Boris Johnson’s refusal to grant a second independence referendum is a source of relief rather than joy for Scottish unionists. Unionists won decisively in 2014 but their opponents’ failure to accept the referendum result has held Scotland in constitutional limbo ever since. Five years on a permanent campaign has been as healthy for the body politic as one might imagine, and while the discord over Brexit last year was unfortunate, it was hard to watch as a Scot without channelling Crocodile Dundee: That’s not bitter constitutional division. This is bitter constitutional division.
Nicola Sturgeon has held Scotland hostage in pursuit of her constitutional agenda and allowed its health service and education system to deteriorate through neglect. It should be no surprise that unionists take satisfaction in a setback for the woman who has largely had her own way until now. The Prime Minister got her telt, as we say up here. Though in truth, Boris has only clamped the nationalist juggernaut; the grievance machine will be back on the road soon enough. Any other central government faced with an active secessionist movement would take meaningful steps to minimise the threat. The UK Government, through a mixture of apprehension and apathy, prefers benign neglect even though the results thus far have been far from benign.
If this is the reforming, disruptor government we keep hearing about, should it not be breaking with the failed strategies of the past and trying something new? Devolution was sold by Labour as a policy to ‘kill nationalism stone dead’. Twenty years into the experiment, the SNP is in its 13th uninterrupted year in power and support for independence hovers perilously close to 50 per cent. All devolution has killed is Labour’s diet nationalism of the 1980s and 1990s, which cast Scotland as a near slave state under the jackboot of Tory totalitarianism. Fed on this synthetic chauvinism for long enough, the voters had an appetite for the full-fat variety and abandoned Labour for the Nationalists. They don’t need to wave the flag; they’re permanently wrapped in it.
By any objective metric, devolution has strayed and is now working counter to its original purpose. While this adds to the SNP’s advantage, it should trouble devolutionists who are, after all, supposed to believe in Scotland’s place within the United Kingdom. In fact, most are exquisitely relaxed about the continued drift towards secession. The devolution industry is interested only in accruing more power and influence for itself. Civic Scotland, the greatest convocation of hypocrisy, self-importance and cant known to man, still affects lofty neutrality but was long ago annexed into the nationalist movement. The Church of Scotland, it appears, sees no contradiction in indignantly opposing Brexit while agitating for a second independence referendum. Embittered by the general election result and honouring their storied tradition of putting party before country, Scottish Labour is presently debating whether to join the SNP and the Greens in backing another referendum.
Within a generation, devolution has turned the SNP into the natural party of government and Scottish civil society into its amen corner. Almost half of Scots want to walk away from the UK, some unaware of the economic brutalism that awaits, some consciously preferring it to remaining in the Union, and some convinced by fanatics that it is Scotland keeping Britain afloat and untold riches pile high on the other side of the ballot box. The SNP exploit the infrastructure of devolution to destroy devolution, for example through legislation (the pernicious Referendums Bill), pursuit of an independent foreign policy and, we learned this week, plans for alternative economic forecasts to make independence appear financially viable. Given the Nationalists’ near-total capture of the Scottish arm of the British state, and their intention to use Holyrood’s 2021 election to confect a ‘mandate’ for another referendum, Boris will have to decide whether to secure the Union for a little longer or end up as the Prime Minister who lost Scotland.
If he is interested in something more than managing the Union’s decline, he will have to begin, in earnest, an almighty pushback against separatism. The first order of business should be recognising talk of ‘once in a generation’ for the trap that it is. Taunting Sturgeon with her own words is fine; adopting them as the timeframe for another referendum is ill-advised. Next, devolution should be restored as far as possible to its original purpose with a new Scotland Act prohibiting the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament from expending any resources in relation to reserved matters; forbidding the use of civil servants in policy-making, research, or the preparation of publications on reserved matters; requiring the Scottish Secretary to sign off on all overseas ministerial visits; reverting to original terminology (Scottish Executive, not Scottish Government; ministers, not secretaries of state); and reducing ministers’ political capacity by capping special adviser numbers. While they’re at it, MPs should consider amending the Scotland Act 2016 to remove Section 63A (which establishes the permanence of the Scottish Parliament in the constitution), form a joint committee to reconsider the balance of devolved and reserved competencies, and pass legislation outlining the criteria for any future national or sub-national referendums.
Just as devolution needs to be more prohibitively defined, the role of the Scotland Office requires significant expansion. Notwithstanding the trailed recommendations of the Dunlop Review, the Prime Minister should consider bumping up the Scotland Office into a super-ministry; sufficiently resourced to match the Scottish Government in the political and PR war and operating in tandem with the Treasury to head a programme of direct investment in Scotland. Go around the SNP to fund the services and infrastructure they are neglecting. A newly empowered Scotland Office could also oversee the relocation of public bodies and government departments north of the border.
My melancholy is reading that Scotland doesn’t interest Dominic Cummings as much as the civil service, education or the judiciary, and so muddling on seems likelier than the corrective action outlined above. GK Chesterton may have been a rotten old antisemite but he was right about one thing: ‘The business of progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of conservatives is to prevent mistakes from being corrected.’ It’s a pity because, in failing to take this opportunity to correct the mistakes of devolution, Boris or his successor will be back here again. Maybe it’s already too late, maybe Scotland is poised on the banks of the Rubicon. But after 20 years of an ever-weaker Union, strengthening the UK is surely worth a shot.