March 24, 2021

Boris got Brexit done. Then Ursula made it cool. We have reached a sort of inner peace as a nation as a result: so what do the original Brexiteers do with themselves now?

With lockdown sceptism having proven itself not very popular with populist voters, another cause presents itself in the form of “devoscepticism”.

Next year marks the 25th anniversary of the referendums that began devolution in Scotland and Wales. The first, and most radical, of the big New Labour reforms has long outlasted New Labour itself, and a quarter of a century on, what have we got to show for it? The devosceptic answer is this: SNP rule in Scotland; and not much of anything in Wales. Devolution has been a disappointment, and a failure.

Just as unionists warned, home rule has empowered nationalists and marginalised unionist parties, leading to one-party state in Edinburgh with all the corruption and incompetence that goes with it.

In those areas where power is devolved, such as education and health, the SNP has performed poorly. Evidence of a Scottish or Welsh culture renaissance is thin on the ground, and the main growth industry associated with the devolved administrations is the growth of government itself. Just as the Eurosceptics of old longed to be rid of the Eurocrats, the devosceptic bugbear is the “devocrat”.

Is it any wonder, then, that a small, but growing, band of devosceptics scent an opportunity here? Yes, they may be few in number — but 20 years ago the same could be said about the early Brexiteers. So could the anti-devolution movement become a serious force?

Politicians aren’t popular, especially those deemed surplus to requirements. Reversing devolution in Scotland and Wales would mean getting rid of 189 MSPs and AMs — plus all the hangers-on, of which there are many.  And public hostility to paying for the apparatus of politics is a potent force. It proved decisive in the 2004 referendum on the creation of a North East regional assembly and the 2011 referendum on electoral reform. Those two paved the way for the biggie: the Brexit referendum.

Already, the devosceptics have a voice in the media: try Googling “devocrat” — a word which no one uses with admiration, but which is already gaining traction just as so much of the language of Euroscepticism helped sow the seed of Brexit.

In May’s elections the anti-devolutionists are also set to establish a political bridgehead. Polls show that the Abolish the Welsh Assembly Party (whose purpose you can probably guess) will win its first seats in the Senedd. “Abolish” is full of former-UKIPers and they’ll be hoping that 2021 is the start of bigger things just as 1999 was for Nigel Farage.

And yet, I fear — or, rather, hope — that the devosceptics are doomed to disappointment. Devoscepticism is not the new Euroscepticism. Look beyond the superficial parallels and it soon becomes apparent that the two causes — and their underlying dynamics — are completely unalike. It also becomes clear that there is no going back on devolution; instead something else needs to be tried to correct the mistakes made by the Blair government.

Let’s start with a point that ought to be obvious, which is that Scottish (and Welsh) separatism is first and foremost a British failure — specifically that of the British political establishment. With great power comes great responsibility — so when millions of people yearn for something as disruptive and painful as leaving the United Kingdom, the responsibility has to lie primarily with those who had — and still have — most of the power.

The devosceptic agenda, however, puts all the focus on the failings of Edinburgh and Cardiff, therefore avoiding the underlying problem. Devolution in its current form has not — as promised — halted the march of Scottish nationalism, but that doesn’t change the fact that the stresses and strains of the Union precede devolution by decades. Unless the devosceptics have anything to say about that, then they don’t have anything to say at all.

Let’s not forget that prior to 1997, there was an explicitly anti-devolution party — called the Conservative Party. You may recall how that worked out for them. From holding half of all Scottish seats in 1955, they went down to zero by 1997 — and zero in Wales too. Even they got the message after that.

In any case, Eurosceptics, of all people, should understand that voters don’t like being ruled from distant places. Westminster was to pre-devolution Scotland and Wales what Brussels was to pre-Brexit Britain. In many ways, it was worse. At least the UK was never under direct rule by a team of ministers headquartered in the Berlaymont. And only some of our laws were decided in the European Parliament.

Also I don’t remember any occasion when the EU trialled its least popular directives in the UK first — unlike Margaret Thatcher’s government, which introduced the hated Poll Tax to Scotland a year before England and Wales. Whatever you think of Scottish separatism, it is a monster of Westminster’s making.

Of course, the parallels are far from exact but, being Eurosceptics, devosceptics ought to have a sense of what it feels like to have your future decided by institutions in which you’re outnumbered by outsiders. What part of “taking back control” don’t they understand?

This is also about the principle of power sharing. We’ve already had eleven years of Conservative government. Given the state of the opposition parties in England it’s likely that we’ll have many years more. Indeed, it’s not impossible that we could see a situation like in Japan where one party governs for decades on end. This might work in a consensus-driven society with a highly unified national culture, but Britain is not either of those things. We are a nation of nations — of different sizes and political predispositions. Such a situation would be torment to most Scots.

Devolution therefore provides a vital safety valve, a mechanism by which the Westminster system can persist but without giving the dominant English party exclusive power over the whole of the UK.

That’s why the boo-word “devocrat” is so ill-judged. Devocrats are in fact democrats. As individuals and as governing parties they are voted in directly by the Scottish and Welsh electorates — and they can be voted out again. They couldn’t be less like the Eurocrats we’ve just freed ourselves from. Whether you like Nicola Sturgeon or not — and I’m about as big a fan as Alex Salmond is — she has democratic legitimacy.

But, of course, for devosceptics that’s the problem. If the SNP secures a majority in May, then the pressure on Westminster to concede another referendum on Scottish independence becomes overwhelming.

Well, so be it. It is completely consistent with the principles of British Euroscepticism to give the people — in this case, the Scottish people — the deciding vote on that most fundamental of democratic questions: who governs? Brexit supporters in the Government, and the London media, can hardly complain if Scottish voters demand that its government carries out their wishes.

If such a vote is what Scotland truly wants, it’s not our place to suppress it. After all, isn’t that what the pro-EU establishment did to a number of countries which voted against them, and what EU supporters in Britain tried to do after the 2016 vote?

There are of course matters to settle about the timing of the referendum, the wording of the question and who can vote. The UK Government should be adamant that the Covid recovery comes first; that the question presents a clear and explicit choice between leaving and staying in the United Kingdom; and that Scots who live outside Scotland should not be disenfranchised. However, the principle of Scottish people deciding Scotland’s future should never be in doubt.

In any case, what’s the alternative? A constitutional ban on independence referendums forever? Lock up the SNP leadership? Force Nicola Sturgeon into exile? This is Britain, not Spain.

We’d do better to follow the Canadian example instead, the only country to democratically neuter a secessionist movement. Back in 1980 the French-speaking province of Quebec held an independence referendum that was defeated. Then a landslide election victory for the Parti Québécois (the equivalent of the SNP) led to second referendum in 1995, but that too was defeated — though more narrowly. At the time, independence for Quebec looked inevitable, the result of unstoppable trends; today, the PQ is in long-term decline, independence is off the political agenda and the province is governed by the centre-right Coalition Avenir Québec.

Perhaps the single worst argument for reversing devolution to Scotland and Wales is that devolution is imperfect and full of contradictions. Well, of course, it is! There’s no such thing as a perfect democracy. The rule of the people, in all their wondrous complexity, will always and everywhere produce messy compromises and inconsistencies.

Those who think we should give up on devolution because we’ve never really solved the West Lothian question remind me of the anti-Brexiteers who relentlessly focus on all the problems caused by leaving the EU. In both cases, they overlook the much greater problem of their preferred alternative. In the case of the continuity Remainers, it would have meant submitting to a sovereignty-destroying superstate. In the case of the devosceptics, it would mean going back to an outdated, over-centralised model of Britain that the people of Scotland and Wales have clearly rejected.

We don’t have to stick with Tony Blair’s botch job, and there are other ways of decentralising a country. We could learn a thing or too from the Swiss, for instance — who have been at this lark for a lot longer than we have. Without a common language to unite them, they’ve nevertheless held their confederation together for centuries — and they’ve done it through fiercely-defended localism and direct democracy.

A system of cantons with local responsibility for their finances could suit the nations of the UK very well. Each area could come together with other areas as they saw fit — so that our governing institutions could emerge from the bottom-up instead of being determined by Westminster.

But that’s just one option. The key point is that if you believe that our model of devolution doesn’t work, then you need a positive vision to put in its place, not some unloved and long-discarded ancien regime that can never be brought back. Devolution can and should be re-done, but it can never be undone.