29 January 2021

Let’s stop the devolution blame game and work on a British way forward

By Eddie Barnes

Earlier this week, Henry Hill delivered a robust critique of what he termed Scotland’s “devolutionaries” – of whom I’m one, I suppose. I work for the thinktank Our Scottish Future, which wants to see reforms of the UK to encourage greater co-operation across the country. These ideas were spelled out a few days ago by the think-tank’s founder, Gordon Brown. It’s fair to say Henry took a rather dim view.

Henry ended his piece by calling for ‘devocrats’ to admit our faults. The famous comments made by George Robertson 25 years ago, that “devolution would kill nationalism stone dead” hangs around their necks. Wouldn’t it show some humility if we finally accepted they had been flat out wrong?

OK, Henry, I’ll admit it – the devocrats were flat-out wrong.

That devolution has provided the SNP with a platform from which to push their vision of an independent Scotland is a simple point of fact. Michael Forsyth and Tam Dalyell were right. Alex Salmond was right, correctly seeing how a Scottish Parliament would provide the SNP with the platform it needed, and lacked on the green benches of Westminster. Devophiles can, I suppose, argue the counter-factual and talk up a world in which a Scottish Parliament wasn’t created, to claim that would have led to more support for secession. But nobody knows. All we do know is that devolution was introduced, has given the SNP a huge leg-up, and taken them from the margins of Scottish politics to its front and centre.

So if devolution was only ever meant to be an experiment in “killing nationalism” then let’s all agree it has conclusively failed. But, of course, it wasn’t. I was not around in the 80s and 90s when the campaign for devolution was running hard, but veterans from that time point out it was never pursued as a way to head off nationalism. Rather devolution was seen as a way, across partisans of all parties (including a significant number of Tories) to – as one campaigner puts it – “remedy the position whereby government played a part in public life never imagined in 1707, yet Scotland continued to have its own law but not its own legislature”.

Politics, of course, played a part, specifically, the desire on the left to provide against Thatcherism, but there was a principle here. It was that a nation like Scotland, while remaining part of the British family, should be able to take markedly different decisions from Westminster, and have some democratic accountability around them. The Parliament was created to fill that hole.

This it has done. And that enshrining principle of autonomous Scottish decision making and greater democratic accountability is one that voters in Scotland overwhelmingly support. Despite rocky beginnings, people in Scotland have consistently declared their approval for devolution. Scots like it still, and are proud of the parliament they voted for.

If democracy is about making people feel in touch with their decision-makers, and giving them a sense of accountability, then devolution has been a success.  Of course, the policy agenda should be bolder – and our thinktank is planning to set out our own priorities for action over the coming weeks. But that lack of ambition isn’t devolution’s fault, it’s down to the conservatism of Scotland’s political establishment.

So rather than bemoan devolution as if the Union is already a dead duck, I’d argue that the delivery and the development of the Scottish Parliament is something Unionists should be proud of. It has demonstrated we are a nation keen to reflect our multi-national character. It suggests we’re a country still trying to push power down and out to communities across the country.

The appeal of nationalism in Scotland – and the growing restlessness of regional leaders in England and in Wales – now means we need to see more work done to coordinate and manage that effort. We need to improve the governing infrastructure of the UK. We need to improve the relationship between the centre and the new devolved nations and regions, with new institutions.

This isn’t another “concession” to the Scots by “appeasers”, as we keep being told. Nor is it about handing more powers to the Scottish Government, as has been done in the past. It’s simply a suggestion we build a better, more responsive, system than the one we have right now.

In his piece, Henry argues that it’s a fool’s errand to seek to improve this system when you’re faced with a nationalist administration which only acts in bad faith. I couldn’t disagree more. Only working with devolved administrations you agree with strikes me as a pretty shallow form of Unionism. It’s precisely by seeking to work better with your opponents in Edinburgh or Cardiff that the government of the UK demonstrates its good faith in the Union, and its commitment to making it work.

Nor is it just a matter of constitutional good practice. Better working arrangements on, for example, vaccine delivery and testing matters to me and my family in Glasgow a great deal just now.

The United Kingdom should be proud of the devolved institutions it has created across the nation over the last 25 years. We should always be seeking to improve the way our country is run, with better mechanisms to promote cooperation, more structured ways to resolve disputes, and a more inclusive political system. None of us has a monopoly of wisdom on how this might be achieved, hence the reason a Commission on the Union should be convened.

The blame game is a backward-looking and ultimately futile sport. Let’s instead imagine a new British way forward.

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Eddie Barnes is Project Manager at Our Scottish Future.

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