At this juncture in the current political life of the UK, there appears to be something of a dichotomy of opinion between Unionists in what approach and tactics to adopt towards the increasingly divisive and corrosive effects that the process of legislative devolution has had on national unity in the UK. On the one hand, some Unionists think that what could be described as a policy of electoral defeat is the best approach. This approach entails simply marshalling the case against nationalism and trying to persuade the electorate of the devolved regions to see through nationalism and consequently vote them out of office. On the other hand stands those who believe that such a policy can only be a temporary measure and that the only way to permanently cure the nationalist neverendum is to cut off their ability to abuse their devolved remit and use their ‘national’ parliaments or assemblies to push for independence referenda: abolish legislative devolution completely.
It should be pointed out, just for clarification, that Unionism is a very broad idea, and everybody’s views are welcome within it. By defining what one Unionist believes to be a valid approach to the topic in no way invalidates the ideas of other Unionists. Everybody is welcome in Unionism. There is no such thing as THE Unionist point of view, but rather Unionist POINTS of view. You’ll rarely find two Unionists who hold exactly matching views on the topic of Unionism. However, certain broad themes that can unite all Unionists are necessary in order to provide a broad, general, but coordinated, structure to help advance the Unionist cause.
One group of Unionists, who like to label themselves as ‘progressive’, accept the advent of legislative devolution and it’s various regional parliaments and assemblies and advocate that the correct way forward for Unionism is to embrace this and challenge and defeat nationalism by working through the electoral process to convince people by marshalling counter-arguments to vote for pro-Union parties in these devolved executives. Indeed, in Northern Ireland, such people (a sizeable minority) have advocated governance through a regional parliament for many years. In the other devolved regions of the UK (Scotland and Wales) the narrative is different, mostly for historical reasons. Northern Ireland was ruled from just after partition in 1921 to 1972 by its own parliament and even had its own ‘Prime Minister’. Direct rule from London was brought in after the Provisional IRA began their terrorist campaign. Thus, people in the Province are more used to devolved democratic constitutional arrangements. However, this is not the case in Scotland and Wales, where devolved executives have only existed for twenty years. In these two regions of the UK governance was conducted entirely through the relevant Secretary of State and his or her office (I.E. the Scottish and Welsh Office).
In the other constituent parts of the UK, Scotland and Wales, after the advent of legislative devolution in the late 1990’s there grew up a section of the Unionist community who, over time, began to accept the new constitutional arrangements. At the same time, there also existed a group of Unionists who, like their compatriots in Northern Ireland, has always adhered to the view that their part of the UK should have it’s own assembly, though it should be pointed out that they still believed in the Union, but thought that their region of the UK should have it’s own local assembly that only dealt with local affairs. Also, it should be noted that these Unionists were never the majority strand in Unionism anywhere in the UK and they were more prevalent in Scotland than in Wales, where the idea of a Welsh assembly was rejected massively by a 79% margin in the 1979 referendum on devolution under the then Labour government of Jim Callaghan. This group of Unionists, who like to style themselves as ‘progressive’ (Infact a misnomer as you don’t have to believe in regional assemblies to be progressive) came to believe that, as they either wanted the regional assemblies to exist or had come to accept them as a fact of life, the way to deal with the monster of modern aggressive nationalism was to pursue a policy of endeavouring to defeat them at the ballot box and get them out of office, thus removing the threat that they posed to the Union.
Another strand within Unionism rejected this approach and believed that legislative devolution was a grave error that would be terminal to the existence of a unitary UK and would simply be the precursor to the complete dissolution of the Union. This group saw the ominous potential for regional assemblies to be utilized by modern aggressive nationalism, as personified by the SNP (but also by the other UK nationalist parties, Plaid Cymru, the SDLP and Sinn Fein/IRA), as a vehicle for pursuing an anti-UK agenda of independence and also saw that the only viable way of combatting this was to eliminate the mechanism that enabled nationalism to pursue this course in the first place -the devolved executives.
The irrational and excessive hankering of 'progressive' Unionists after local assemblies that would simply deal with local (IE Scottish, Wales and NI) matters and never touch national issues has been completely discredited by the practical experience of the last twenty years of legislative devolution.
The idea of local executives contained by reserved and devolved remits that some 'progressive' Unionists seem to be fixated on having, despite all the evidence of its results in real-world operation, is now completely dead as a valid form of maintaining the Union.
Modern aggressive nationalism has hijacked these local executives and transformed them into proto-national governments.
We simply wouldn't be in the current mess we are today if it wasn't for 'progressive' Unionism gifting nationalism the opportunity to rise to power and begin the process of breaking up the UK through the constitutionally illegal expansion of legislative devolution as a vehicle for independence. Legislative devolution was simply a mistake that is endangering the unitary nature of the UK that needs to be abolished.
In early November 2017, ex-SNP leader Alex Salmond, attempting to stoke up support for another independence referendum amongst his supporters, proclaimed that: 'The British state has never been weaker.' The sad fact is he's right. The UK, a once stable and mature country and democracy, is now an unstable, balkanized political joke, teetering on the edge of becoming a failed state. If you examine the events in the devolved regions in the last twenty years it is seen that it is legislative devolution that has brought us to this state of affairs. Legislative devolution has enabled modern aggressive nationalism to rise to power in their devolved legislatures, ignore their devolved remit, interfere in reserved constitutional matters and push very aggressively for independence.
It is also partly the fault of the so-called 'progressive' Unionists who cling to the obviously discredited belief that legislative devolution can be contained as just local executives dealing with purely local matters and the Commons dealing with national issues. It is the manifestly obvious conclusion of any dispassionate observer that legislative devolution has failed to fulfil its original purpose of just being 'autonomy within the UK' and has been utilized in the way described in the above paragraph by modern aggressive nationalism, as personified by the SNP, to turn the devolved executives into proto-national governments. This is undeniably true in the case of Scotland.
Once again, it needs to be stressed that legislative devolution CANNOT be contained as merely local executives dealing with purely local matters and that there is now an extremely pressing need to abolish all the devolved executives and replace them with a thoroughgoing policy of administrative devolution which will keep power localized and close to tbe public and 100% guarantee the Union as there is no 'national' executive through which modern aggressive nationalism can push for independence.
Legislative devolution has the fundamental flaw that it leaves the door open for nationalists to make a subsequent comeback after losing power in the devolved 'national' parliament or assembly at a later date after being voted out of office and begin again trying to break up the UK. Indeed, the SNP, and other UK nationalists, can be voted out of office, but this might only be temporary and they can inveigle their way back into power at a later date and begin the neverendum all over again. This process of the nationalists continuously getting back into power could end with them eventually succeeding in their aim of independence.
It is foolish to keep endangering the UK by playing dice with the Union in letting this dangerous process, enabled by legislative devolution, go on and on until it succeeds. The ONLY safe way to permanently stop the nationalists neverendum is to disable their ability to pursue it-abolish Holyrood and the other devolved executives.
But this is undemocratic people may say. There is a way that you can both guarantee the Union and solve any democratic deficit issues. Under administrative devolution, in which the devolved executives are abolished and power over local matters is given to local councils, it is still possible for the SNP, or any other nationalist party, to get into power in an area if the majority vote for it. They will still control that area if they win a majority of the council seats. Similarly, it's true that nationalists could still control their part of the UK (IE Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland) If the electorate vote them in all of the local councils in Scotland, Wales or NI. Therefore, administrative devolution is PERFECTLY democratic.
What they CAN'T do is abuse their devolved remit and use their 'national' parliament or assembly to push for independence, as it is undeniable that the SNP have been doing with Holyrood over the last 10 years they've been ensconced in power. Thus, the Union is 100% guaranteed.
Administrative devolution is democratic, fair to all and guardian of the Union.
The complete abolition of Holyrood (and the Welsh assembly and Stormont) is the only viable solution to modern aggressive nationalism.
Some Unionists are of the opinion that they can work with their devolved executive and that the monomaniacal, pathological push for independence that legislative devolution has enabled the nationalists to undertake can be contained as all the Unionists will get together and vote down any independence bid. This idea doesn't stack up in practice.
This approach may succeed for a while, but we now know that the SNP are simply going to hold one referenda after another until they get the result they want; one SNP MSP admitted as much a while back. In the end the SNP could easily snatch a surprise victory due to some random variable that can't be predicted. I, for one, am not prepared to play dice with the Union and leave its future to chance of any kind.
The matter of democratic deficit in Scotland can be addressed by replacing legislative with administrative devolution. Under this system power is given to local councils. This way power is kept localized in Scotland, Wales and Ulster and as the electorate of these regions directly vote these councils in the democratic deficit issue is solved. Also, the Union is guaranteed as there is no devolved parliament to initiate independence referenda.
The complete abolition of legislative devolution is the only practical solution to the problem of modern aggressive nationalism.
Taking all factors into consideration, the safest and wisest policy for Unionism to adopt going forward into the future is to work together as an effective and coherent group to secure Unionism's future by voting for Unionist parties in the upcoming 2021 Holyrood election in order to eliminate the threat of the SNP claiming they have a mandate from the Scottish electorate for another independence referendum (and to get rid of them general). This should be Unionism's short-term aim. In the longer term, however, the most effective way to permanently remove the divisive cycle of the nationalist neverendum is to work for the removal of the mechanism that has enabled them to pursue their anti-UK agenda-completely abolish legislative devolution.
© 2017 Stephen Bailey.