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Artillery Row

Stopping the devolution ratchet

More devolution will not solve the worst consequences of devolution

The art of politics is listening to the voters enough to prevent revolution and ignoring them enough to prevent democracy. In this regard, Scotland’s nominally pro-UK parties are political artists of the finest calibre. They have latterly come to acknowledge discontent among their voters with the governance of Scotland, but they strenuously resist the proposition that this reflects scepticism about devolution, the Blair-era constitutional experiment in dissuading separatism by making Scotland more separate. Merely to wonder if this endeavour has gone entirely to plan is to invite derision from the Scottish establishment, and no wonder, for no one has done as well out of devolution as that establishment. 

Opinions among the electorate are more mixed. A new poll from Norstat (formerly Panelbase) shows only 50 per cent of voters consider devolution to have been good for Scotland, while 26 per cent believe it has been bad for the country and a further fifth of the public doesn’t know. Half (49 per cent) of those who voted “No” in the 2014 independence referendum now have an unfavourable opinion of devolution. Disillusionment is strongest among Leave voters (49 per cent), over-75s (51 per cent), and Conservatives (59 per cent).

Since I’m about to tell you that this vindicates devosceptics like me, I should say that this might not vindicate devosceptics like me. Noting that the discontent among older voters is at odds with the responses from other age groups, Professor Ailsa Henderson of Edinburgh University told the Sunday Times: “This suggests support is in a very healthy place and particularly so among those who came of political age after the parliament opened.” Professor Henderson is one of the foremost political scientists in Scotland, so if she says things are looking up for devolution, I wouldn’t venture to contradict her. 

Even so, one in four Scots stating that their system of government is bad for their country is, I would suggest, a significant finding. Nor is lack of enthusiasm for devolution limited to Brexiteers, older voters and Tories. Thirty-seven per cent of Labour and 33 per cent of Lib Dem voters say it has been bad for Scotland. Women are marginally less positive than men, 16 to 24-year-olds 11 points less positive than 25 to 34-year-olds, and C2DE voters 12 points less positive than those in the ABC1 cohort. Roughly one-third of each of these demographics don’t know whether devolution has been good or bad. 

Scotland as a whole has not come to regret devolution, but when only half of the country thinks it has been a good thing, there is plainly something going on. Perhaps not full-blooded devoscepticism, but what we might call devolution fatigue. A section of the Scottish electorate, including some who will have voted for it in 1997, cannot see devolution working for them. That ought to worry devolutionists. 

Devolution is in its 25th year but if there are plans for fanfare and parades, I’ve yet to hear about them. The SNP has every reason to celebrate, for devolution gave them their first taste of executive power and has made them the natural party of government in Scotland. It brought them tantalisingly close to independence in 2014 and furnished them with a vast bureaucracy which they have fashioned into a battering ram, using the UK state to undermine the UK state. 

Their opponents have no cause for joy. The SNP’s time in government has been marked by near constant policy failure and, more recently, incessant scandal. The party has presided over a slump in education standards and habitually fails to meet its “legally binding” health targets. A straightforward ferry procurement has resulted in ballooning costs, a nationalised shipyard and no ferries five years after the deadline. A flagship recycling scheme collapsed at the eleventh hour, a fishing ban was touted then withdrawn amid backlash, and a law allowing 16 year olds to change their legal sex without the involvement of a doctor had to be blocked by Westminster. 

A state guardian for every child, an independence referendum without Westminster’s approval and a blanket ban on public worship during Covid are just some of the policy-making adventures that have ended adversely in a courtroom. The SNP is being criminally probed over the fate of £667,000 in donations. A sexual harassment investigation into Alex Salmond was found to be unlawful and Sturgeon was deemed to have given an ‘inaccurate’ account to the subsequent parliamentary inquiry. Meanwhile, the Covid inquiry has heard how Sturgeon and her senior ministers and officials deleted their pandemic-era WhatsApp messages and ran the country from unminuted meetings of a secretive body called “Gold Command”. 

After 17 years of such governance, the SNP’s opponents have only just begun to make a dent in the party’s polling numbers, and not an especially impressive one at that. With a few honourable exceptions, you could replace the opposition benches at Holyrood with a few dozen house-trained dachshunds and scrutiny of the Scottish Government would measurably improve. It is not simply that the Conservatives and Labour have consistently failed to hold the Nationalists accountable. They have refused to acknowledge how much of the problem can be traced back to the original sin of devolution. 

When it pledged a referendum on a Scottish Parliament in its 1997 manifesto, Labour vowed: “The Union will be strengthened and the threat of separatism removed.” Behold their success. There will be voters at the next Holyrood elections who were born into an SNP-run Scotland and have never known anything else. According to the most recent polling, 48 per cent of 16 to 24-year-olds define their identity as “Scottish, not British”. A January poll for Survation confirmed the rapid greying of the pro-Union vote, with over-55s the only age group to produce a majority for No. If only under-45s had the vote, “Yes” would not only win a referendum, it would win in a two-to-one landslide. And while the Supreme Court may have rejected Sturgeon’s proposal for a unilateral referendum, the Scottish Government has been finding other ways to weaken the British state, not least in its open pursuit of a separate Scottish foreign policy. 

The nationalists want to lead Scotland to Independence while the devolutionists would prefer to stop at the motorway services on the outskirts of Independence

Every now and then, Labour catches a glimpse of just how much devolution has sapped the political unity of the UK and, in a panic, sends for Gordon Brown, who invariably recommends another jigger of the poison marked “more powers”. The devolutionist’s ratchet, the belief that the only answer to the constitutional harm wrought by devolution is more devolution, is not restricted to Labour. It was, after all, a Conservative government that devolved not one but two tranches of additional powers in 2012 and 2016, even chucking in a new clause in the Scotland Act declaring the Edinburgh parliament “a permanent part of the United Kingdom’s constitutional arrangements”. Here we see the fundamental dividing line in Scottish politics. The nationalists want to lead Scotland to Independence while the devolutionists would prefer to stop at the motorway services on the outskirts of Independence. 

Evidence of devolution fatigue among half their voters will prompt not a skerrick of change from the Conservatives, Labour or the Lib Dems, all three of which should be understood as devolutionist rather than Unionist parties. Yet they are, I would suggest, very bad devolutionists, for a good devolutionist would recognise the faults in the current arrangements and draw up appropriate reforms. It wouldn’t have to be anything especially radical. They could add a single line to the Scotland Act: “The Scottish Ministers shall not expend public resources in relation to reserved matters.” The constitutional pressure would ease and Scottish Ministers would be forced to focus on bread-and-butter affairs. Yet even an achingly modest tweak such as that would have your average Tory or Labour politician breaking out in a cold sweat. These people would devolve their own backbone if they had one. 

After 25 uninspiring years, devolution is likely here to stay, but that makes reform all the more imperative. If the Conservatives and Labour refuse to accept that, they should engage another art of politics: reading polls. When 75 per cent of “Yes” voters feel positive about devolution but only 28 per cent of “No” voters feel the same way, it tells you something has gone wrong. Unionist voters can see that, even if devolutionist politicians can’t. 

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