The legacy of devolution – 25 years on

Winnie Ewing, SNP royalty – Madame Écosse to those who had served alongside her in the European Parliament – opened proceedings with a song in her voice and a twinkle in her eye. ‘The Scottish Parliament,’ said the oldest of its new members, ‘adjourned on 25th day of March in the year 1707, is hereby reconvened’. Applause rang out across the debating chamber. The sense of optimism, and possibility, was palpable on the morning of Wednesday, May 12, 1999. On the 25th anniversary of devolution, the mood is very different.  Holyrood was supposed to be home to a new kind of politics but, of course, there is no such thing. Today,

To save the Union, ignore Gordon Brown

As he blasts his way through the remaining support beams of the UK constitution, Gordon Brown is doing more to deliver Scottish independence than the SNP. The former Prime Minister is reportedly poised to recommend that Labour adopt ‘devo max’ as a policy, which would see the SNP-run Scottish parliament handed yet another tranche of powers. Only defence and foreign policy would remain in the hands of Westminster: everything else would be at the whim of Nicola Sturgeon. The theory is that by increasing the powers of Holyrood, the Scots’ appetite for independence will be sated. But is no evidence for this, and 23 years of evidence against it. From

Sunak backs the Union with cash, not love-bombs

Devolution has done so much to fracture the UK that, in Scotland, Rishi Sunak’s Budget is an event of the second order. Scottish interest in Budget day is typically limited to whisky duty, support for North Sea industries and the Barnett formula: the additional spending Scotland gets when the Chancellor splurges on England. Today’s Budget was for all of Britain. Not just Scotland, but Wales and Northern Ireland were weaved throughout Rishi Sunak’s speech. Quite apart from the fiscal or economic merits of the policies announced, the Chancellor’s speech was good politics. Not long after Sunak was promoted to the Treasury, I was told Scotland was a weak spot for him

Devolution doesn’t work in a crisis

One of the worst features of devolution is the tendency of devocrats to insist on doing their own thing in all circumstances and at whatever cost. The idea that decentralisation would lead to experimentation and the sharing of best practice now seems hopelessly naive. Instead, politicians in Edinburgh and Cardiff try to use nationalism to earth criticism, treating an attack on their records as an insult to the Scottish or Welsh people. Perhaps the most abject example was when a Welsh minister accused Michael Gove of harbouring ‘colonial attitudes’ when the then-education secretary penned an article comparing English and Welsh school outcomes. Even the evidence base that might have supported

No, Boris didn’t ‘snub’ Sturgeon

One of the reasons the SNP has dominated Scottish politics for so long is that it is extremely adept at turning any crisis into a political crisis. So it is with the recent figures revealing that the Scottish government has overseen a truly appalling rise in drugs deaths over the ten years it has been in office. Scotland now has the highest per capita rates in Europe, several times higher than those of England or Wales. Yet if you ask Nicola Sturgeon, this is all somehow Westminster’s fault. The area is reserved and the Misuse of Drugs Act prevents Scotland introducing safe consumption rooms — so-called ‘shooting galleries’ — which

Boris could make devolution reform his legacy – if he has the ambition

Today marks two years since Boris Johnson accepted Her Majesty’s invitation to serve as her fourteenth Prime Minister. His tenure was meant to be all about Brexit but so far has mostly been about Covid, yet the invisible theme running under it all is the constitution. Britain is almost a quarter-century on from the legislative devolution experiments in Scotland, Wales and London, which leeched power away from Parliament and created rival seats of political authority to Westminster. Scotland is where devolution has taken its most aggressive form and where it has done the most to undermine the Union, parliamentary sovereignty and even the continued existence of the United Kingdom itself.

Cummings reveals the Unionist heart of darkness

Like Walter Kurtz, Dominic Cummings had immense plans but was tripped on the threshold of greatness by the weaknesses of his superiors. Now he holds court from his fortress temple of Substack where, in the fashion of Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard, subscribers receive his glum musings on Covid strategy, systems management and judicial review. Cummings is sometimes regarded as a brilliant sociopath and while I sway back and forth on whether the emphasis belongs on the adjective or the noun, his insights into how government really works are immensely valuable to understanding policy-making, implementation and the impotence of power. I have come to the view that, if you want to

Can Jeffrey Donaldson halt the DUP’s civil war?

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the Lagan Valley MP, has triumphed in the one-horse race to replace Edwin Poots as leader of the DUP, getting the top job at the second time of asking. Nobody else came forward to instigate a leadership election, meaning that his appointment will be rubber stamped when the party’s electoral college meets this Saturday. Respected at Westminster, Donaldson seems a more plausible fit for high office than the gauche Poots, though both men are remarkably similar; Donaldson, like Poots, is a committed Christian and is a prominent Orangeman. History is never far away from the politics of Northern Ireland. Donaldson’s win coincides with the centenary of the

King of Fortress Wales: an interview with Mark Drakeford

Mark Drakeford sits opposite me in a small conference room on the third floor of Cathays Park, the nucleus of Welsh government operations during Covid-19. The First Minister of Wales is in bullish mood. Last month, he almost single-handedly delivered a thumping election victory for Labour in Wales – securing 30 seats in the Senedd and extending Labour’s 22-year-grip over the devolved parliament. The party in Wales enjoys starkly different electoral fortunes to its comrades across the border, with Drakeford now Labour’s only leader with experience winning national elections across the UK. I meet him a few hours after the first devolved Covid summit, where he and other devolved leaders

Scrapping English votes for English laws could spell trouble

It has been almost 45 years since Tam Dalyell first asked the West Lothian Question. It is a damning indictment of devolutionary unionists that they are still flailing for an answer. Dalyell, a Scottish Labour MP with the uncommon foresight and courage to oppose his party’s embrace of devolution, first posed it during the parliamentary debates that teed up the first referendums in 1979: ‘For how long will English constituencies and English Honourable members tolerate … at least 119 Honourable Members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland exercising an important, and probably often decisive, effect on English politics while they themselves have no say in the same matters in Scotland,

Could Holyrood ever be abolished?

Although Alex Salmond and his Alba party have understandably been getting most of the attention, the separatists aren’t the only side riven with divisions over a new challenger. Unionist relations, especially between the Conservatives and partisans of George Galloway’s ‘All for Unity’ outfit, grow more rancorous by the day. To the former, the latter resemble little more than a band of egotists hell-bent on clawing their way into Holyrood even if the result is fewer pro-Union MSPs. The latter, having largely abandoned their original idea of ‘uniting to win’, are pitching themselves to angry Unionist voters as a chance to clear out the old guard and have a ‘real opposition’.

How Unionists can battle against devocrats

This week, the government published its first Union Connectivity Review report. You’d be forgiven for mistaking this for another boring sounding Whitehall transport initiative that inevitably fails to get off the ground. But this seemingly inoffensive review has triggered the latest round of allegations from the devolved administrations that Westminster is engaging in a ‘power grab’. Doesn’t the Prime Minister know that transport is devolved, they cry? If the Treasury has extra money to spend, it should simply hand it over to the governments in Edinburgh, Cardiff, and Belfast to spend as they see fit. But there is an obvious problem with the ‘transport is devolved’ mantra. One can see

Welsh politics shows how devolution has failed

Wales often gets left out when people write and think about the Union. People denounce Brexit as an ‘English’ project despite the Principality voting Leave. Now Scotland is (finally) stealing the headlines with the Salmond scandal, and Northern Ireland looks like it will soon be centre-stage as Unionist opposition to the Government’s Northern Irish Protocol hardens. But something genuinely interesting is happening in Welsh politics. If a new poll published for St David’s Day is any indication, politics in Cardiff Bay could be about to become much more polarised around the constitutional question. Labour have held office in Wales ever since the advent of devolution in 1999, and always been

Boris was right: Scottish devolution has been a disaster

Boris Johnson says devolution has been a ‘disaster’. This has the rare quality for a Boris statement of being true but he, or rather the Scottish Tories, will be made to pay a political price for it. Barely had the contents of the Prime Minister’s remarks in a Zoom chat with northern MPs been reported than Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross was at the Twitter barricades: Far from subduing the forces of nationalism, devolution built the separatists their own command centre at the foot of the Royal Mile The division of labour here is this: Boris is right intellectually, Ross is right politically. Devolution has been a disaster. We know

I’m turning into an English nationalist

One of the things I hadn’t anticipated about the pandemic is that it would turn me into an English nationalist. At the time of writing, the governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have decided to place their countries under various forms of lockdown, while No. 10 has stopped short of imposing one on England with some Tier 3 hotspots. The explanation for this divergence is simple. The Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish executives don’t need to worry about the economic harm the lockdowns will cause because they know that Westminster will come to their rescue. Boris, by contrast, cannot afford to be so reckless because England has no equivalent

Devolutionary theory: How Westminster is killing the Union

Robert Conquest’s third law (which may not have been his third law) says that the behaviour of any bureaucratic organisation is most easily explained if one assumes it has been captured by enemy secret agents. This maxim often comes to mind when I read about the UK government’s latest wheeze to ‘save the Union’. Ministers’ new ideas are invariably the same idea they’ve been having for a decade now: devolution has failed, let’s have more of it. The Tories have already transferred more powers to Holyrood twice, in 2012 and 2016, and both times we were assured that doing so would subdue the separatists. And that was the last we heard