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 Fran├žois 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.    

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  1. An enjoyable read, even from the other side of the fence Effie.

    I especially enjoy the irony that of all the political parties, your idea of equality of devolution for all in the UK is a position most closely aligned with that of the SNP. Indeed, with their commitment not to vote on English-only matters at Westminster, it's fair to say that they are the only party in the UK which is actually acting to enable it.

    Despite the great deal of thought you clearly give the subject of Scottish nationalism, you also display an endearing naivety over it. A unionist policy of abolishing the Scottish football and rugby teams would have guaranteed a Yes vote in the referendum - only last night I stood in a pub speaking to a young chap who had voted No but sang Flower of Scotland in front of the TV, whilst I, who voted Yes could not bring myself to do so. There are a great many No voters, some I'm sure who follow you on Twitter, who believe Scotland is, and should continue to be a very different thing from Oklahoma or Lower Saxony.

    1. I don't really follow or understand football. The point is not so much about that as trying to find a balance in expressing our various identities. At the moment I think the UK needs more Britishness in order to prosper. If the UK is going to work long term we are going to need more unity as well as more devolution.

      I think it's possible for the SNP to make a positive contribution to the devolution debate in the UK in the way that you suggest. I also think it's possible for them to do good work in Scotland. I hope so anyway as they are liable to be in power for a while. But it's going to be necessary to do other things than debate constitutional matters. I'm hoping they just get on with ruling Scotland and trying to make it a better place for both Yes and No voters.

    2. The irony is that I have always felt British. I'm half English, love Mod music and Monty Python, have a union jack handbag. I've always been very comfortable with both Scottish and British identity. And, of course, if you really believe in an equal union, there should be no contradiction between the two: ceilidhs, bagpipes, Burns and all things Scottish (the SNP included) are as much a part of British culture and politics as anything else.

      But despite being happily British, I still think Scotland should have political independence and run its own affairs, and there should be far more devolution to the English regions. What I love about Britain is its diversity and I WANT to hear the voices of its various regions and cultures more loudly than we currently do with a politics and culture that is centred only in London and a very narrow elite.

      As such, the no campaign and the politicians behind it have managed to do a huge amount of damage to that British identity I enjoyed previously. They're killing what those things I do identify with in favour of telling my what their view of "Britishness" is and I don't like that version - that UKIP, Tory, Westminster version is anathema to my own version of it.

      So when you say "the UK needs more Britishness" all I see is my own version of Britishness being further crushed by people who aren't at all like me trying to impose how I should feel onto me. "British" culture, by its nature, should be inclusive of ALL the cultures of the nations and regions that make it up, as well as those cultures more recently arrived. It can't be imposed, and it certainly can't be imposed by telling people within Britain that their culture - social or political - is less British than that from another part of these islands.

      Attempts by politicians and a London elite to impose their own version of "Britishness" will only destroy it even more.

    3. British is the word we use to describe people from the nation state called the UK. That's how the word is used 99% of the time. It's always struck me as contradictory to say I'm British in this sense but want to break up the UK. It's like someone saying I'm French but want to break up France or indeed that I'm Scottish and want to see Scotland divided up the middle by an international border.

      I don't therefore think you can complain about our attempts to bring about unity, when you continue to attempt to bring about disunity.

  2. Two points, apart from complementing you again on another thoughtful piece: first the notion of 'federalizing' the devolution issue is one which I I am now in agreement. As the uneven nature of the attempt to break the UK unfolded - with non-Scots afforded no say, and even hundreds of thousands of Scots who happen to be absent Scotland, similarly disenfranchised - the case for a more general settlement has just grown. Moreover, we Scots are also entitled to the protection of British values in the face of the SNP's elected dictatorship (and evident disdain for "unionists"). So the notion of a Federal British police force - to counter the insanity of a McAskill Justice office - is a guarantee of one of our cherished (British) values - equality before the law.

    So I personally have traveled from my previous intellectual home of a unitary state (albeit with many nations) to becoming a fan of a more federated Great Britain. Its simply time.

    On a second point your correspondent 'Garve' suggests yours is the naivety on the great sweep of matters commonly called nationalism. Yet his is the utter befuddlement at seeing a NO-voter sing Flower of Scotland... That's still a song that stirs me, I am still a cultural nationalist - tho NEVER a supporter of the SNP! Scotland is still 'my country' You do not, in fact, need to know anything about football to know that Scots, almost universally, are proud of their Scottish nation - even while a majority of us are also proud of our British nation too. Failing to understand that - while seeking to speak for Scots and for Scotland, is far worse than naivety - its willful ignorance - or as the Great Scottish legal writer McDonald might put it - its a "willful distemper'.

    The fact remains that every single step undertaken by any member of the SNP (or its closest fellow-travelers) is taken for one reason only - furtherance of their wrecker's charter. The fact that they cannot see any of the damage that has been wrought by the referendum, is proof that they care not how they get there or what state Scotland would be in if there ever were to get there. So please don not (as your main article communicates so well, but your response to Garvie seems to differ slightly on) concede a single iota to the SNP. They would never make a positive contribution to the governance of Scotland - unless it was a subterfuge to further Britain's destruction, and we Scots do not want that. They are a destructive, corrosive menace like damp-rot, and must be eradicated in much the same way as that fungus.

    1. Thanks for a great comment. UK supporters are making journeys. I voted against devolution as I could see where it would lead. But the whole of the UK has moved on. NI has parliament, so does Wales, so does Scotland. That isn't going to change. But we must make devolution work to strengthen the UK. Some sort of federalism is probably the answer. If we were like the US I'd be more than happy.

      I'm an opponent of nationalism, but I try to engage with reasonable Yes supporters with politeness. It's much more interesting. I agree that they miss the point about Scottishness and Britishness for that matter. I think you'll find in the coming months that my opposition to the SNP will increase rather than diminish one iota. Thanks for taking the time to read. Much appreciated

  3. So you're against nationalism.

    The biggest nationalists on the planet, bar perhaps one, are the English.

    1. Why make the comparison? I was under the impression that Scottish nationalism had nothing whatsoever to do with England. Oh well I get so many things wrong.

      One of the problems with nationalists is that they frequently don't understand the word "nationalism". Try the following explanation:

      I don't recall very many English people last summer campaigning for English independence. Do you?

  4. Its strange that I agree with you in someways. Just my solution is different.
    I just want to live in a independent nation. I would be happy for that to be Scotland or Britain. I don't want division but it is there already and as long as it is I don't want it mixed up with my politics. We are not going to ever see a British football or Rugby team any time soon. It is a far simpler option in my view to align the government with the identity than to manipulate the identity to match the government. So an independent Scotland is a far quicker way of achieving what I want.

    1. You make your point reasonably and well. The difficulty in Scotland and other parts of the UK is that people have complex and different identities. The problem is how can we make most people happy. Not easy to see a way to do that at the moment. But at least we can talk in a polite friendly way to each other. That's a start.


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