Robert Conquest's third law (which may not have been his third law) says that the behaviour of any bureaucratic organisation is most easily explained if one assumes it has been captured by enemy secret agents. This maxim often comes to mind when I read about the UK government’s latest wheeze to ‘save the Union’. Ministers’ new ideas are invariably the same idea they’ve been having for a decade now: devolution has failed, let’s have more of it. The Tories have already transferred more powers to Holyrood twice, in 2012 and 2016, and both times we were assured that doing so would subdue the separatists. And that was the last we heard of the SNP.
As a recovering devolutionist, I can hardly reproach others for sharing in the delusion but it is remarkable, after so much evidence to the contrary, that it continues to hold sway over ministers and civil servants. This is what ultimately dissuades me from the suspicion that Whitehall has fallen under the direction of the SNP: if it had, it would be a damn sight more ruthlessly effective.
Bloomberg News claims to have seen a memo outlining potential strategies for pushing back against the SNP’s drive for Scexit, which will be turbo-charged if Nicola Sturgeon wins, as polls predict she will, a landslide victory in next May’s Scottish Parliament elections. The 21-page analysis is reportedly the work of London-based public affairs firm Hanbury Strategy and is said to suggest, originally enough, devolving more powers to the Scottish parliament. If ‘co-opting the EU into demonstrating that there is no viable pathway to renewed membership’ for Scotland doesn’t work (and I can’t imagine why not), Westminster should surrender yet more financial powers and control over immigration to Holyrood. This is part of a new approach, styled ‘new accommodation, new constitutional settlement, and co-operation rather than confrontation’, which will be expanded on in a further memo. I don’t know how much the Tories spent commissioning such insights but anyone willing to pay for them deserves to be taken for top dollar.
The more I hear from London Tories about what should be done to save the Union, the more I wonder that support for independence is as low as 58 per cent. Don’t get me wrong. There is something endearing in the belief that there are hundreds of thousands of Scots ready to vote for secession but for devolution of control over tier five temporary seasonal worker visas. Still, people naive enough to believe that politicians in London transferring more powers to politicians in Edinburgh will change how voters in Dundee feel about the Union really shouldn’t be involved in the drawing up of strategy. The real fault lies with ministers and the Conservative party more broadly. With a few honourable exceptions, there is no hint of principle, not a skerrick of philosophy, just the slick expediencies of momentary mitigation. Scotland is a problem to be made to go away, not an integral part of the country to be fought for.
One of the reasons the SNP prospers is because it has a cause. It is a small, mean, dismal cause, disguised in modern rhetoric but anchored in ancient resentments. Yet it is one that all party members from Nicola Sturgeon on down believe in and place at the centre of everything they do. The Tory party is led by men with no cause beyond the firm conviction that they should be in power and that others should not. Few of them could be described as Unionists if that term is to retain any substantive meaning. The Union is something they assume, not something they believe in.
If there were a few more Unionists in power, the government would not need to commission smoothly presented but politically wishful strategy documents. It would know from first principles that the constitution is reserved and that Westminster (properly, the Crown-in-Parliament-under-God) is sovereign. It would know that talk of the SNP winning a ‘mandate’ for a second Scexit referendum next May is a nonsense. A mandate for one parliament cannot be binding on another parliament and, more to the point, a mandate on a reserved matter cannot be achieved in an election to a devolved parliament. If you don’t believe that, you don’t believe in the United Kingdom, or at least not a United Kingdom that is long for this world.
Yes, the UK parliament can say ‘no’ to another referendum on independence. If next year the SNP wins every seat and region in Scotland and half of Norway too, the UK parliament can still say ‘no’. This should not have to be explained to the Prime Minister. He is supposed to know it. He is, after all, ‘Minister for the Union’. It’s true that ‘no’ isn’t enough but that doesn’t mean that it must be followed by ‘not yet’ or the sending of the family silver northwards on the Caledonian Sleeper. There is an alternative position in which the Prime Minister locates his backbone, states that the continued existence of the United Kingdom is not up for debate, and embarks on constitutional reform that puts the UK’s political integrity beyond doubt. If he doesn’t have the will or the stomach for such a fight, he should stand aside for someone who does, or grant the SNP their referendum now and be done with it. An American poet once remarked that ‘laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made’ and watching the Union being sliced up like salami does nothing for respect in the slices or the slicers.
Tony Blair was a good prime minister but devolution, as designed, was his great historic error. It is perverse, then, that it is the one aspect of his legacy that the Tories — nominally, the Conservative and Unionist Party — are committed to continuing. At least New Labour had the excuse of taking a leap in the dark. The Tories have had two decades to examine devolution’s flaws and their only conclusion is ‘forward, the Light Brigade’. I see no evidence that Sir Keir Starmer is any more instinctive a Unionist than Boris Johnson, but I would like to think electoral arithmetic, if not old-fashioned Labour tribalism, would prevail upon him to put up a livelier fight. It wouldn’t take much to be livelier than this government, where knees are as weak as hearts are faint and the blood runs as cold as the spirit lingers low. Thus, Daisley’s third law: nothing worth conserving should be left too long in the hands of the Conservative party.