by Henry Hill
Wednesday, 18
November 2020
Response
15:15

I disagree: there’s still time to save the Union

The government must resist another referendum on independence
by Henry Hill
Can a referendum be put off?

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.

Join the discussion


  • I agree, though it requires Westminster to put up a fight and show it cares — something it hasn’t been very good at. The real issue is lopsided devolution, which has created the false impression that England is happy with the status quo. In reality, England wants change as much as Scotland.

  • The UK Govt and Civil Service have a responsibility to all of its citizens.
    The SNP have spent millions on anti English propaganda, vanity projects, ultra vires activities, subverted the UK and now are curtailing basic free speech. They control the Scottish media ruthlessly and treat the assembly with disdain (Salmond farce, latest travel) .
    A proper assault on these issues is urgently required.
    It won’t win over the woad painted loons and England haters, but their posturing as the authoritative “voice of Scotland” must be closed down.
    Hatred sells but sense must prevail.

  • Nope no hypocrisy, just you, like most cybernats, being willfully dishonest – Hill is referring to a wildcat referendum called by Holyrood without Westminster’s permission something they have no legal authority to do. It would therefore be illegal by definition, and taking them to be court would not be ‘re-litigation’ but straightforward litigation of an illegal act. The Brexit referendum by contrast, was called by a body with the authority to do so, so trying to undermine via litigation was anti-democratic.

    It’s really not that difficult.

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