Henry Hill

Could Holyrood ever be abolished?

Could Holyrood ever be abolished?
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Although Alex Salmond and his Alba party have understandably been getting most of the attention, the separatists aren’t the only side riven with divisions over a new challenger. Unionist relations, especially between the Conservatives and partisans of George Galloway’s ‘All for Unity’ outfit, grow more rancorous by the day.

To the former, the latter resemble little more than a band of egotists hell-bent on clawing their way into Holyrood even if the result is fewer pro-Union MSPs. The latter, having largely abandoned their original idea of ‘uniting to win’, are pitching themselves to angry Unionist voters as a chance to clear out the old guard and have a ‘real opposition’.

Maybe they’ll end up getting Galloway into the Scottish parliament, maybe they won’t. But A4U’s long-term grip on the ultras is less certain. The man himself might abandon them once ensconced in Holyrood — for some reason he is described only as their ‘lead candidate’, not their leader, and in any event, his longstanding support for the Irish republicanism probably limits his appeal with some committed British Unionist voters. Meanwhile their actual leader, Jamie Blackett, says that A4U are ‘not Unionists’.

As for their loud claims to represent a clean break from the devolution gravy train, these will also take some proving. Unlike the Abolish the Welsh Assembly party — which looks set to give committed Unionists a much more substantial breakthrough at Cardiff Bay next month — A4U are not markedly devosceptic. Which is why it could be worth keeping an eye on the ‘Abolish the Scottish Parliament’ party.

Although A4U are likely to steal all their oxygen this time, Abolish Holyrood has got the top spot on the ballot paper — an alphabetical advantage they probably have a firm hold on. More importantly, they have a message that appeals to an important slice of the Unionist electorate — including, awkwardly for Douglas Ross, a majority of his voters. Polling from 2019 also found one in five Labour voters felt the same way.

This is not surprising. While there are those who support devolution for its own sake (or because they staked their reputations on it in the 1990s) it was sold to to the broader Unionist movement as a grand bargain that would see off the threat of Scottish and Welsh nationalism. Yet after two decades it can only be said to have turbocharged it — even remaining enthusiasts, such as former Scottish Tory spin docter Eddie Barnes, now have to concede that the original devosceptics were onto something: ‘Michael Forsyth and Tam Dalyell were right’.

Dalyell, a rare and far-sighted Labour opponent of the project, articulated in 2012 what a growing number of Unionist voters are starting to feel: ‘The men and women elected to a Scottish parliament will never be content with their existing powers. Even if the No campaign triumphs, controversy will rumble on so long as a Scottish parliament exists...’

And he was only drawing on wisdom that dates back at least to Adam Smith, who in The Wealth of Nations advanced the cynical case that the American revolutionaries had ‘drawn the sword in defence of their own importance’ rather than any loftier considerations.

Those whose minds still run on devolutionary rails, such as Sir Keir Starmer, continue to insist that the solution lies in ever stronger doses of the traditional medicine. But their case grows less and less persuasive. The replacement of British governance with ‘shared rule’ would just give the SNP more opportunities to foul the operation of the Union and discredit it; the only sure product of an English parliament would be an English Yeltsin.

Yet politicians from the mainstream Unionist parties will be very reluctant to change course, for a mix of good and bad reasons. They worry that adopting a harder line on the constitution will spook flighty voters whose allegiance to Britain has waned since 2016. Many of them also know they would struggle to secure new sinecures in a better-integrated and more streamlined political system. 

What the abolitionist parties (which are not officially connected) are trying to do, therefore, is similar to what Ukip did to the Conservatives over Europe. Like Ukip, they face the challenges that come from being on the fringes and playing host to the big egos that seek a home there — only today one Senedd member abandoned Abolish. They are also fighting for oxygen in a political, media, and civic arena to whom they are a direct threat.

But in Wales, at least, where support for scrapping the Senedd runs considerably higher, they are already making an impact. Any prospect of the Conservatives ousting Labour via a pact with Plaid Cymru is long past. The Welsh Tory leader has gone into the election boasting of ‘no more powers’, and as I have noted before, the next Welsh parliament looks as if it will the emergence of a Tory-Abolish ‘Unionist bloc’.

Whether or not their Scottish comrades can pull off the same trick remains to be seen. But there is clearly a significant group of Unionist voters who are looking for a chance to send the traditional parties a message. They deserve a better option than All for Unity.