Boris Johnson says devolution has been a ‘disaster’. This has the rare quality for a Boris statement of being true but he, or rather the Scottish Tories, will be made to pay a political price for it. Barely had the contents of the Prime Minister’s remarks in a Zoom chat with northern MPs been reported than Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross was at the Twitter barricades:
— Douglas Ross MP (@Douglas4Moray) November 16, 2020
Devolution has not been a disaster. The SNP’s non-stop obsession with another referendum - above jobs, schools and everything else - has been a disaster. https://t.co/WEOJubpDVG
The division of labour here is this: Boris is right intellectually, Ross is right politically. Devolution has been a disaster. We know this even before turning to the statistics on education and health outcomes because devolution was, in the words of one of its chief architects, intended to ‘kill nationalism stone dead’. In a broader sense, creating a Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh was meant to address the supposed ‘democratic deficit’, whereby the political complexion of UK governments reflected the preference of voters in a majority of constituencies across the country and not just those north of the border.
On both these tests, devolution has failed. Far from subduing the forces of nationalism, devolution built the separatists their own command centre at the foot of the Royal Mile. They now pursue independence not only as a ballot box event but as the day-to-day organising principle of a government machine. Tories grumble about the odd lefty civil servant in Whitehall and yet it has taken 13 years since the SNP opened the legislative and administrative fronts in its war on the Union for a Tory Prime Minister to identify this proto-state-within-a-state as ruinous for the political integrity of the United Kingdom.
Of course, the SNP will not govern Scotland forever (it only feels like it). In time, another party or parties will form government at Holyrood. But this is where devolution has done its intellectual and moral wrecking. By conceding the existence of a ‘democratic deficit’ and trying to close it with a rival parliament to Westminster, the UK Government legitimised the nationalist myth that Scotland was a victim rather than a co-architect of the Union. (This is a legend to which Labour, the Tories and the Lib Dems contributed at least as generously as the Nationalists themselves.) Instead of killing it, devolution was a shot of epinephrine into nationalism’s bloodstream.
After just two decades of this arrangement, independence is the majority position in Scotland and finding wings in Wales too. Covid-19 has bathed in harsh light the country's political and constitutional disjointedness. The continued existence of the United Kingdom is now an open question. If that is not a disaster for a UK Prime Minister, then nothing is. Yet, there is a difference between announcing, eureka, that you have stumbled upon a problem and taking the time to think out and design a solution. By characterising devolution glibly — and doing so in a conversation with, gasp, English Tories — Boris has handed the SNP a bucketful of ammunition to pump into the Scottish Tories. It doesn’t matter that the SNP’s first (and only) policy is the destruction of devolution. They have captured the institution and now they define its terms.
‘Disaster’ will affront the entire devolution industry: the politicians, the academics, the media, the whole dismal racket that flatters itself as ‘Civic Scotland’. Devocrats come in all shapes and sizes. There are the ageing Thatcher-haters and Home Rule romantics. Devolution was the first idea many of them had and, in fidelity to it, they have not had another since. Then there is the payroll vote that sees the direction of travel and knows where its pension is coming from. Beyond them is the emerging generation, the coming men and women of Scottish public life who will hold no memory of Scotland before devolution, before it was a semi-autonomous psychodrama in the UK's nervous breakdown. The devocracy will not take kindly to Boris’s candour and it will take that out on the Scottish Conservatives. Douglas Ross can hardly be faulted for rushing to disavow his Prime Minister's words. The Scottish establishment is going to make him eat them for a long time to come.
If the Prime Minister has reached the conclusion that the country's constitutional footing is a disaster, he will need to do more than gripe about it to his backbenchers. He is the Prime Minister. He has not only the power, but the duty, to take remedial action. People like me have already made ourselves unpopular by suggesting what that might look like. I don't expect Boris to actually do anything, mind. I think he lacks the courage, the character and the stamina. But his assessment of devolution doesn't shock me or leave me indignant; it only makes me wonder how it could have taken him this long to arrive at it.