April 28, 2021 - 10:37am

The huge damage that devolution has done to the United Kingdom is becoming increasingly impossible to ignore.

Consider the abject state of the Welsh schools and hospitals, an embarrassing Scottish election, and Northern Ireland’s endless cycle of crises. They dispel any hope that devolution might deliver better, more responsive government.

As for “killing nationalism stone dead”, well. The SNP have a stranglehold on government in Edinburgh, while Welsh Labour is running pro-independence candidates, accusing British ministers of “colonial attitudes”, and declaring that “the UK is over”.

This explains why devoscepticism is on the rise in unionist circles. It offers a simple explanation for the dynamics at play: devolution creates a class of rent-seekers whose interests are best served by demanding money and power while shifting the blame for their mistakes onto Westminster. A weaker Union is the obvious, inevitable result.

But if you’re unwilling to accept this logic for some reason — for example, you are primarily to blame for devolution happening in the first place — your options are limited. There’s the sort of magical thinking that suggests the solution to Scottish grievances is an English Parliament and a Senate… or there’s alternative history.

This latter is Tony Blair’s go-to excuse. In an interview with ITV, the former Prime Minister’s said that: “If the Labour Party hadn’t implemented its manifesto commitment to do devolution in 1997, the union would already be in tatters.”

Among committed devolutionaries, this is an article of faith. Which is not to say it is plausible. Without devolution on the New Labour plan there would have been no infrastructure for the devocrats, and latterly the separatists, to take over and turn against Britain. Nor would unionists have been reduced to trying to persuade voters to reject the nationalists’ conclusions while defending a system built on the nationalists’ central premise: that Britain is not a good, or even legitimate, political community.

But it is also an intellectual sleight of hand. The assertion that things would have been worse had new Labour held the line (rather than actively nudging the Welsh Assembly over the line by delaying voting) is unfalsifiable. Thus, accepting it transforms devolution from a thesis which can be tested against evidence into a premise that precedes evidence.

It’s important to remember this when the usual suspects are telling us that the only solution is yet another hollowing out of the British state. They are simply offering up the only answer afforded them by a set of beliefs whose primary purpose seems to be ensuring that, whatever happens, they never have to admit they got a very big call catastrophically wrong.

Even imprisoned by the need to vindicate his legacy, Blair remains perceptive. When he talks about the need to “real cultural ties and emphasise the enormous things that the different countries in the United Kingdom have in common”, he’s on the money.

But devolution has empowered nationalists and separatists to shrink the sphere of what we have in common year by year, and obscure much of the rest behind posturing and poisonous rhetoric. Only the British state can sustain the British nation. What we really need in common is a government.

Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.