It must feel to Westminster Conservatives sometimes as if Scottish politics is booby-trapped. It all looks perfectly straightforward from where they’re standing, but within seconds of stepping into it, they’re hanging by an ankle from a tree bough surrounded by threatening natives.
Boris Johnson is still nursing his welts after wandering unguardedly into the devolution debate on Monday. He said the process had been a “disaster” and “Tony Blair’s biggest mistake”.
He might as well have stood on Hadrian’s Wall with a target painted on his chest.
Much has been said about his astonishing faux pas in handing the SNP such an advantage, as if the problem wasn’t so much thinking it as saying it out loud.
But the real issue is much more fundamental than that: it’s what the Prime Minister’s remarks betray about his understanding – or lack of it – about devolution and Scotland. He has a bad case of what generations of Scottish politicians have termed “Westminsteritis”, a debilitating condition associated with myopia and tunnel vision, preventing the sufferer from seeing the country from any perspective other than from the central command centre in SW1.
If he understood more about devolution, the penny might drop that the UK needs more of it – not just because federalism is the only way there’s a snowball’s chance for the UK Government to prevent Scottish independence, but because the Scottish experience suggests the British public might be happier if they could have a bit of what we Scots are having.
Devolution is popular, genuinely popular. People in Scotland consistently hold their parliament and government in higher esteem than Westminster.
That’s because it offers them important things that Westminster doesn’t.
Obviously Holyrood has brought government closer to the people and is focused entirely on Scottish affairs.
But crucially, the Parliament much more accurately reflects political opinion in Scotland than Westminster does because it’s elected according to a more proportional voting system. People feel their votes matter.
Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the representation of the Scottish Conservatives. Scottish Tory voters spent nearly 20 years after 1997 feeling disenfranchised in UK General Elections, electing no more than one MP at a time in spite of averaging a 16 per cent vote share.
At Holyrood by contrast Conservative voters’ interests have been represented all the way through by a sizeable and noisy group of Tory MSPs.
That’s not all. With the major exception of the independence question, there is something closer to consensus in Scotland than in the UK about the sort of society people want and the role of government in it. That vision could broadly be described as inclusive and progressive.
You can see this most clearly looking at the distinctive identity of the Scottish Tories compared to their Westminster counterparts. For instance, the anti-immigration rhetoric common among Tories south of the Border has been absent here, the Scottish Conservatives mostly opposed Brexit and the party is on board with high spending to tackle poverty – just listen to Douglas Ross talking about free school meals.
MSPs have never taken a really major decision that has lacked majority public support. This might help explain why, so far at least, Scottish voters have never shown any significant sign of feeling alienated from Holyrood or the Scottish Government.
How different from Westminster, where Leave won the Brexit referendum by a whisker only for the Government to be taken over by hardliners who went to war with Parliament and will deliver a basic deal or perhaps a no-deal Brexit which no one actually voted for.
The need for the governing party in Scotland to attract support from other parties to pass legislation, helps promote a spirit of compromise, albeit a limited one.
But Scotland is also a small and relatively cohesive society. A large proportion of Scots live in post-industrial communities, creating a certain affinity across regional lines. You can overstate this, of course: there is also great diversity within this small country, for instance between the Highlands and the Central Belt. But the differences in history and lived experience that sets millions of northerners apart from millions of southerners in England, is absent here.
What can the UK Government learn from all this? Well firstly that in a large and diverse country where people’s interests vary according to where they live, then devolution is a very good idea. It gives people who have felt overlooked a real chance to shape their own futures.
But there’s also this: that as long as Westminster is elected by first-past-the-post, then people whose votes do not contribute to electing an MP will feel alienated from politics. Westminster’s is an adversarial, winner-takes-all system; each voter is either a winner or a loser. That cannot fail to create dissatisfaction.
Unfortunately, Boris Johnson either does not see or does not accept any of this. His most striking misunderstanding, to me at any rate, is his belief that devolution was Mr Blair’s miscalculation, as if refusing a Scottish Parliament would have quelled calls for independence.
I’m quite sure the opposite is true. So overwhelming was the moral case for a Scottish Parliament, and so strong was Scottish public support for it, that had Labour resisted it, then anger and disaffection (see above under “disenfranchised”) would have bubbled over and fuelled support for the SNP and independence: let’s not forget how formidable a campaigner Alex Salmond was. The case for Holyrood was simply irresistible.
If we could zoom out and see this debate in its global and historical context, I suspect we would see that it is part of a bigger story. The deferential society has been breaking down since the war. Discriminatory attitudes to minorities are no longer tolerated. Perhaps we should see the desire for self-determination in Britain’s nations and regions as part of that story. No sensible politician in 2020 should expect to be able to resist further devolution if that’s what voters in parts of Britain want.
Scotland is far from immune to serious internal division – the last independence referendum cleaved us in two and no doubt the next one will too – but devolution did not create that divide.
If Mr Johnson wants to shore up the UK, he should be learning from devolution, not blaming it.
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