Boris Johnson’s unguarded admission that devolution to Scotland has been a ‘disaster’ has blown the lid off a rift which has been opening up inside unionism for some time.
At the top (except, it seems, the very top), the articles of faith of devolutionary unionism still hold. These are essentially that whatever happens, it would have been worse if devolution hadn’t taken place; that standing up to the nationalists is generally counter-productive; and that the path to saving the Union lies through giving away powers and weakening the centre.
But to a rising generation of unionists who weren’t active (or alive) during the last great debate on devolution in the 1990s, these are increasingly unconvincing. There is now a sort of generational horseshoe of attitudes, with old-guard figures such as Lord Forsyth winning new supporters among millennial unionists.
The trouble is that acknowledging that devolution has been a disaster is not a strategy —especially if the Government intends to concede a second referendum in the next few years. Instead, the logical conclusion from the Prime Minister’s — correct — understanding of devolution surely requires that unionists grant themselves the generation-sized breather they won in 2014.
Can a referendum be put off? In an essay published today, Aris Roussinos suggests not. He argues that the only pathway it offers is Westminster exercising its sovereign power to unilaterally abolish Holyrood, which even I concede is not realistic. The alternatives are ‘loveless cohabitation’, ‘full confederalisation’, or separation.
Bleak. But an incomplete picture.
The alternative is a full-spectrum constitutional and cultural strategy aimed at containing the damage in the short term, strengthening the social and economic bonds of Britishness in the medium term, and only in the long term countenancing a final assault on Holyrood itself.
Such a strategy should involve greater activity by HM Government in areas of devolved competence (let the ‘devocrats’ try and whip up anger at Scotland or Wales receiving extra money for centrally-funded projects), as well as initiatives aimed at encouraging cross-border movement and mixing such as the ‘Union bursary’ for students’ floated in January. Were Britain another country in a poorer part of the world, we would probably call this ‘nation-building’.
It should also involve unionist campaigners and donors setting up bodies to combat the tendency of devolved politicians to hide behind poor public understanding of who is responsible for what — local equivalents of the TaxPayers’ Alliance to root out and broadcast devolved failure.
Of course, all of this depends on having the power to refuse a referendum. But here again the news is better than Aris suggests. Beyond the ‘once in a generation’ mantra, there is a full arsenal of solid arguments for not allowing independence to be re-litigated.
And if the SNP proceeded with an illegal referendum, there would be no need for ministers to take any action against it. Pro-UK lawyer Ian Smart has pointed out that any member of the public could take the Scottish Government to court, and then the (Scottish) police would be obliged to take action by the automatic operation of the law. Such a wildcat vote could only work if Westminster actively facilitated it, which is a contradiction in terms.
There is no denying that both resisting a swift re-run of 2014 and making good use of the time this buys us will take both strength and wisdom. But it is not the impossible task it might appear.