Picture credit: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Artillery Row

Devolution has been a disaster

SNP incompetence is a feature of the system and not a bug

Another week, another terrible Scottish law — this time, it’s the SNP’s Hate Crime and Public Order Act that’s in the spotlight. The new legislation has drawn criticism from the likes of JK Rowling and Elon Musk, who have rightly condemned the Act’s vague and expansive definition of “hate crime”. 

So far, so standard — the Hate Crime Act isn’t the first dodgy bit of law-making to ooze its way out of Holyrood. Last year, it was the Scottish Government’s proposed reforms to gender recognition rules which provoked outrage from gender-critical feminists and unionists alike; before that, it was their heavy-handed Covid response, and the murky investigation into former First Minister Alex Salmond. Like clockwork, conservative commentators in London take to their columns to crusade against whatever the SNP is up to, each new infraction lending credence to their narratives about the madness of separatism. 

What’s striking about all of these campaigns is that the Scottish Government’s detractors rarely seem willing to address the problem at its root. Instead of quibbling over individual laws, critics of the SNP should be working to scrap the whole rotten structure. 

So, why don’t they? Perhaps it’s because, in a political culture where memories are so frightfully short, it’s easy to forget how recently our devolution settlement came about. For generations, the constitutional jewel in the British crown was our all-powerful Westminster Parliament. Unfettered by excessive checks on its power, it served as a remarkably effective conduit for those with the will to action — a truly national legislature accountable only to the King and to the people. 

Yet over the past thirty years, we have thrown away this untrammelled power of action, hoodwinked by modish ideas about the value of decentralised government. Blairites and Cameronites alike insist, with very little evidence, that ever-more devolution is better for democracy, for the economy, and for the Union. That’s certainly what we were told when the Scottish Parliament was established in 1998, and when further powers were devolved in 2012 and 2016.

In fact, there is no reason to believe that devolution has produced better outcomes for Scotland. At the same time, the competing mandates of Westminster and Holyrood make it increasingly difficult for our national government to govern the whole nation. Scotland’s educational outcomes lag far behind those in England, mismanagement of public contracts has seen the cost of major infrastructure projects rise rapidly, and according to Ipsos Scotland, just a quarter of Scots think that the SNP has done a good job of managing the economy.

Meanwhile, the Scottish Government spends millions of taxpayer pounds on vanity projects, including a steady stream of pro-independence propaganda. Ironically, given the Scottish Government’s dismal financial record, a sizeable chunk of that money is drawn from English taxpayers. Nowhere but Britain would a government levy taxes on one region of the country in order to subsidise a separatist movement in another. 

So why, exactly, has devolution produced such dreadful results? 

Scotland’s best and brightest — whether in politics, administration, or journalism — are often drawn down to England

It’s partly a human capital problem. Scotland’s best and brightest — whether in politics, administration, or journalism — are often drawn down to England, leaving the devolved government up in Edinburgh to be staffed, managed, and scrutinised by glorified local officials. Scotland’s native media infrastructure is woefully ill-suited to probing the activities of a Parliament that exercises real power over complex areas of policy — and at the end of the day, if things go wrong, the Scottish Government can always blame Westminster. After all, it is still the man in London who — theoretically — holds the purse strings. 

All the while, the SNP is incentivised to stamp its feet, shake its fists, and insist that more responsibilities be devolved. Why cooperate with Westminster, when recent history shows that intransigence and grandstanding is rewarded with more money and more power? When it has that power, nationalists are incentivised to exercise it as much as possible, with each policy divergence from the rest of the UK further entrenching the idea that the Scots ought to go their own way. Every little deviation is a step closer to independence. 

This is the perverse incentive structure that has led the Scottish Government to impose an ever-more progressive dogma on gender, ever-more restrictions on free speech and ever-more regulation on businesses — pithy op-eds about the SNP’s latest mad vanity projects won’t change that.

For proof that the deficiencies of Scottish devolution aren’t the result of some unique failing in the Pictish temperament, look no further than Wales. The same results abound in Cymru, now a land of 20 miles-per-hour speed limits, restrictive minimum alcohol pricing, and the most aggressively race-baiting history curriculum in Europe. Here be dragons. 

For posterity, the sui generis case of Northern Ireland — which has enjoyed on-and-off self-rule since partition in 1921 — is a little different. Here, it is political gridlock and intercommunal tensions which drive inaction and economic stagnation. Let’s save a full-throated skewering of the post-GFA settlement in Ulster for another time. 

8.6 million British subjects are stuck under the thumb of the middle-aged, middle-brow middle managers

So where does that leave us? 8.6 million British subjects are stuck under the thumb of the middle-aged, middle-brow middle managers at Holyrood and Cardiff Bay, and there they shall remain until somebody in Westminster develops the backbone needed to challenge the Blairite constitutional settlement. It’s time to free our countrymen from the tyranny of the McMafia, and scrap devolution altogether.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover