17 November 2020

Boris is quite right – devolution has been a disaster


Boris Johnson has already started rowing back from his extraordinary criticism of devolution of yesterday. But it probably doesn’t matter.

By speaking aloud the heresy that it has been “a disaster north of the border” and “Tony Blair’s biggest mistake”, the Prime Minister has broken a spell more than two decades in the weaving. Devoscepticism now has sanction from the very top.

To understand why this has happened, one need look no further than the objections. For all the outrage at Johnson, vanishingly few of his critics rest their complaints on the idea that devolution has actually worked.

For the true believers, the preferred option seems to be doubling down yet again. Now the break-up of the Union is not only not the fault of the devolutionaries who have been in sole charge of unionist ‘strategy’ since 1997, it’s not even the fault of the Scottish National Party. No, the real culprits are the almost completely marginalised devosceptics, undermining the whole thing with their bad thoughts. (It goes without saying that these devosceptics must also be ‘London-based’. The wilful erasure of devosceptic sentiment in Scotland and Wales is important if one wishes to conceive of ‘Scotland’ and ‘Wales’ as unified wholes which can be pitched against ‘London’.)

But it’s the half-hearted efforts of everyone else that are really telling. Here’s Adam Tomkins, one of the serious constitutional thinkers on the Scottish Conservative benches at Holyrood:

“Has devolution been a success? For the Scottish economy? No. For Scottish education? No. For tackling Scottish drug deaths? No. But the answer is not to attack devolution. It’s to attack those who’ve been running it — the SNP.”

Not exactly the stuff of the barricades, is it? And this is a trend. When Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross recently hit out at devosceptic colleagues in a speech, it struck me then that he didn’t root this criticism in any pretence that devolution was a good thing, merely that it was not something they could do anything about.

In Wales, it’s a similar story. Even cheerleaders for the Senedd welcomed its 20-year anniversary by noting the lack of practical improvements it has delivered (it would be truer, on health and education, to speak of damage wrought), praising instead the spiritual and cultural impact i.e. the devocracy it has spawned.

In a recent CapX piece, one Welsh author argued that the very act of criticising the devolved government damaged the Union. When Michael Gove had the temerity to compare Welsh and English school outcomes when Education Secretary, the Labour administration in Cardiff Bay spluttered about “invincible colonial attitudes”. Such is the brittleness of the devolutionary case.

The Welsh Tories, meanwhile, have fallen back on the same insistence that devolution would work, if only they were in charge. Notwithstanding that this is to commit the same crime as New Labour – designing a constitution which only functions if one party is in charge – the electoral odds of the Conservatives forming a government in either Edinburgh or Cardiff are so long that the practical difference between ‘devolution will work under Tory management’ and ‘devolution doesn’t work’ is virtually non-existent.

For all that ‘Johnson’ and ‘Brexit’ will be blamed, handy scapegoats that they are, in truth this dam was always going to burst sooner or later. We are now more than 20 years into the devolution project, and that means that there is both mounting evidence of its failures and more and more unionists coming of age who are, bluntly, not implicated in the disaster.

As I noted in my recent essay for These Islands, devolution’s advocates today are seldom drawing the case for more of it as a conclusion from the evidence. It is instead a premise from which they approach the evidence, justified by the wholly unfalsifiable but increasingly implausible insistence that things would always have been worse if we’d actually stood up to the separatists at some point.

In this view the arc of history may be long but it must bend towards vindication for mid-90s constitutional tinkerers, no matter how absurd a parabola that traces through the actual evidence of their handiwork. The floating of ever more bizarre solutions – confederalism, an English Parliament, and so on – make much more sense if re-imagined as efforts to salvage a cherished orthodoxy from the onslaught of experience.

The rise of devoscepticism is in part, I think, simply a product of a rising generation of unionists opting out of this ceaseless and perhaps somewhat demeaning exercise in magical thinking.

Whatever the downsides of holding this position (on which more below), it at least liberates one to describe observable constitutional cause-and-effect directly. Devosceptics say this or that concession won’t help and then watch it not help. Devolutionaries insist that this or that concession will fix things and then produce increasingly esoteric explanations for why it didn’t – but the next one will.

Devolution has played out the way its sternest critics predicted. As Tam Dalyell said, its consequences were “predictable and predicted, foreseeable and foreseen”. Advocates of devolution have done well to memory-hole this for as long as they have, but it is much easier to ignore far-sighted but unfashionable analysis than fulfilled prophecy.

Any eruption of devosceptic sentiment will panic those girding themselves for an imminent re-run of the 2014 referendum, and not without reason. They have their data, and it suggests that victory in such a vote lies through the construction of some sort of federal dreamland. Having the Prime Minister running around describing reality directly – handing out red pills, to borrow the metaphor du jour – will not help that effort.

The problem is that a growing number of unionists both think that “more devo… to halt the SNP’s indy poll surge” is a failed strategy, and that there is more to their cause than the continued technical existence of anything calling itself the ‘United Kingdom’. They are unenthused at the prospect of fighting for a threadbare confederation, even if they thought that such a state would endure, which many don’t.

But their opponents may be right that just such a proposition would be necessary to win an imminent referendum – which is one more reason the Government should not grant one. Time to start rehearsing the arguments. Tam guide us

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Henry Hill is Assistant Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.