It was a common political theory during the Cold War period, when anxiety about Communism’s real intentions in Europe and the wider world was at its height, that it spread like a virus, contaminating countries and whole territories one by one in a kind of domino effect: one country became controlled by it then inevitably by a process of contamination states bordering it will also fall under its domination. This theory was behind the formation of several countries' foreign policy and indeed it was the root cause of serious armed conflicts in the post-1945 period.
Even though the Domino Theory proved to not particularly hold water in respect of Cold War foreign policy, it is a good analogy for the current Balkanization of the UK that has occurred as a result of the introduction of legislative devolution. It’s quite clear from the evidence of the observed reality of the last couple of decades of the practice of legislative devolution that a domino effect of nationalist extremism has been created in the UK and that even though the recent 2017 General Election has seen a substantial decline in nationalist support (which is very welcome), a pattern has emerged whereby any degree of success that a separatist party enjoys in a devolved legislature provides succour to and encourages fellow nationalists in adjoining parts of the UK to adopt their unreasonable tactics, even if there is no call from the general public for such policies. Hence, legislative devolution has the unwarranted effect of setting up a chain of events that lead to extremist separatist nationalism spreading and magnifying itself throughout the UK despite a lack of substantive support from the general population.
This idea is not just a fanciful academic theory like it was in the case of the Cold War. It has been clearly observed happening in the UK since the introduction of devolved legislatures. After the introduction of the Scottish executive in 1999 there was a period of relative stability as the Labour led executive managed to more or less carry out their duties as a devolved tier of local government. However, the SNP had began their attempts to force their separatist agenda on Scotland and they had succeeded In grabbing control of the executive by 2007. It was at this point that the conditions were set for the domino effect to ripple through the UK later on. Unfettered by the constitutional checks and balances that has stopped them foisting their minority views on the UK public in the pre-devolutionary period, they began a concerted programme of trying to force Scotland out of the UK by ignoring their devolved remit, getting involved in constitutional matters, and synthesizing any excuse to hold independence referenda. This was carried out with extreme aggression and led to a failed independence referendum in 2014 and sweeping electoral success in the 2015 Commons General Election.
This success didn't go unnoticed in other parts of the UK in which devolved legislatures had been set up. Wales is one such example. The Welsh nationalists, Plaid Cymru, had existed since 1925 (nine years before the formation of the SNP) but in their early years had been more of a cultural nationalist movement, trying to promote Welsh language and culture. They had promoted the speaking of Welsh and other Welsh cultural phenomena. They had desired independence from the UK, but this was very much a longer term objective. After the introduction of legislative devolution in the late 1990's and influenced by the SNP's aggressive extra-constitutional campaign for independence this stance began to change and Plaid began to adopt a much more militantly pro-independence agenda. The domino effect was beginning to come into play.
They pushed for new referenda on granting the Welsh Assembly more and more powers, including one in 2011 that substantially increased the areas of its legislative competency. Emboldened by the successful attempts of the SNP to hold a constitutionally illegal independence referendum, Plaid began trying to jump on the bandwagon and have intimated a few times now that they would push for an independence referendum in Wales if they felt the conditions were right (IE they felt they would win). In an ominous echo of the 2007 re-naming of the Scottish executive to Scottish government by the SNP in 2017, the Welsh assembly announced that it now wished to be known as the Welsh parliament, a further ominous step in the direction of independence. All of this resurgence of aggressive pro-independence nationalism has only come about as a knock on effect of the SNP's machinations in Scotland. Events would not have developed in this direction if legislative devolution hadn’t been introduced into Scotland.
Northern Ireland is a slightly different case to the other parts of the UK as concerns the constitutional question as it has always had very, indeed violently, aggressive nationalists to contend with. From the Fenians of the Nineteenth Century through the Official IRA of the early Twentieth Century and the Provisional IRA from the late 1960's and the deniable organizations that remained in existence after the Good Friday Agreement, nationalism in the Province has always posed a serious threat to peace and the existence of the state.
Constitutional nationalism in Ulster since the introduction of legislative devolution in June 1998 and the setting up of the Stormont Assembly has had a very chequered and unsettling history. The good intentions that led to the setting up of a legislature have not, like many matters based upon good intentions, led to a workable practical situation in reality. Stormont has had a storied history of instability, scandals and ultimately periods of failure in which the power sharing arrangement has completely broken down and direct rule from London has been restored. Out of the 10 years that it has been in operation, power sharing at Stormont has completely broken down and direct rule from London restored several times adding up to a combined total of just over five years of that period.
The Province of Ulster's constitutional nationalists, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) have, by and large, eschewed attempting to separate Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK and have not really pursued holding a referendum on re-unification with the Republic of Ireland. For most of Stormont's operational life there has been a pattern of Unionist First Minister and nationalist Deputy First Minister (usually from the SDLP, or most recently Sinn Fein) heading the administration (Northern Ireland's devolved political system was deliberately designed to create this type of arrangement so as to ensure that both the largest voting blocks in the Province participate in governing). For a long time after its inception, the breakdowns notwithstanding, Stormont concentrated on the devolved matters it was supposed to, running Northern Ireland's domestic affairs and largely left constitutional matters alone, unlike its counterpart in Scotland.
This situation didn't last, and it was events in Scotland that triggered the change. As discussed above, the SNP abused their devolved remit and began a programme of aggressively pushing for independence, ignoring their devolved remit in order to hold constitutionally illegal independence referenda. They succeeded in this programme and they successfully held a referendum on separation in 2014, which they lost by a substantial margin. Observing their Scottish compatriot's success (in getting a referendum held), the Ulster nationalists felt encouraged to adopt a much more militant approach to constitutional affairs and have recently began making noises about holding a referendum on re-unification with the Republic. A third domino had fallen as a direct consequence of the SNP's aggressive nationalist abuse of their devolved remit. This rise in nationalist unconstitutional extremism in Northern Ireland is particularly worrying as under little known protocols attached to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement a nationalist dominated Stormont could hold a referendum on re-unification with the Republic of Ireland every seven years. This means that they could simply keep holding one referendum after another until they get the result that they want (a 'yes' to re-unification). This scenario has become frighteningly close to becoming real recently when Shinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, made significant gains in the 2017 local elections and were only just eclipsed by the Province's Unionists.
It has become apparent that this domino effect has begun to spread to England. Even though the idea of English regional assemblies was conclusively defeated in a referendum held in North-East England on 4th November 2004 by a margin of 77.9% to 22.1% (on a massive 48% turnout), the knock on effect of legislative devolution in Scotland, Wales and Ulster has led to a resurgence in the concept of English regional government. This idea was resurrected in 2012 when certain Northern MP's wrote a letter to The Observer newspaper and openly stated that it was time to reconsider having Northern regional assemblies (in England). They were clearly inspired by Scottish devolution. Huddersfield MP, Barry Sheerman wrote;
'The North has a much larger population than Scotland [which has an assembly]...we don't have a body to deal with strategic problems and issues for the North[of England].'
The public in these areas of the North started to have concerns that devolution had left the Northern regions (of England) as the poor relations of Scotland in terms of economic and political clout. These concerns were even more magnified when Holyrood got more powers in 2016 and would be further exacerbated if (or it would be more correct to say 'when') more powers are added in the future. The continual granting of new powers to the Welsh assembly has, and will continue to have, the same effect on England.
The extreme South–West of England has added another domino to the chain. The Duchy of Cornwall has, for a long time, had a history of a small minority of residents asserting that they have a separate cultural identity to the rest of England. They had a different language and certain elements considered themselves to be of different ethnic origin. However, Cornish became a dead language by the end of the Nineteenth Century having essentially ceased to be used by the vast majority of the population and the concept of a separate Cornish identity as a political issue declined and fell into abeyance as a result.
Modern Cornish nationalism was given impetus, ironically, by the failure of Gladstone's Irish home rule devolution policy. In order to make his devolution idea more relevant and viable Gladstone advocated the idea of home rule all round (IE to Scotland and Wales), but in doing so opened the door for Cornish nationalists to begin a campaign for Cornish autonomy. One area of long term support for Cornish autonomy was from supporters of Welsh self-government, who saw the Cornish as fellow Brythonic Celts, a very old canard as interbreeding with and the movement of Anglo-Saxon (and other) peoples from the rest of England had thoroughly reduced the Celtic predominance on the Cornish peninsular by this time. So, in summary, up until the post Second World War period, the concept of Cornish autonomy existed as a nebulous intellectual concept, but had no real substance and the issue rested (more or less).
Despite Mebyon Kernow, 'The sons of Cornwall', a political party that pushed for Cornish autonomy (IE a Cornish assembly) being formed in 1951, it was the introduction of legislative devolution in the late 1990's that really sparked interest in devolution in Cornwall. The Cornish Constitutional Convention launched a campaign for a devolved Cornish legislature on the back of the referenda in Scotland, Wales and Ulster that led to the setting up of devolved institutions in these areas. In October 2007, Andrew George, a Liberal Democrat MP stated;
'If Scotland is benefitting from devolution then Cornwall should learn from this and increase the intensity of its own campaign for devolution to a Cornish Assembly.'
Clearly, the domino effect was spreading further in England, thanks to devolution in other parts of the country. In 2009, Liberal Democrat MP William Rogerson presented a 'Government of Cornwall' Bill before the House Of Commons which argued for a devolved Cornish assembly that was very similar in set up to the Scots and Welsh legislatures. The domino effect like influence of Scots, Welsh and Ulster devolution is clear from the following statement made by Rogerson
'Cornwall has the right to a level of self-Government. If the Government is going to recognise the right of Scotland and Wales to greater self-determination because of their unique cultural and political positions, then they should recognise ours.'
There is a clearly discernible pattern of legislative devolution in one part of the UK, IE Scotland having a knock on effect on other parts in a domino like effect. The SNP in Scotland set the ball rolling by aggressively ignoring their devolved remit and this clearly encouraged other devolved regions like Wales and Ulster to follow suit and become more bellicose in their demands for more and more autonomy and even to push for full independence. Moreover, this phenomena has spread to England, as seen in the North-East and the South-West of the country. Legislative devolution has unleashed an uncontrollable wave of copycat aggressive nationalism that threatens to throw the British Isles back to the early Tenth Century days of being a disunited, warring hodgepodge of fiefdoms and kingdoms.
© 2017 Stephen Bailey.