Wednesday 21 October 2020

Should the Scottish Parliament have still more powers?


We have learned this year that devolution is a bigger mess than we thought.  Some people in Britain have mayors without devolved parliament, others have devolved parliaments without mayors. Others still have neither a mayor nor a devolved parliament. Manchester gets to delay going into tier three lockdown because it has a mayor demanding money from the Government before it does so. But Mansfield only has its MP so has to do what it’s told.

Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have parliaments, but each have different powers. Northern Ireland’s parliament has power sharing, but the others do not. England doesn’t have a parliament at all. The British Government controls health, education and all of the other devolved powers only in England. But this means Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish MPs vote on matters that affect only England, while English MPs cannot vote on those same matters when they apply to Scotland Wales and Northern Ireland.

If Labour and the SNP had formed a coalition Government after the last election, there might have been an SNP health minister telling Manchester it had to be in lockdown. But that same SNP health minister would have no say on whether Glasgow was in lockdown nor indeed over any other health matter in Scotland.

When Tony Blair’s Government introduced devolution, no one suggested it would involve the Scottish Parliament shutting the non-existent border between England and Scotland, let alone the Welsh parliament, which had only narrow support when it began, doing the same with England. If anyone had suggested such a thing it would have been dismissed as preposterous.

Now in response to some polls suggesting support for the SNP and Scottish independence increasing we have a leaked report from an organisation called Hanbury that the solution is to give Scotland still more devolution.

It is worth noting that Hanbury was set up by David Cameron’s former director of strategy. It is hard to think of someone other than Tony Blair who has done more damage to the UK than David Cameron. His strategy of giving Alex Salmond as long as he wanted to campaign for independence with a question of the SNP’s choice was what caused the surge in support for Scottish nationalism in the first place. It was the independence campaign itself that fuelled support for the SNP. If Cameron had simply said “I’m sorry Alex” the UK is one country indivisible. There would have been mutterings and some people would have said it was undemocratic, but there would not have been the surge of support for independence from 25% to 45% and now 55%.

It was Cameron and Cameron alone whose arrogance and stupidity led him to think that he could win a referendum on Scottish independence easily. He nearly didn’t win it at all. That same arrogance and stupidity meant he thought he could win a referendum on EU membership. Perhaps Hanbury guided his strategy then too.

There are really only two things that you can do to defend the UK that will work permanently.

1. You have to make clear that the whole of the UK is British territory and we will defend it like every other country in Europe defends its territory. If you keep offering referendums on secession you will eventually lose.

2. You have to make devolution to apply to every British citizen equally.

It is no good giving Scotland still more power. SNP supporters are completely uninterested in what goes on in the Scottish Parliament. The Smith Commission gave the Scottish Parliament more powers. Did this in anyway lessen support for the SNP? No. But Scottish nationalists still go on about “The Vow” being betrayed.

There is no point begging the EU not to allow Scotland to join after independence. The EU hates Britain and cannot be trusted on this issue. It might give Scotland a special deal just to spite us. Spain has solved its Catalan problem, by saying No and meaning it, so it might well be willing to accommodate Scotland.

What you need to do to deter those Scots tempted to vote for Scottish nationalism is to make absolutely clear what it would involve. This is where a Canadian style Clarity Act is crucial.

There are two sorts of secession movements. There is the sort like in Catalonia, Flanders or Lombardy where a rich region wants to secede from a poorer whole. The EU did not support Catalan independence because if Catalonia had become an EU member state with the same rights as it had before, then it would indeed have been better off than Spain as a whole. This would have set a precedent that could have been followed in other parts of Europe. The EU would have fallen apart.

The other type of secession movement is in places like Scotland and Wales, where a poor region wants to secede from a richer whole. Some Scottish nationalists think it would be worth being poorer if only we could be free from the English. Others mistakenly think that Scotland is richer than the UK as a whole. SNP propaganda is good enough to make them believe this, but they would discover the truth if Scotland became independent.

The problem then is one of communication not one of truth. Scotland really would be financially poorer if it ceased to receive the subsidy it receives from the UK treasury. Brexit would make Scotland poorer still, both financially and because as Britain will no longer be an EU member there is no guarantee that Scots would have the same rights in the former UK as we have now.

The task is to make this argument. It is true that the Labour, Lib Dem and Conservative opposition is pitiful. This is mainly because none of them are willing to use Brexit as an argument against Scottish independence because they are nearly all Remainers.  We have excellent arguments, but they are not being heard. Sort the problem of communication, which is due to the media and the lack of talented Pro UK politicians in Scotland and you will begin to convince voters. A majority of Scots will not vote to be poorer so long as they know and believe this.

If you want to give Scots new powers give it to them on a local level. Go beyond the Scottish parliament and bypass it. But above all recognise that lopsided devolution is the source of the problem and if you make devolution still more lopsided you will increase the problem in the long term rather than alleviate it.

There are people who think federalism is the solution. But Spain has federalism and it was only defeated because the Spanish Government was willing to say No and mean it. The United States Government would say the same. Would the SNP be willing to give up the goal of independence in exchange for federalism? No of course not. So how does it solve the problem?

The task is to undo the mess created by Tony Blair which was made worse by David Cameron. The ideal solution would be if Scotland had five regional parliaments each representing around a million people. The other parts of the UK could have the same. This would not merely equalise devolution across Britain so that every voter had the same power, it would also take away the national aspect of these parliaments. If you want to stop Scottish nationalism, first say No and mean it, then use local parliaments to undermine it.