There is no halfway devolution house anymore, it’s either independence for Scotland or direct rule from Downing Street.
First published in July 2021.
On Monday Dominic Cummings confirmed something that we’ve all known for quite some time. He said that Boris Johnson is an “unthinking Unionist” who thinks that devolution has been a disaster. Cummings also added that Johnson would like to abolish the Scottish and Welsh parliaments but is held back from doing so for fear of the political consequences. Johnson’s antipathy to the devolution settlement has been obvious for quite some time. Back in November last year Johnson told a Zoom conference of Conservative MPs representing Northern English constituencies that devolution had been a disaster and described it as Tony Blair’s “biggest mistake”.
Apparently, Johnson thinks that the Scottish Parliament was a bigger mistake than going to war in Iraq on the pretext of evidence that was fabricated, plunging the Middle East into chaos and creating the circumstances which led to the rise of the Islamic State and the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives. But that is – to use one of Johnson’s favourite words – mere piffle when compared to the political problems that devolution has caused for the Conservative party. But then it’s only because of devolution that Murdo Fraser and Annie Wells get to make fools of themselves on social media on a regular basis, so just maybe he had a point of sorts when he described devolution as a disaster. After all, he didn’t specify who it was a disaster for.
The Prime Liar later attempted to claim that what he meant was that the way the SNP had governed Scotland had been a disaster, but that’s clearly a back-covering lie, not even Johnson could get away with claiming that the SNP were a creation of Tony Blair. It was obvious that he meant that he thought devolution should never have happened in the first place.
Devolution only came about because of a decades-long political campaign in Scotland, by the time Blair’s government implemented it (although not until after Labour had tried to water it down by as much as they thought they could get away with) it had become, unarguably, the settled will of the people of Scotland. Blair’s government only introduced devolution because the consequences for the Labour party of failing to do so would have been an electoral annihilation similar to that which befell the Conservative party in Scotland in 1997. Johnson is obviously one of those Conservatives who believe that democracy need not apply when it comes to questions of Scottish self-government. He’d be quite happy to ignore the results of Scottish elections entirely. In fact, that’s the closest thing he’s got to a political strategy for dealing with Scotland.
FM Nicola Sturgeon. | First Minister of Scotland
This week Dominic Cummings confirmed that Johnson’s statement that devolution had been a disaster was a true reflection of Johnson’s feelings about the devolution settlement. They are sentiments that are shared by other senior figures in the Conservative party. Last year Jacob Rees Mogg described devolution as a part of Labour’s “constitutional tinkering” and said that the Conservatives needed to undo it, presumably in order to replace it with a system where forelock-tugging peasants surrender a tithe of their incomes and their virgin daughters to the local laird in return for the right to live in a hovel, a privilege for which they should jolly well be grateful. Don’t they realise just how offensive it is to Jacob’s refined sensibilities to have to acknowledge that the lower orders even exist?
We don’t really need Dominic Cummings, or even the unguarded comments of Boris Johnson, to tell us what this Conservative government really thinks about devolution. Their attitude is screamingly obvious from the contempt and disdain with which Downing Street treats Holyrood and the Welsh Senedd. At every stage in the pandemic, Downing Street has made decisions that affect the entire UK often without even bothering to keep the devolved governments informed despite the fact that public health is a devolved competence.
PM Boris Johnson. | Number 10
Conservative contempt for devolution is equally obvious in the way in which the administrations of both Johnson, and May before him, have abused Brexit as an excuse to undermine and weaken the devolution settlement. The UK Internal Market gave Westminster the right to spend public money in Scotland and Wales on areas that are devolved to Edinburgh and Cardiff. These changes were introduced against the will of the Scottish Parliament and are directly contrary to the Vow made to the people of Scotland in 2014 by the Conservatives along with the other main anti-independence parties that no changes would ever be made to the devolution settlement and the powers of the Scottish parliament without the express consent of Holyrood.
All that prevents the Conservatives from abolishing the Scottish Parliament is the knowledge that the political backlash such a move would provoke would lead to a strong surge in support for independence and make Scottish independence all but inevitable. Scottish opinion may currently be pretty evenly divided on the question of independence but devolution still has overwhelming public support. According to an opinion poll carried out by YouGov in February only 20% of Scottish voters would support the abolition of the Scottish Parliament, and over a third of those want to see Holyrood’s powers be given to beefed-up local authorities, not returned to Westminster. Only amongst those who identified themselves as Conservatives was there majority support for abolishing Holyrood.
The two parties with manifesto commitments to the abolition of Holyrood, the Uber-Unionist Ukip and the fringe Abolish the Scottish Parliament Party between them only managed to win less than 0.5% of the votes in the recent Scottish elections.
The Conservatives ooze arrogance and contempt but they are not entirely stupid. They will not try – overtly at least – to abolish the Scottish Parliament. Instead, they will do what they can to marginalise and undermine the devolved governments. It is only the prospect of another independence referendum that holds them in check. If Scotland votes against independence in that future referendum the Conservatives will certainly make moves to neutralise Holyrood as an alternative source of political power and authority. In the meantime, they will continue to do what they can to weaken and delegitimise the devolved institutions.
Devolution has no future. It has failed to do what it was created to achieve, to protect Scotland from the malign decisions of Conservative governments which Scotland didn’t vote for. It could not protect Scotland from Brexit and the Conservatives have now ensured that a Conservative government in Westminster can bypass Holyrood. The comments from Dominic Cummings merely confirm that if Scotland wants any self-government at all, independence is the only way to ensure it. There is no halfway devolution house anymore, it’s either independence or direct rule from Downing Street.
Devolution is dead.
— AUTHOR•S —
▫ Wee Ginger Dug, also known as Paul Kavanagh. Blogger.
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[This piece was originally published in Wee Ginger Dug’s blog and re-published in PMP Magazine on 5 July 2021, with the author’s consent. | The author writes in a personal capacity.]
(Cover: Flickr/Number 10. - PM Boris Johnson on Copland Dock Orkney as part of his tour of Orkney and the Highlands, Scotland. | 23 July 2020. / Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)