Devolution has been a “disaster” in Scotland, and was Tony Blair’s “biggest mistake”. Boris Johnson has only said what is almost certainly the quiet consensus in the British establishment, but it’s important that the words are now on record.
I would wager that Blair thinks the same. You have to see devolution from the the perspective of the time in which it was created, rather than with the benefit of hindsight. Former Nato Secretary General George Robertson said he thought devolution would “kill nationalism stone dead”. The thinking among the Labour elite was that Scottish representation would create a more inclusive British political identity after the ravages of the Thatcher years. And since this was the “end of history”, as Francis Fukuyama famously put it, with free-market capitalism triumphant and no real fundamental conflicts over how the world should be run, Scottish nationalism would be shown up by Holyrood as an irrelevant anachronism. Blair and Brown pushed forward with devolution based on the complete conviction that a modern British state was on the right side of history, and would be shown to be so.
For the Tories, the picture is somewhat different. The Conservatives opposed devolution in the 1997 referendum, but quickly converted to being advocates after the vote. The Conservatives have in many ways been beneficiaries from the Scottish Parliament, as the rise of the SNP has caused enormous damage to their only rival, Labour, while at the same time giving them a new lease of life north of the border as the party of anti-Scottish nationalism. But what Johnson’s words reflect is a concern which goes beyond party political concern, to the interest of the British establishment in general. Hence why he says Blair made a big error – Scottish devolution is something the whole of the British ruling class now needs to be concerned with, due to its potentially grave consequences for the Union. Devolution in hindsight has clearly created almost the perfect mechanism to rally discontent towards the British state in an age of crisis.
It speaks to the Bullingdon boy’s inability to see beyond elite interests that he singled out Scottish devolution specifically as a disaster. Any objective analysis would find that Scotland is the one place where devolution could be said to be a clear success. The Northern Irish parliament is in chaos and the Welsh parliament has largely failed to make its mark in terms of turning around economic decline post-Thatcher. The prime minister’s only criteria for a successful devolution is a compliant devolution. Manoeuvres to neuter the Scottish Parliament, like the Internal Market Bill, should be seen in that context – there is no big vision for Scotland’s future here, nor for the Union as a whole, it’s simply an attempt to find ways to castrate the SNP’s power.
We should not expect Johnson’s comments to now lead to a full-frontal assault on the Scottish Parliament. The prime minister is far too cowardly for that. Indeed, spin doctors are already trying to water down Johnson’s remark, with a Number 10 source telling the BBC that “the PM has always supported devolution”. Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross will probably be spitting teeth.
The prime minister’s comment to his northern MPs should be seen not as part of a dastardly master-plan, but as the desperate frustrations of a former Mayor of London with little understanding of the country as a whole and little constitutional direction to offer beyond delivering Brexit. It’s just one more sign of decline in the leadership capabilities of Britain’s political class, who are flying by the seat of their pants into numerous head-winds.
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