only ever wanted independence.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. I try to avoid making party political points against Better Together friends, but let’s be clear we made an almighty hash of devolution in 1997. How’s it working out in terms of its goals? Did it succeed in killing off nationalism? Far from it, if there is one thing that can be pointed to as being responsible for the rise of Scottish nationalism, it’s the Scottish parliament. In time the SNP realised their folly in boycotting the Constitutional Convention. People like Alex Salmond knew that rather than make one giant leap to independence he could make little steps. The first steps had been made for him. Some rather foolish people began speaking grandiosely about Holyrood as if somehow we were returning to the time before 1707. We built an enormous building and made claims about the sovereignty of the Scottish people. We began to act as if Scotland were a nation state. Salmond took this further by renaming the Scottish Executive as the Scottish Government and acting as if he were a national leader in the same sense as Angela Merkel or François Hollande. Each time, he was making one of those little steps towards independence.

So now there’s no Lib/Lab pact in Holyrood and unlikely to be one in the near future and 44% of the Scottish people voted for independence. When I was a child this was a fringe issue that strange men in tweeds, who wore kilts all day, used to support. So how is devolution working out for you?

In order to make progress we have to answer the question what is devolution for? The answer for No voters must be that it is for strengthening the UK. This is the mistake that we made in 1997. The issue of devolution was treated on its own by Scotland rather than as a whole by the UK. People thought that if we only made some concessions to the nationalists we would kill of nationalism. This is simply false. Nationalists want more devolution in order to bring about independence. It is not our task to help them. Rather it is our task to hinder them. Don’t make concessions to nationalists. They’ll bite your hand off and then your whole arm with it.

I am not opposed to devolution. There are countries with masses of devolution that work well, for example Germany, Australia, USA. In these countries the answer to the question “what is devolution for?” is that it brings power to local people at a state level while maintaining a strong stable and united country at the national level. Devolution works in these countries because every citizen in every part of these countries has a similar degree of local power. Imagine if Texas had devolution, but Vermont did not. Would this help or hinder the unity of the USA? Unequal devolution foments division.

Devolution can only work if a country is not continually threatened with breaking up. If the answer to the “question what is devolution for?” is so that , for instance, Bavaria can regain the independence it lost in 1871, then the answer will be that Germany requires more centralisation not more devolution. The condition for the possibility of maximum amounts of devolution is that there is not a continual rebellion against the centre.

The three main party leaders made “a vow” to extend devolution. This really was no more than a concise statement of what they had all said throughout the summer. There is nothing in this vow that I disagree with. But it is important to realise what it is and what it is not. It is promising extensive new powers. The parties at the time of “the vow” had different ideas of what that would mean, therefore it was deliberately vague. We are now debating it further. No-one has ever promised devo-max. That’s just something the SNP made up to break the Union. Moreover, every promise has a context. When promising more devolution, the party leaders were answering the question “what is devolution for?” with the answer in order to strengthen the unity of the UK. After all, they were campaigning against independence. Besides “the vow” was obviously made in the context of the Edinburgh Agreement. If the SNP refuse to accept the democratic will of the people in Scotland, if they refuse to cease fighting for independence, at least in the short term, then I’m sorry but we have no obligation to them. “The vow” anyway was made to No voters. How can we best keep it?

We must devolve equally across the UK. I do not want to have a right or a privilege that my fellow British citizen lacks. There are different ways to allow England to have as much devolution as the other parts of the UK. But fundamentally it is up to English people, not people like me, to determine what they want. Just as Labour and the Liberals were mistaken when they put party before country in setting up the Scottish parliament, so the Conservatives would be mistaken if they put party before country in setting up English devolution. It must be possible for national government to rule effectively over the whole of the UK and no party should be structurally disadvantaged. But Labour can’t expect to push through matters that only affect England if they lack a majority there. You can’t set up a Scottish parliament in order to avoid Tory rule in Scotland and expect to rule England when it has a Tory majority. That’s unfair. There is a solution. But only if parties rise above party difference and act for the good of the UK.

As we devolve so we must unify. We must cease helping the nationalists. The SNP sees its task as continually to emphasise the separateness of Scotland and to act always as if Scotland were already an independent nation state. They only really have one good argument. Scotland is a country, therefore Scotland ought to be an independent country. If you think that Scotland is a nation in the same way that France is a nation, you should have voted for independence. If you think Scotland has sovereignty you likewise should have voted for independence.  The key task of bringing unity to the UK is to recognise that although Scotland is called a country we are no different from the parts of Australia, USA or Germany. Again if you don’t believe this, then you should have voted for independence.

Through some quirks of history we use the word “Scottish” rather a lot. Everything is separate in Scotland. Whereas everyone else has the RSPCA we have the SPCA. This would be fine if it were once in a while. But it is relentless. Everything in Scotland from adverts to charities to professional organisations is prefixed by "Scottish". The same does not apply to Saxony, Maryland or Queensland. Likewise none of these states have international football and rugby teams. It is anachronistic and absurd that a place that is not an independent nation state takes part in international sporting competitions. No-one else does. It might seem harmless. But it is not. It is the thing that most feeds nationalism in Scotland.

We will not put the nationalist genie back in the bottle quickly, but gradually we must work towards a new common identity in Britain. This requires the use more often than not of common symbols and less often than not of symbols of division and separateness.

When Lincoln towards the end of the Civil War said that they were “testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” he was articulating that there is not a universal right to secession. Democracy triumphed in the United States precisely because the Civil War made it clear that it would be united for ever. We too in the United Kingdom can “have a new birth of freedom” devolving to the most local of levels, but only if we unite also and accept that the war is over. People threatening to take matters into their own hands, people who continue fighting after the battle has been won clearly have no understanding of nor love of democracy and freedom. They are the enemies of devolution and the main obstacle to its being extended to the maximum amount possible.    

If you like my writing, please follow the link to my book Scarlet on the Horizon. The first five chapters can be read as a preview.