Wednesday 3 January 2024

The case for abolishing Holyrood


The fact that around half of Scottish voters would choose the SNP at each election no matter how badly the SNP performed looked like a permanent feature of Scottish democracy. There was no changing it and the best the rest of us could hope for was to contain it. But then last year changed everything and it showed us that voters do respond to events, and they do so rather more quickly than plate tectonics.

If the SNP were once unbeatable, they are not now, and the period of its dominance is less than ten years. So too it is less than thirty years since devolution won a large majority in the 1997 referendum and was described as the settled will. This too may change.

I had always assumed that it was pointless to argue against devolution once 74% voted for it. If there were to be a second referendum on devolution surely those who oppose it would lose just as badly as we did before. But there is a difference.

When Scotland voted for devolution, we knew nothing about it. Lots of predictions were made about how it would work and how wonderful it would be, but I can’t think of a single one of these predictions that came true.

We were told above all that a Scottish parliament would end Scottish nationalism and the desire for independence. We were told that Scotland would be ruled better, fairer and more efficiently. We were told that devolution would bring power closer to ordinary people. None of these things happened.

Now the coming year may bring about a circumstance where the majority of Scottish MPs are Labour and they will help form a Labour government, but these Scottish MPs will find that when they make laws about health or education or when they make changes to taxation or when they do almost anything it will make no difference whatsoever to the constituency or the constituents that voted for them. Scotland will still be ruled by the SNP/Greens and a majority of Scottish Labour MPs will have no power whatsoever in Scotland. This will be called democracy.

Scotland is incomparably worse than it was in 1997. If devolution were an experiment, we would have to admit that it has failed dismally. Indeed, it has failed about as badly as it possibly could.

Scottish nationalism and the SNP were on the fringe in 1997 with no chance of power and no chance of independence, yet in ten years Alex Salmond rebranded the SNP the Scottish government in another four years he won an overall majority. In 2014 he came quite close to destroying the UK. Far from destroying the hopes of the SNP devolution gave them a new impetus that they would never have had otherwise.

It’s worth remembering that the SNP initially opposed devolution. It was Labour, the Lib Dems and Scottish polite society that wanted to avoid Tories ruling Scotland when Scotland voted Labour.   It was people who never wanted independence, who were behind the project. At some point this same Scottish polite society has to admit that it got this catastrophically wrong.

Devolution depends on a nationalist argument because it treats Scotland as somehow separate in a UK General Election. There is a UK vote and there is a Scotland vote. It’s fair when the two align, but it’s unfair when then don’t. But it’s only on the assumption that Scotland already is a separate country that this argument applies. But if you think that Scotland is a separate country you shouldn’t be voting for devolution, you should be voting for independence. This is the incoherence at the root of the whole devolution project. It is also why it supplied the SNP with its core argument.

Scotland can’t be both a separate country in a meaningful sense and a part of the United Kingdom. You need to choose. Trying to both gets you incoherence. It gets you devolution.

It is hard to think of a single measure in which Scotland is better now than it was in 1997. Access to healthcare is incomparably worse. We spend ever more on free healthcare only to find what basic economics teaches us that its being free means that it is rationed. Children achieve far less at school than they did in 1997 and not only far less, but far worse afterwards.

The SNP has focussed on providing free prescriptions and free tuition, but universal benefits merely recycle the taxes of the better off and do not provide a targeted benefit to those who are genuinely worse off. Genuine deprivation in Scotland is worse than when the SNP came to power.

Holyrood is full of mediocrities. Humza Yousaf is the peak of mediocrity. He is not especially well educated. He has never had a proper job. Every job in politics he does he fails at, yet he keeps getting promoted. But there are any number of MSPs from all parties who similarly have neither the necessary education nor the necessary experience. It’s hard to think of a first-rate mind or a first-rate politician who has come out of Holyrood. The only household name to emerge from Holyrood is Nicola Sturgeon and her fame may in the end be for something other than her politics.

So, let’s accept that devolution is a failure. It still looks initially as if we all just have to accept this failure as nothing can be done. Scots still love devolution and would be hugely angry if anyone tried to get rid of our Holyrood.

But Scottish nationalists don’t want devolution. They want independence. They merely view Holyrood as a stepping stone. This is the stupidity of Gordon Brown continually arguing that we need to put more stones in the river because this will stop the SNP getting across.

Pro UK people increasingly view devolution as the root of the problem rather than the solution. So support for devolution depends on the same polite Scottish society that set up Holyrood in the first place.

The task is to reduce still further the support for Scottish nationalism and the SNP. This is what is already happening. The next task is to make the case to those Labour and Lib Dem supporters who still think that devolution benefits Scotland. Well, if continual SNP/Green mismanagement and corruption doesn’t eventually do that then finding that Scottish Labour MPs are powerless in Scotland might just do it.

You do the impossible, you defeat the SNP, you have double the number of Scottish Labour MPs than SNP MPs, but you’re not in charge of anything where you live. It’s all very well having a Scottish parliament for when England votes Tory as a sort of consolation prize, but those Scottish Labour MPs will need to take consolation in only being able to do things in England.

Finally, it is necessary to come up with a viable alternative that gives every UK voter exactly the same chance to influence national politics and local politics. Our present system is a muddle. Wales and Scotland play at being countries but otherwise decline, while being dependent on UK money. England doesn’t have a parliament, but a few mayors instead. Northern Ireland has a parliament, but it never sits.

The task is to make the case for scrapping devolution completely in order to build a political system that is fairer and more representative while maintaining the unity of our country.

We may not be able to win this argument now but work harder and we may be able to win it soon. The argument for devolutions falls if Scottish nationalism falls because they are the same argument.

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