Death by a Thousand Cuts: Devolution & the Union

February 19, 2016



On the 19th September 2014, a majority of Scots were able to breathe a sigh of relief as the nation firmly rejected separation. It was an opportunity to draw a line in the sand after a traumatic eighteen months or so in which the future of the UK hung in the balance. There was hope that the spectre of separation would no longer loom over us, that all the uncertainty would be over, and that we might be able to return to ‘normal’ politics focused on good governance and accountability.


This should have been what happened, and it is what the majority of Scots, as No voters, deserved. And yet, through a strange mix of panic, complacency, naivety and half-heartedness, the leaders of the mainstream unionist parties seemed almost to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory through the notorious Vow, in which David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg joined together on the eve of the referendum and proclaimed that “The Scottish Parliament is permanent and extensive new powers for the Parliament will be delivered”. Thus we were assured that if we rejected outright separation, they would give us a lesser degree of separation in its place.


Unsurprisingly, such a half-hearted and confused message had little electoral impact: only 3% percent of voters said they were swayed to vote No by the Vow; by contrast 30% said they did so because they regard themselves as British and believe in the Union [1]. But the Vow had been made and now it had to be delivered, with a mass transfer of powers to a separatist-run parliament in Edinburgh being backed by the Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems. And so rather than drawing a line in the sand, the referendum victory has instead led us into prolonged and contested set of negotiations on constitutional questions which continue to fuel the flames of grievance amongst nationalists, and leave unionists feeling that they are being sold-out and given something very close to independence by the back door.


Indeed, by the time of the referendum, the Scottish Parliament already seemed to dominate political life in Scotland. The standard UK politics of Left and Right, Labour and Tory, had long been replaced by the politics of nationalism, although without any sort of clearly unionist opposing force. Through the office of First Minister, SNP leaders Alex Salmond and then Nicola Sturgeon seemed to have become the national spokespeople. Step outside your door, and you would be far more likely to see a Saltire than a Union Jack flying from a civic building. Look at any government or quango facility and you would be more likely to see it stamped with a Scottish Government or even EU logo than you would a UK one. Even back then, it could often feel like we were living in an independent Scotland already. Since 56 SNP MPs were elected in May 2015 (95% of Scotland’s MPs on less than 50% of the Scottish vote), it seems that every time we hear of Scotland on the national UK-wide news, it is because some perceived Scottish interest is being pitted against that of Westminster. It is easy to forget that Scottish interests should really be the same as those of the UK. We seem to no longer be a functioning part of the UK whole.


This is a strange situation to find ourselves in when we so decisively voted to keep the UK together. Although the Union of 1707, which was fundamentally a parliamentary union, still in theory stands, somehow we once again have two parliaments throughout Scotland and England, with the one in Edinburgh seemingly increasingly dominant and serving as a sort of grievance factory, bereft of any accountability and able to rely on Westminster as a scapegoat for all of its serious and systematic failings.


Despite the rapid rise of the SNP and the nationalist movement, we didn’t arrive at this sad state of affairs overnight. And the truth is that this can’t all be blamed on the SNP either. This is because the recent and unparalleled heights of the nationalist movement and of the power of the Scottish Parliament are the culmination of a process that has been underway since 1997: a capitulation to the pressures of separatism, the abandonment of any sort of concept of the UK itself as a country, and the pursuit of selfish partisan interests by the mainstream unionist parties have all fuelled this process. As the Scotland Bill is pushed through with a raft of new powers for the Scottish Parliament that separate us ever further from the rUK, we must seek to understand this process and the direction in which it is taking us.


One could trace the disintegration of the UK back long before 1997, but that is the date to which the process of Scotland’s constitutional separation can be traced. Labour were the chief force in driving for some sort of Scottish assembly, which they believed would be their own private playground and effectively almost an entire parliament of safe Labour seats. The Lib Dems, firmly committed to a federalised UK, also supported it, as of course did the SNP and the Greens. The Conservatives were the only party to oppose the move, an opposition which they soon ditched as they took seats in the assembly. And so Scotland held its first separation referendum in 1997; not, as we might expect, at the call of nationalists, but rather at the behest of Scotland’s dominant and supposedly unionist party. With the idea now having been completely unnecessarily brought to the fore, the Yes campaign won on a comfortable majority of 74%. A second and smaller majority of 63% supported tax-raising powers for the new assembly.


The Scottish Parliament came into being and met for the first time on 12th May 1999. It was given power over all issues that had not been explicitly reserved to the British Parliament, and its competencies thus included education, health, social services, environment, agriculture, housing and local government, to name a few. The language of being “given power” does indeed sound empowering, until one considers that by the same token these powers are being lost somewhere else. Since English Votes for English Laws have been implemented in response to the asymmetries of devolution, Scots have lost a large amount of say at the British Parliament on all these matters as a consequence of the devolution process.


If things had stopped there, the Scottish Parliament may have been able to play a positive role within the UK as a devolved assembly. Unfortunately, as the separatist movement grew, it became increasingly clear that this was not going to happen. Instead of its powers being used for good governance, the Scottish Parliament has instead become involved in a constitutional tug-of-war with Westminster. It is no longer chiefly a means of good governance or for giving Scotland a voice in the UK, but rather a vehicle for separatism which constantly demands more and more powers, whether they are handed down from Westminster or taken from local government.


As a result of this, the Scottish Parliament has grown far beyond the bounds for which it was originally intended, or indeed what the Scottish people voted for in 1997. The Union has been constantly under attack since that date, as nationalists continually demand further separation by transferring powers from Westminster to Holyrood, and the unionist parties seem to be all too happy not only to roll over and concede these powers, but even to proactively campaign for handing them over. The Vow is a classic example of this, as are the multiple bills and transfers of powers to the Scottish Parliament.


Despite the extensive powers listed above, the Scottish Parliament has only ever accumulated more powers, nothing has ever been returned either to the British Parliament or to local councils. In 2005, Jack McConnell heralded “the most significant devolution of new powers to Scottish ministers since 1999” as power over railways was handed to the Scottish Executive. From 2007, the Scottish Executive was re-branded as the Scottish Government, a move brought about by the SNP to set themselves up as a national government to rival that of Westminster. From 2008, the now-Scottish Government was given extensive new powers relating to conservation, fishing, wind and wave energy for all sea areas at up to 200 miles off the Scottish coast.


That year, the Calman Commission began to meet, holding its first full meeting at the Scottish Parliament on 28th April 2008, and then meeting at monthly intervals until its final report in June 2009. This was a cross-party commission opposed by the SNP but supported by the ‘big three’ unionist parties. This should have been grounds for hoping that it would take a pro-Union, pro-UK stance, but so far was that from being the case that it actually advocated for a mass transfer of powers to the Scottish Parliament. These would have hugely weakened the role of the British Parliament in Scottish political life, and sold-out the Scottish people into a situation bordering on ‘independence-lite’. The Calman Commission praised the success of devolution and argued for the Scottish Parliament to be handed significant new tax-raising powers, borrowing powers, and a whole host of competencies covering things from airgun laws to Landfill Tax. Through this commission, the unionist parties were in fact more proactive than even the SNP in breaking apart the UK and pushing Scotland ever further down the path to separation.


These recommendations were realised in part through the Scotland Act of 2012, which delivered a substantial package of powers to Holyrood. The Scottish rate of income tax was introduced, to come into effect in April 2016. Borrowing powers were dramatically increased, full control of Stamp Duty, Land Tax and Landfill Tax was handed over from April 2015, while the Scottish Parliament was enabled to introduce entirely new taxes with UK Government approval. It was given a raft of new competencies over drug laws and speed limits to name just a couple; more worryingly, it was also given power to administer elections to the Scottish Parliament, allowing the incumbent SNP administration to timetable elections in a way that favours them. Most of these new powers had their roots in the unionist-backed Calman Commission, and indeed all three unionist parties supported their passage through parliament.


Naturally, none of this placated the nationalists, but rather emboldened them and led us into the independence referendum of 2014. By now, it might have been hoped that the unionist parties would have realised that devolution was not going to “kill nationalism stone dead”. But as we know, such hope would have been misplaced, because we were of course given the Vow and consequently a radical new set of devolutionary policies in the form of the Scotland Bill of 2015-16. This bill was based upon the recommendations of the Smith Commission, a five-party committee formed by the SNP, Greens, Labour, Lib Dems and Conservatives. All five parties on the committee supported a radical transfer of powers to the Scottish Parliament – these were not granted as concessions to the SNP but proactively supported by every so-called unionist party.


This new Scotland Bill is set to give the Scottish Parliament full control to vary income tax, management of the Crown Estate in Scotland, new tax powers for discretionary benefit payments and VAT, control over several benefits such as Disability Living Allowance, and significant new legislative powers over road signs, speed limits, oil and gas extraction and many other areas of everyday governance. Most worrying of all, it is set to make the Scottish Parliament permanent, a clear attack against the fundamental British democratic principle of parliamentary sovereignty. All in all, the bill will leave us stuck with a permanent and hugely powerful Scottish Parliament, almost certainly dominated by the SNP. Bear in mind that the Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems all fully support this bill as it passes through parliament.


Of course, we must not forget that the Scottish Parliament did not grow so powerful purely through devolution downwards from the British Parliament, but also upwards through taking power away from local government. The SNP have been widely criticised for turning the Scottish Parliament into one of the most aggressively centralising devolved administrations in the world.  Our old council-run police services were merged into the monolithic Police Scotland on 1st April 2013. On the very same day, council-run fire and rescue services were merged into Fire & Rescue Scotland. Meanwhile, the SNP have sustained their centrally-imposed council tax freeze, a serious attack on the autonomy of local councils.


Neither must we forget the constitutional changes that devolution is forcing at the UK level, which once again highlights the fact that the unionist parties are no true friends of the Union. As a response to the West Lothian Question, the Conservatives have pushed through English Votes for English Laws, a very ill-thought solution which ignores the fact that it is impossible to neatly separate devolved and non-devolved competencies. The Scottish Parliament often debates issues that would at first glance be thought to be outwith its remit. One recent example would be its vote on Trident – although defence is a reserved matter, employment is not, and the military employs people. The danger of EVEL is that it will fuel nationalist grievance, not entirely illegitimately in this case, by denying Scots a voice in their national UK parliament on matters that do affect them, even if only indirectly. With the passage of EVEL, Scottish MPs now truly are second-class MPs. Although unionist parties have pushed through English Votes for English Laws, and the SNP childishly responded with Scottish Votes for Scottish Laws, the truth is that the only coherent and indeed Unionist solution is British Votes for British Laws. Until we achieve that, any solutions are going to be messy and unsatisfactory under our complex and asymmetrical system of devolution.


All of this has understandably left Scotland’s unionists feeling weary and concerned for the future. But nothing has been so discouraging than the total lack of leadership or conviction shown by the mainstream unionist parties. The Smith Commission more than anything else typifies the nationalist-devolutionist consensus that dominates Scottish politics: the five-party committee of SNP, Greens, Labour, Lib Dems and Conservatives who worked hand-in-hand and in broad agreement with each other to push Scotland further away from the rUK through a mass transfer of powers to the Scottish Parliament. Most worrying perhaps is the fact that these powers are not being given as concessions to the SNP, but the unionist parties seem positively enthusiastic about delivering them. This stems from their understanding of the UK not as a country or nation state but as a “family of nations” or “union of nations” as David Cameron has described it, as if Britain was some sort of international organisation for the four component nations.


True Unionists know that this is not the case. We believe in Britain not just as some sort of mutually beneficial arrangement for Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland, but as something much deeper than that:  as a country, as a nation, as a people who are bound by common cultural, historic and political ties in much the same way that Frenchmen, Germans or Italians are. We view the UK as a country, as primarily a unitary state brought into being by the Union of 1707. And with those strong foundations in place, we believe in defending that Union from those who would tear it apart, whether they be outright separatists like the SNP, or radical devolutionists like the Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems whose policies will only end up in independence anyway. Scotland cannot continue to go any further down the path it has been driven down since 1997. Now is the time for Unionists to organise an effective opposition to separatism, and put a halt to the break-up of our country. We might not have many chances left.

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