It has often been suggested by the pro-devolutionary left that the real reason for the opposition of Unionists to legislative devolution is merely backward looking reaction based on some misty eyes longing for some real or imagined past golden era or halcyon days. Such people tend to assert that there is no real objective, substantive reason for any objections to legislative devolution and that those that do are simply standing in the way of progress for misplaced nostalgic reasons. It is asserted that legislative devolution is a way of curing what they claim is a democratic deficit in the relationship between the constituent parts of the UK and they even go as far as to claim that it will strengthen the bonds that hold the UK together. The old chestnut 'autonomy within the UK' is trotted out. The regions of the UK will have a large degree of autonomy over many matters, but still be essentially united. That was the plan. However, like many great plans, they are OK in theory, but real life doesn't always run to a proscribed script. As it turns out, almost nothing has turned out the way the pro-devolutionary left wanted it to.
The legislative devolutionary plan had, as it worked out in reality, one massive intrinsic flaw that has made it untenable: the rise to power of ultra-aggressive separatist movements in the regions of the UK was unforeseen. When New Labour first set up their constitutional 'settlement' in the late 1990's they badly miscalculated on several factors. Since roughly the mid-1960's, Labour had been the dominant political power in Scotland. By the late 90's, it still looked like that situation would continue into the foreseeable future. That was the first in a series of miscalculations by New Labour.
Up until this point, the UK's nationalist parties had existed on the fringes of the political scene. There was the SNP in Scotland, Plaid Cymru in Wales and the mainstream nationalist SDLP plus the extremist political front of the IRA terrorists Sinn Fein in Ulster. They attracted support from a tiny selection of eccentrics and extremists. Their support amongst the mainstream UK population was very marginal indeed. They had a very small presence in the House of Commons but their political influence was virtually zero as was correct because of the minuscule nature of their level of support. They were contained by the vast majority of the other 600 plus MP's from pro-Union parties who could prevent them from forcing their extremist agendas on an unwilling UK electorate. Thus the nationalist monster was kept under control and prevented from doing any damage to the UK constitution. All in all these checks and balances worked well and the UK constitution was in robust good health.
All of this changed one dark day in 1997 when New Labour came to power and began their anti-British assault on the UK's constitution. They introduced a very strong degree of legislative devolution that gave each of the regions of the UK its own parliament or assembly. This was the first step that they made in unleashing the nationalist monster. Whether they did this intentionally, or it was just naiveté that made them do this is uncertain. Perhaps a mixture of both. Events moved fairly rapidly. At first, Labour managed to win elections to these new parliaments/assemblies and, as they (and their coalition partners) were Unionists, there was no real threat of the UK breaking up.
Nationalism, now unfettered by the constitutional checks and balances that had existed under the pre-devolutionary political set-up, didn't remain inactive, and, seeing its opportunity to rise, began its inexorable process of expansion. Steadily it began to increase its support, and party membership, especially in Scotland. Here, the SNP began winning by-elections and increasing its party membership. They were aided in this by the arrogance of the three mainstream political parties who badly underestimated them and just ignored their rise instead of doing something about it. Indeed, Labour completely miscalculated how aggressive the nationalists would become and how much legislative devolution would enable such aggressive nationalism to advance its separatist agenda.
The next phase in the rise of ultra aggressive nationalism happened in 2007, when, after several years of building up their support base, the SNP managed to displace Labour as the ruling party in Holyrood. Then, it all kicked off and the SNP began their propaganda and misinformation campaign to prepare the ground for an independence referendum, even though the constitution lay outside their devolved remit. One of the first things they did after they assumed power was to re-style Holyrood as the Scottish Government, rather than executive, as it was supposed to be under the 1998 Scotland Act that set it up back in the late 1990's. This should have been the first warning sign of the SNP's true intention: to ignore their devolved remit and take Scotland to full independence, and that Holyrood would not just remain a regional assembly. If anybody did notice this sign they either didn't understand its significance, or did understand but ignored it; even the UK government, which definitely should have known better did nothing.
From here on in, the nationalists escalated the progress of their separatist agenda. Despite the fact that support for independence stood at 33%, the SNP ignored public opinion and launched a campaign to hold an independence referendum, which eventually succeeded after negotiations with David Cameron's coalition government resulted in the Edinburgh Agreement of 2012 which granted Holyrood the temporary power to hold such a poll. The SNP had not listened to the Scots public, which every opinion poll had shown were strongly against independence, and the result was a resounding 'no' majority when the referendum was eventually held in September 2014. The present SNP dominated executive continues to push very aggressively their separatist agenda, and are currently attempting to synthesize support for a second independence referendum, even though the level of interest still hasn't significantly improved since the first referendum. As it now stands, the SNP, as well as Plaid Cymru in Wales and the SDLP and Sinn Fein in the province of Ulster, all pose a very real and significant degree of danger to the integrity of the UK.
How has this situation come about? A comparison between the political and constitutional set up of the pre and post legislative devolutionary eras reveals the answer. The constitution of the UK, though not codified in a written form, contained many checks and balances to ensure that Parliament represented the views of the electorate fairly. Admittedly, it wasn't perfect, but it worked well enough in practice. There were 650 seats in the chamber of the House of Commons and each region of the UK was allocated a proportion of those seats based on the size of their population. This was a fair enough system. Decisions were taken collectively, with parliamentary bills being amended for different circumstances that may have existed in the regions of the UK. This can best be described as common representation in a single, sovereign national parliament.
In such a set up, minority extremist parties, like the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the SDLP and Sinn Fein could, if they got elected, return an MP to sit in the House, but even if they swept the board and won all the seats in their region of the UK they would still only be a minority, contained by the majority of the representatives of all the other parties who represent the majority of the electorate's political will. In this way, minority extremists are prevented from forcing their agenda on an unwilling public. This system ensures that the will of the moderate majority is represented and those on the political fringe are kept in check as they are unable to get a parliamentary majority to progress their unwanted aims.
In the post devolutionary period, this robust system of constitutional safeguards was swept away and the result is plain for anybody to see. With no constraints on their behaviour, the nationalist parties in the UK, especially the SNP, have ignored the terms of devolution, brushed their devolved remit to one side, and proceeded to very aggressively push their independence agenda on an unwilling electorate.
It's perfectly clear to see that it is legislative devolution that has enabled ultra-aggressive nationalism to rise in the UK, and proceed to pose a great danger to the integrity of a unitary UK. We simply wouldn't be in the present situation if Blair's government hadn't introduced it twenty years ago. The undeniable conclusion is that legislative devolution is not practicable in the presence of such aggressive nationalist separatist movements. The only realistic way of ending this constitutional mess is the complete abolition of the legislative devolutionary constitutional settlement of Blair and its replacement with a better system.
© 2017 Stephen Bailey.