Devolution is not the Solution

The biggest challenge facing the next generation of unionists will probably not be a direct separatist challenge to the Union.

Scottish capital-N Nationalism has stalled as Brexit pulls the rug from beneath ‘independence in Europe’; Welsh separatism remains a very minority pursuit; and whilst the situation in Northern Ireland is more precarious it’s economic circumstances are such that it would likely take the active collusion of the British Government to make any merger with the Republic viable in the decades ahead.

The task facing unionists of my generation is an internal one: shaking off the decaying intellectual orthodoxies of the devolution movement.

Since 1997, and arguably for several decades before that, unionism has been in thrall to the very whiggish idea that there is somewhere a ‘solution’ to separatist sentiment – some combination of powers and payments which will satiate the nationalists and stabilise the constitution. The foundational logic of the Scottish Parliament was to “kill nationalism stone dead”, and when that signally failed to work the devolutionaries have (much like revolutionaries all over) kept insisting that it just needs one more heave, one more round of “more powers!”, for the whole thing to come right.

The insidious effect of the devolutionary capture of the leadership of unionism is, two decades on from its crucial triumphs in the Welsh and Scottish referendums, undeniable. Not only has the incessant flow of powers out of Westminster failed to deliver better governance, constitutional stability, or weaker nationalism, but until recently the new arrangements have been placed almost entirely beyond criticism.

As a result, popular devo-scepticism remains stubbornly under- or even unrepresented in any of our legislatures, which in turn helps to fuel the devolutionary ratchet effect. Even worse, unionists are obliged to behave as if this ‘new United Kingdom’ were what we wanted all along. Thus when the Nationalists, who of course continue to unashamedly strive for their desired end state of independence, demand more concessions (or ‘compromises’) we are ill-equipped to point out that the Scottish Parliament is the compromise.

The nadir of this process could be seen during the Scottish independence referendum, when many on the ‘No’ side set out a position they termed the “best of both worlds”. It involved Scotland cutting the British dimension out of more decision-making than ever, whilst retaining undiminished access to UK fiscal transfers. Suffice to say, you aren’t saying much to Britain’s credit if you suggest that the only thing it brings to an ideal arrangement is cash.

What we have forgotten, or at least stopped pointing out, is that Britain is a nation, and ‘the British’ are a legitimate community for political decision making (although witness how both nationalist and devolutionary politicians and commentators have been confounded by popular acceptance of a vote to leave the EU conducted on just that basis). That at its best the Union is a way of ‘pooling and sharing’ wisdom and experience as well as money.

Shedding several decades’ of devolutionary intellectual baggage will not be easy. Whilst devo-sceptic sentiment is no longer quite as verboten as once it was, there are still too few prepared to make the case in public. The old more-powers orthodoxy will also be fiercely defended, both by those unionists of the old guard who have staked their reputation on the wisdom of devolution and by the new class of devocrats – politicians, journalists, academics, and civil society figures who derive some combination of power, pay, and prestige from the new institutions – which have grown up around the various legislatures.

But shed it we must. Constitutional malfunctions play out at a glacial pace compared to politics, and time and again we have seen politicians making short-term concessions only to leave the next generation dealing with the consequences.

Brexit has illustrated why this is necessary: too many unionists joined forces with the nationalists to fight the Government over the devolution of powers after Brexit, with potentially serious implications for the long-term harmony of the British internal market.

Yet it has also shown that it can be done. Contra to the received wisdom of the ‘fragile Union’ theorists, who posited that disappointing the separatists on any major issue would break up the UK, the Leave vote has revealed the British people still willing to act as ‘the British people’, and accept the result of a country-wide vote even if the result went differently in their local patch – much to the disbelieving dismay of devocrats in Edinburgh and Cardiff.

We must seize this opportunity. If we don’t wrest the leadership of unionism back from the professional pessimists, their self-fulfilling prophecies will come to pass in time.


Henry Hill has covered the Union and constitutional issues for ConservativeHome for over six years, and has also written on the subject for Reaction, CapX, and the Daily Telegraph. He tweets at @HCH_Hill.