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Westminster is devolving itself out of existence Humza Yousaf was the product of Britain's fragmentation


May 10, 2024   7 mins

In 1707, union with Scotland was the project of the Whigs, and Humza Yousaf’s unlikely fall from power last month is a vindication of their pet theory of history. Whig history: the idea that events are running irresistibly in one direction.

Or at least a kind of Whig history. It — infamously — relied on grand narratives. Here is one. In the Middle Ages, England made a precocious finish to what we might call the story of early modernity. It had a single language; a single legal code; central government; national feeling; no great magnates; no municipal liberties; no regional distinctions that mattered. There was no rigmarole of provincial Diets, as was the style almost everywhere else. There was one organ, Westminster, where people could speak of a national interest that was felt as keenly in Scunthorpe as in London. These were legislators, not petitioners pleading the case of a town, or a guild.

The logical next step for this hot-housed national England was to round out the polity, incorporating the rest of the island to prevent it being used as a “backdoor” by its rivals. The unification of England meant, inescapably, the unification of Great Britain. Everything seemed to be pulling in this direction. The Scottish aristocracy was Norman. The Lowlanders, great bulk of the country’s population, were Anglo-Saxons. The Reformation had given the people of Great Britain a common religion (mostly), and, still more, a common set of enemies.

That decision, in 1707, to take the plunge for full parliamentary union simply made sense. Sure, much of it was down to self-interest. But it was a self-interest that presupposed a common one. The sectarian difference, dowdy and obscure by continental standards even during the time of Oliver Cromwell, was becoming even less important. Scottish merchants declared that the internal customs barriers with England were intolerable — barriers which were still the European norm well into the 19th century. Nationhood had arrived, and required only its formal consummation.

If the unity of the island of Great Britain seemed in some way preordained, it still feels that way. Modern technology means that centralised rule is easier than ever. The confessional divide between England and Scotland has vanished. So too has the economic one: the choice is no longer, as it was in the dog days of Churchill’s chancellorship, between the shipbuilders of the Clyde and the City of London. Scotland and England both are now sustained by high finance; luxury goods; education; tourism. The departure from the European single market has made the British single market more important than ever.

And yet, there has been a concerted effort to throw the tide of history into reverse. Since the Scottish referendum in 2014, it has become common to say that Great Britain is an artifice with no real historical existence. But that rupture — devolution, Scottish and otherwise — is part of a particular idea of authority that has become hegemonic over the past 25 years.

The administration that came to power in 1997 was decentralist and localist in its assumptions. It did not like the idea of a powerful central metropolis in London. It did not like Parliament, with its debates, its majorities, and its ability to make and unmake any law — which threatened new unfalsifiable ideas of human rights. New Labour opposed majorities, executive power, and central government. No tradition of distributed power existed in Britain, so it would invent one. So was born the Supreme Court and the devolved assemblies, both practically free from Parliament’s writ, and which would make endless bartering between claims of right the legerdemain of politics, not popular appeals, or debates.

That idea soon became bipartisan. As a political programme, it preferred the local and familiar to the remote and metropolitan. It wanted politicians to “stop arguing” and come to an agreement. It distrusted Power, and sought to set things up in such a way that no one could exercise it over anyone else — except over the common people. It was, as George Orwell once wrote of Swift, “despising authority while disbelieving in liberty”.

Modern Scottish nationalism is not separable from this programme of decentralism. The two are symbiotic. Devolution created a strange and subsidised layer of local politicians and bureaucrats, who, having no real reason for their existence, could do little else but play to provincial rights and an exaggerated Scottishness as a gambit for funding and jobs. Westminster, won for the cause of sham provincial liberties long ago, always obliged. As national life was purposefully fractured, rule from London began — completely by default — to seem like a foreign imposition.

As the entirely self-created “crisis of Union” began to mount in 2014, Westminster could answer only with yet more decentralisation. Everything about London’s response to the separatist threat presupposed that a Scottish nation already existed, and that a British one did not.

The latest invocation of local rights was that Scotland had recently been getting governments and policies it had not voted for (so had, say, Cambridge). When a set of voters is unhappy, the usual course is to change things around to appease them — as Rishi Sunak is now attempting in the Red Wall. Instead, London’s response was a promise to shield them from the English electorate: “The Vow”. Reform of public services had been the main aim of David Cameron’s premiership, but now these public services were to be devolved entirely. In his heart of hearts, the prime minister did not believe that his mandate from the British people gave him any real right to govern Scotland.

The Vow, and the further devolution that followed, was an avowal that a British body politic did not and should not exist. London conceded every premise of the SNP. But these were its own premises. For its part, while the SNP was not the creature of London, at every turn it consented to play the role marked out for it. In the years that followed the referendum, Nicola Sturgeon became a permanent fixture of national life, and offered a general running commentary on British affairs. She was acting the part cast for her by London: a stern and forthright provincial critic of central excess. Unlike in Catalonia, or Quebec, there was never any serious talk of unilateral secession, even as parliamentary government in London virtually collapsed between 2017-19.

The implicit relationship became clearer during Humza Yousaf’s year in power. One of his first announcements was that no second referendum would be pursued until a “sustained majority” emerged for one. This was, in practice, a way to adjourn the idea forever. In his resignation speech, Yousaf warned of the threat of populism. What? Scottish nationalism’s aim is to break up the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland: a permanent member of the UN security council, a stately member of the international system, and a nuclear power. It is, ostensibly, one of the most populistic causes on the planet. But that is no longer its way. To its leadership, at least, Scottish nationalism is not for Scotland, merely against majoritarian democracy in Britain.

But this dependence on patronage and concession made the SNP’s position too precarious. Having forsworn demagogy, it could now only petition Westminster to carry through its own project by degrees. Up till now, it had always found a receptive audience. But were even the feeblest of unionism ever to emerge in London, it would be out of road.

So it proved. After 2016, London took the bold and daring step of not allowing the SNP to hold another referendum at the time of its choosing and with its own gerrymandered franchise. This threw the party into a crisis from which it never fully recovered. The end, when it came last year, was suitably anticlimactic. Scottish nationalism, as practised, did not survive contact with a unitary British state that was prepared to take even the smallest of steps to preserve itself; and it perished over a trifle. The decision to veto the Gender Recognition (Scotland) Bill in January 2023 was a humdrum affair, entirely normal under any federal or pseudo-federal structure. But it has probably buried the SNP for a generation.

Buried, but dormant. In Westminster, devolution remains the solution to all political problems, and has indeed been given energy anew by recent events. Britain’s governing classes now believe that devolution is the best bar to the populist threat. They could not have been more clear about this: every anti-establishment vote from the British people is interpreted as, really, an inchoate cry against London, and for local autonomy. People in Teesside did not truly want lower immigration, it was said — only an Assembly of the North East, and a Mayor.

Rather than any change of course, Britain’s rulers have answered populism with devolution: to reroute and blunt public anger at the direction of national policy; and, still more, to break up the unified British body politic that had just delivered those results. It is proposed to dismember an ancient constitutional polity and hand over the fragments to a series of local fanatics and workaday crooks, in exchange for the assurance that these people will preserve the country from populism.

“Rather than any change of course, Britain’s rulers have answered populism with devolution”

For their part, the British people have been vaguely bewildered by devolution. For all that is made of a clamour for regional identity and local belonging, the mandates for the new devolved assemblies and metro mayors have been derisory. The recent election for Mayor of the North East had a turnout of 31%; for the Mayor of York and North Yorkshire it was 29.89%. In May of 2022, the people of Bristol voted to abolish their Mayor and return to the old system of council oligarchy. The Liverpool mayoralty has collapsed in scandal. London politics only really exists insofar as there have been attempts to artificially wall it off from the rest of southern England: the battle over Ulez being the case in point.

Devolution, as a means to bar the way to populism, may yet reawaken Scottish nationalism. Gordon Brown’s plan for a new federal constitution, A New Britain, includes such howlers as giving the Scottish Government the ability to conclude its own international treaties. These proposals are already being watered down, and are unlikely to be adopted in full. But they show a clear direction of travel — even as Scottish separatism itself starts to sputter out. The end of the British union, if it comes, will have been entirely self-inflicted.

More than anything else, it will be a tragedy. Great Britain was created as a vehicle to unleash the energies of two almost uniquely talented peoples: people who had much in common anyway, but were being forever side-tracked by a tedious and endless cousins’ war. Union seemed to make everything young again. Union meant that the Scottish and the English could turn outwards. They pounced on the world with a boyish enthusiasm unequalled since the days of Alexander.

Devolution aims to bring this grand enterprise to an end. It offers — demands — a slower pace of life for the island and its people. The United Kingdom was created to do Something. One gets the sense that Decentralised Britain — introverted, particular, ruminating — is by design meant to do nothing.


Travis Aaroe is a freelance writer


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Paul MacDonnell
Paul MacDonnell
1 month ago

This is a glorious article. Wonderful—and on the money.

Judy Englander
Judy Englander
1 month ago

Seconded.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
1 month ago

UnHerd giving a platform to great new voices like the author, is the reason I subscribe. Well done!

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
1 month ago

Divide and rule. The goal, unspoken and perhaps even unrecognized, is to slough off all the tedious responsibilities of governmental office while retaining all of the perks: London drinks the champagne while Burnham-on-Sea cleans the gutters.

Peter Principle
Peter Principle
1 month ago

The article describes the parliamentarians of the middle ages thus: “These were legislators, not petitioners pleading the case of a town, or a guild.” Actually, in those days the King only called a parliament when he wanted to raise taxes and the parliamentarians, as a quid pro quo, used the parliament as an opportunity to present petitions to the King. Their function was not focussed on legislation.

Stuart Bennett
Stuart Bennett
1 month ago

I thought it was a stupid idea at the time in 97’ when I was only 17. Not a fleshed out thought just a passing hunch. All it’s done is cost money and create division.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
1 month ago

There’s a sense, in this essay as in the one published alongside it regarding the US system of government, of reflection upon post-mature institutions; that is, settlements that have had their heyday and can now be looked at from a different perspective.

As the world changes with advancing technologies and becomes ever more complex, there’s a tendency to seek certainty, hence the appetite for authoritarianism, whether political or cultural. It’d be remiss to think that our established way of doing things at national level will continue to serve us, as in the past. There’s a quest for a new settlement, and reflecting on how we’ve acheived this in the past doesn’t necessarily point us towards how we might repurpose institutions and ancient kingdoms (in the UK) or states (US) to that end.

What it does do is identify how we got here via a perspective only possible very recently, which also tells us that yes, of course our political settlements evolve, and will do do again.

Peter Principle
Peter Principle
1 month ago

The Barnett Formula is the basis for how much dosh the UK treasury hands over to Scotland. Per capita, 17% more is spent in Scotland, compared to England. The Scottish government uses a lot of the extra money for giveaways that cannot be afforded in England: tuition fees, prescriptions, etc. The poblem is that a lot of Scots believe that the giveaways are the magical result of devolution and that there could be even more magical giveaways if there is independence. So the independence aspiration is more like a Cargo Cult than a movement based on Realpolitik. OK, it would be political dynamite to scrap the Barnett Formula. But it would be a reality jolt.

j watson
j watson
1 month ago

Is though the Barnett formula just an attempt at a benign mitigation that recognises the British economy invests much more in certain areas than others – i.e the South? We can’t all live in the South can we, so would national cohesion be strengthened by an even greater geographical imbalance in rich and poor?
Now whether the extra per capita used as wisely as it could be a separate debate.

Peter Principle
Peter Principle
1 month ago
Reply to  j watson

I concur with all of your assertions. The problem is that spending the Barnett “surplus” on giveaways does nothing to address the underlying problem of economic imbalance. The SNP takes the credit for the giveaways and blames Westminster for the dire state of the economy. Meanwhile, the SNP government has used its devolved privilege of raising the rate of income tax in Scotland so that it has even more money to give away.

John Galt Was Correct
John Galt Was Correct
1 month ago

I thought Scotland as a whole was a positive net contributor to the UK? It’s parts of NW England that need a good sorting out. Driving around Greater Manchester is like hopping from one OK area to another via a load of ghettos.

R Wright
R Wright
1 month ago

No. Scotland overall is a net drain on the Exchequer.

j watson
j watson
1 month ago
Reply to  R Wright

What is a drain on the UK is a massively imbalanced economy and neoliberalism almost pauperising large chunks of our population whilst a small cohort get ever richer.

nadnadnerb
nadnadnerb
1 month ago

No, Aberdeen (oil and gas) and Edinburgh (finance) were the only net contributors to the UK and also to Scotland.

Aberdeen also for many years was the only city north of Cambridge in the top twenty innovations index (number of patents per head, the trurst indication of economic growth)

Now guess which two industries the SNP/Labour/Greens complex in both UK and Scottish governments are most antagonistic and kleptocratic to?

Jeff Butcher
Jeff Butcher
1 month ago
Reply to  j watson

‘The South’ is a big place – come to Catford or Camelford and show me where all the economic investment is cause I can’t see it

j watson
j watson
1 month ago
Reply to  Jeff Butcher

Indeed there are pockets aren’t there. But also you understand the general point too and I think most would agree it holds.
Catford actually increasingly gentrified, but Cornwall certainly, if you put aside the 2nd Home owners, one of our poorest regions. Interesting they haven’t pushed for more devolution as historically Cornwall had quite a separate identity for centuries. Maybe the fact it has such seasonal changes in population a factor?

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
1 month ago
Reply to  j watson

Wff he at about the north of England then?
Why no Barnet formula for them?

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
1 month ago

Just do it. Then you will see if there is any fellow feeling besides “thanks for the bribe”.

j watson
j watson
1 month ago

I lean towards the argument that devolution ain’t all it’s cracked up to be and can create more problems than it solves.
However I’m not sure the Author nails what’s driving the case. His Article is silent on the way the British economy developed with a major imbalance between North and South and how neo-liberalism further accelerated this. This is at the core of the problem. Correct this and much of the argument could dissipate. The debate then centres on whether regeneration can only occur with more local autonomy and perhaps stronger municipalism did play some role in the past that we have lost. Nonetheless when the North thrived, including Scotland, it wasn’t just because of stronger municipalism. Yet the failure to address the structural imbalance in the British economy will lead many to believe it should be tried with more vigour.

Chris Whybrow
Chris Whybrow
1 month ago

Eh. Let the Scots have independence. Makes no difference to me.

R Wright
R Wright
1 month ago

“Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go.”

Charlie Dibsdale
Charlie Dibsdale
1 month ago

devolution, one of Blair’s catastrophic changes. For the extreme left-wing devolution is an attack on the nation-state (as in the UK) and after 40 years of UK Parliament hiding behind the EU technocracy making decisions on our behalf we end up with an explosion of Quangos, devolution, and uncontrolled immigration. This has all been devolving power from Parliament and emasculating it from proper leadership and effective governance. Blair did so much damage, and the Con-socialists have merely perpetuated it. I do not see this being addressed with the current set of numpties in parliament today.

Bruce Thorne
Bruce Thorne
1 month ago

As an English-identifying Londoner with Scottish parents, and having lived in Scotland as an adult, the attitudes of this whole article are English, English, English, English, English….
317 years of union and my fellow countrymen still think like this. This is one reason why the union is breaking apart. Spend some time in Scotland.
And by the way, I wonder if the economic and social legacies of the current UK govt’s 14 years in power has any role…

Derek Hilling
Derek Hilling
1 month ago
Reply to  Bruce Thorne

I disagree that the article is English, English etc.
On the contrary it is British, British, British, because so many of the British in England take the view that England = Britain.
As an Englishman, with a very developed sense of my ‘national identity’, I do NOT think that Britain and England are the same thing; and so I feel very aggrieved that devolution has completely ignored the English people and their country – ENGLAND.
What devolution has done to England is not to unite a nation but to divide and fragment it, precisely because the British hate England. This had led the English to now even doubt their own existence. I use as evidence for this the national identity statistics from 2011 and 2021 census.
In 2011, outside of the major urban conurbations, 67% of people in England identified as ‘English’, whereas by 2021 the equivalent figure had dropped to below 25%.
It seems that the British hope to eradicate the English by design. It is ok to be Welsh or Scottish but don’t mention England. The whole British ethos is to ignore England except when denigrating it. I give a small example from all the supermarket chains – Scottish Beef, Welsh Lamb but British Pork. Yet the vast majority of pork produced in UK is reared in England.
I can only hope that the English wake-up to their cultural annihilation by the British, before it is too late.

richard jones
richard jones
1 month ago

It’s possible that enthusiasm for Scottish independence increased in the years leading up to the referendum because of the general growth of identity politics. Scotland was fertile ground for this as, for whatever reason, it no longer featured as prominently and positively in so many aspects of national life as it had done. So a victim narrative based on ‘foreign’ oppression may have been widely accepted.
Also, there was certainly growing resentment with a Labour party that had little interest in Scotland other than the seats it returned to Westminster; the protest vote went to the Nationalists.
Scottish nationalism seems buried for now. By the time the SNP has cleared up its mess, circumstances may never be as favourable to its cause again.

Ken Bowman
Ken Bowman
1 month ago

I think I am in favour of a high degree of local devolution in the UK. Scotland provides no useful example of how it would pan out because of the nationalism involved. I see federalism in Germany apparently succeeding and also in Switzerland with its 26 cantons each with a high degree of autonomy.
I would see each devolved assembly with significant tax raising ability and responsibility for health, social security, education etc. One effect would be to remove the crutch provided to the unsuccessful regions by their current ability to blame central government. The ability to separate the worthy recipients of social security from those just working the system would be enhanced. The current wasteful need for local authorities to keep bidding for central largesse would disappear. The idea that there is some central money tree would be diminished. Of course a severe reduction in central government would be required to balance the local increase.

J Boyd
J Boyd
1 month ago

Devolution in England has generally meant giving more power to bureaucrats. We need to revive our traditional local democracy by making local authorities entirely self-funding.
And we need to give the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish a binary choice: membership of the UK with the same local government structure as England and no additional Devolution; or outright independence.
As an English citizen, I’d hope they’d choose the latter and good luck to them.