Nick Timothy's Scotland solution ignores the role of devosceptics
One of the biggest problems with the current debate about how best to protect the UK from its various separatist enemies is the stubborn conceit that these movements can somehow be ‘solved’.
It flatters enthusiasts for constitutional reform to imagine that what the moment requires is nothing more or less than sufficient application of their cleverness to the central structures of the Union.
But there is scant reason for anyone else to believe them. As I have pointed out time and again, the track record of the reform-to-win camp against nationalist sentiment is abysmal. So bad is it, in fact, that its defenders have had to start pretending it was actually never previously about stopping the SNP anyway (whilst insisting that we should keep doing what they want because it’s definitely about beating the SNP now).
Nick Timothy, writing in the Daily Telegraph, has given us the latest entry in this unhappy genre. Does solving the Scottish question, he asks, really mean solving the English question?
Reader, I can assure you it does not.
His mooted solution to the “rotten post-devolution constitutional settlement” is the creation of an English Parliament, and the devolution of anything which doesn’t need to be run at the UK level, “including the ability to determine almost all taxes”, to the now-four national legislatures.
This would be good for the Union, he argues, because it would simultaneously show that Westminster was “committed” to self-government for Scotland and confine the remit of the British Government to policy areas — the military, currency, single market — that he feels are most popular with Scottish voters.
But this is a forecast which can only be constructed by wilfully refusing to engage with the devosceptic case on several key points.
First, one of the big problems with devolution is that it spawns local political classes — the ‘devocrats’ — who derive salaries, sinecures, and status from the institutions and profit from aggrandising them at Westminster’s expense. Timothy provides no reason to think his new English institutions would not do the same thing, and produce their own Boris Yeltsin sooner rather than later.
Second, it is actually a serious problem for the Union that the scope of the powers of the UK Government have been winnowed so dramatically. It deprives the British State of the opportunity to make a visible difference in areas such as health and education which matter most to voters.
The new spending powers included in the UK Internal Market Bill are a belated recognition of this danger. Timothy’s proposals are a step backwards.
Third, the logic of devolving “almost all taxes” is devolved control of almost all revenues. Assuming provisions are made to cover budgets for reserved issues such as defence, this would still make it very tricky to sustain fiscal transfers between the Home Nations. Thus, this plan strikes at the very heart of the mercenary case for Britain, even as it precludes the making of a better one by tacitly conceding the illegitimacy of pooled British governance across most areas of policy.
(And this is to say nothing of the fact that so large is England that a non-balkanised ‘English Parliament’ wouldn’t bring power closer to the regions and would, if anything, be even more beholden to the wealthy South.)
The blunt truth is that saving the Union means making the case for a Union that does more, not less. We won’t persuade voters to reject the SNP’s conclusions whilst ourselves conceding the SNP’s premises about the efficacy and legitimacy of the British state.