Why Devolution Has To Go
A while ago, I heard the following fantastic anecdotal rule about British legislation – “If Tony Blair did it, it was probably wrong”. On this, at least, both the left and the right should be able to agree, if Mr. Blair’s popularity within the modern Labor Party is anything to go by. When devolution was introduced to Scotland in 1998, it was supposed to nip nationalist sentiment in the bud, and provide more effective, more accountable, more harmonious local government. Instead, here we stand, 23 years later, with persistently higher nationalist popularity than there ever was in the 90s (we now have 45 SNP MPs in Westminster), less local government powers within Scotland at the county and borough level (centralised to Holyrood by the SNP), and a Scotland that, by most aggregate measures, is falling behind the rest of the UK thanks in no small part to mismanagement by its devolved parliament. By every metric in which devolution was supposed to succeed, it has failed. The experiment must be aborted – devolution has to go.
Devolution was supposed to produce better outcomes for areas with devolved parliaments and powers. After all, it is intuitive that local people know their own problems and potential solutions better than faraway national governments. This intuition – this hypothesis, however, has completely failed to materialize, not only in Scotland, but everywhere where this model of devolved parliaments has been introduced. The Northern Irish assembly is consistently non-functional, and Wales is not and never has been a real country – a mere pretense created out of the fact it was a separate administrative region under the Romans. Here though, I focus on the fact that the SNP has consistently made a pig’s breakfast out of Scotland. Scotland has, in the past two decades, consistently fallen behind English growth in education, economic measurements, life expectancy and cultural output, despite being a net receiver of tax funds by a significant margin. Far from allowing local people to sort out local issues, SNP rule has resulted in substantial weakening of local authorities through increased centralization of powers to Holyrood, forcing all of Scotland to toe the SNP line on matters that were previously devolved further.
Devolution was also supposed to quiet down nationalist, separatist sentiment. If Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were given greater ability to decide their own laws and make their own decisions on policies that, by their nature, did not necessitate being decided upon at a national level, fewer of their population would desire to leave – after all, these areas would be getting the satisfaction of self-rule combined with the advantage of being economically subsidized by the higher GDP-per-capita economy of England. Instead, we have seen the opposite effect, as separatism has only grown – an effect that, in hindsight, now seems obvious. In 1979, Wales democratically rejected devolution by a ratio of 4:1. In 2001, a small majority voted in favor of introducing it, and in 2011, a substantial majority agreed to give it more powers. Devolution, far from appeasing separatists, is a gifted weapon – a vehicle to further normalize the idea of self-rule.
Devolution has also accelerated regional party popularity. This is damaging to Westminster politics – all parties in our national assembly should at least nominally represent all the UK. Furthermore, regional parties are often excluded from national politics. This disenfranchises these places, exacerbating division. These devolved parliaments, and the regional parties they embolden, also consistently give rise to, and actively whip up greater and greater nationalist spirit, after all, it is in their interest to do so. By allowing the devolution experiment to continue, we are structurally supporting these societally damaging activities and effects.
In addition, the devolution of greater domestic legislative power has sewn roots of even more dangerous, long-term division. If different areas of the UK have more differentiated school curriculums, different languages on their road signs, different healthcare systems (with differing levels of performance), different economic policies vis-à-vis taxation, and different narcotics policies, the people of this nation may begin to grow further and further apart. A proper, unified country needs a single curriculum, a single university system, a single healthcare system, and 24/7 alcohol sales. Our 300-year-old union can be made stronger – but to do so needs creative, well thought out, unifying measures. A central government cannot do this if it has devolved away power and responsibility to devolved parliaments.
I’m sure the idea of unilateral revocation of devolution will seem shocking to many. Not only would it be a removal of a devolved institution that was democratically voted for in referendums, but it would act as a sudden jolt to many administrative systems that have been evolving separately for over 20 years. This second issue could be addressed relatively easily through a careful legislated slow timetable for re-aligning conflicting policies. The first issue may prove rather more divisive. But sometimes, just ripping off the band-aid in a sharp spike of pain is the best option in the long run. There would be outrage, vociferous nationalist speech-making, and wailings of tyranny. After time, they would fade, especially if they fall upon the deaf ears of a parliamentary majority which does not depend on the loyalty in the foreseeable future of voters outside of England. To have the guts to enact such a policy would require a true show of conviction and of leadership, however.
The parliament in Westminster is sovereign, as recent court cases surrounding the Brexit process re-affirmed with renewed strength. They alone, therefore, give license to power. It is time they consolidate it. Holyrood exists as a government-in-waiting, a pretender state if you will. This is unacceptable and destabilizing. Furthermore, the national government at times behaves far too much as if Holyrood were some separate international entity, as it did when negotiating the Edinburgh Agreement, rather than treating it as the subordinate power it is. We cannot let this become a new precedent – after all, it is precedent that determines our constitution. One bill passed into law is all that is necessary to revoke devolution. We ought to make every effort to make this into reality.
Image: Wikimedia Commons