The final part of The Majority’s three-part series on the failure of Scottish Devolution and the options to reform or abolish the Scottish Parliament.
The first part of this series covered how legislative devolution grew from a concept into the reality of the Scottish Assembly, and talked about how, rather than acting as a bulwark against nationalism, it has become a UK Government-funded vehicle for nationalism and constitutional division.
The second part of the series talked about the costs of running the Parliament, and its history of waste and scandal and asked if this money, time and energy could be spent more wisely.
Beyond an honest discussion of the value of the Parliament itself, it is necessary to have an honest discussion about alternatives, rather than the knee-jerk responses to the issue that have been common up to now.
Surveys in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland have determined that disillusionment with their respective parliaments is increasing as their manifest failure to improve the living and working conditions of ordinary citizens or provide good governance, becomes ever more obvious. The most recent survey that asked if The Scottish Parliament should be abolished was conducted by YouGov in 2021. It delivered the following results:
- Yes: 20%
- No: 65%
- Don’t know: 10%
- Would not vote: 3%
As expected, those who voted Yes in the 2014 election (83%), and SNP voters (91%), are those most likely to want to retain the Scottish Parliament, followed by Labour voters (65%). 59% of conservatives would have voted to abolish it. However, in this survey, 32% of those who voted No in 2014 would not abolish the Parliament.
If not at a regional parliament, then where do voters in favour of abolishing the devolved executives think decisions impacting their communities ought to be made?
Around half of those in favour of abolishing the Scottish and Welsh parliaments think that political decisions should be taken by the UK government, while around a third think that such power ought to be devolved further toward their local communities (administrative devolution).
When asked ‘who is best placed to make decisions for your community’, 40% of Conservatives think that the UK Government should make decisions, 15% think the Scottish Government is best, and 37% think Local Government should do so. In the case of Labour, 11% think the UK Government is best placed, 49% think the Scottish Government is best placed, 31% of Labour thinking that local authorities are best placed to do so.
However, the 2021 survey does not take into account:
- Recent events, including the criminal investigation of the SNP
- The resignation of Nicola Sturgeon
- The uncovering of various scandals in the Scottish parliament
- A resurgent Labour that would increase Labour supporters’ trust in the UK Government
- Campaigns by third-party groups to educate voters on the issue
- Education on the various alternatives to abolition
What needs to be done
Any reformed system needs to have concrete aims. At a minimum, these should include:
- Reducing constitutional conflict
- Improving resource allocation
- Ensuring that funding is delivered to where it is needed effectively
- Lessening waste
- Decentralisation from Edinburgh
- Tax harmonisation across the UK
First, more accountability
The years of ‘devolve and forget’ have proven a disaster. Given the deliberate flouting of their devolved remit and the incompetence of SNP controlled Holyrood in framing new laws and accounting for exceptionally large sums of money given to them by the UK Government, at a minimum, the devolved administrations need to be more visibly accountable to the central government.
The UK Government must make it clear that if the devolved legislatures don’t operate in compliance with the various laws governing the legislative devolution ‘settlement’, then strict sanctions will be taken against them.
A simple way to improve legislative devolution is to set up a committee at Westminster that has full legal oversight to scrutinise the actions of the Scottish administration. This remit should include all legislation produced by the Parliament, including how it disperses funds given to it by the UK Government, and should include the ability to demand a full audit trail. The committee should also hold the power, under law, to demand an explanation for any discrepancies uncovered and recommend action, such as prosecution, to the appropriate authorities.
This committee should also have the ability to exercise a veto on all proposed legislation from the devolved executives. Once a proposed bill has been published at any of the devolved legislatures, it would be passed to the committee, which would then spend as long as necessary looking at the bill’s details to see if there are any issues with it.
If problems are found, they should be listed and the bill passed back to its originating legislature for reconsideration, with the necessary information that has been uncovered on its deficiencies, so that they can be corrected. When the bill has been adjusted, it could be forwarded back to the committee for reconsideration.
If the new version of the bill is judged, after further scrutiny, to have corrected the issues listed previously, it can receive Royal Assent and pass onto the statute book, becoming a new law. If it still has deficiencies, these should be listed again and the bill, plus a list of the new deficiencies, sent back for further adjustment. There should be no limit on how many times a bill can be considered and adjusted. The most important factor is not the length of time taken to consider new legislation, but its compliance with constitutional law – and its quality.
There are signs that the net is tightening. Scotland Office minister Lord Offord of Garvel recently said in a debate at the House of Lords that, though devolved administrations can promote certain aspects of their part of the UK internationally (such as cultural events), they have to remain within the scope of their devolved remit and cannot discuss reserved matters, like the UK Constitution, trade or foreign affairs and the SNP has breached the law by discussing these matters with foreign governments.
He says these breaches of constitutional law have come to the attention of the UK Government, which now plans to strictly monitor the activities of the SNP in this respect ‘very closely’.
This is definitely a move in the right direction. This is a sensible approach that ensures the SNP (and the other anti-UK nationalists) stop abusing their devolved remit.
But this still does not address the underlying problem.
Devolution is the problem, not who runs it
Shouldn’t we reform, rather than abolish?
Devolution has enabled the SNP to rise to dominance at Holyrood, displacing Labour, and to use the apparatus of ‘government’ as a platform to advance the cause of breaking up the UK. If there was no Holyrood, the SNP simply wouldn’t be in anything like the position in which they are now to promote independence.
Before the introduction of legislative devolution, all three anti-UK nationalist parties were just fringe extremists contained by the 600 or so other Unionist MP’s in the House of Commons, who could simply vote down any nationalist attempts at getting a referendum, irrespective of how many MPs they had. Legislative devolution destroyed the checks and balances on extremist parties and greatly enhanced their ability to undemocratically force their agenda on their part of the UK, against the will of the majority.
One only needs to look at how the extremist and electorally unpopular Scottish Greens have been able to use the SNP’s desire for a majority of seats in the Scottish Parliament, to impose their will on the SNP and the population of Scotland. Effectively, a minority of Green list MSPs are propping up a minority SNP administration to impose their extremist anti-business and gender policies against the wishes of the majority of Scots, who did not vote for either party. This extremism also affects the entire UK, as the minority SNP, supported by the minority Greens, try to subvert UK laws, such as the Scotland Act and UK equalities law.
Some people, including a number of pro-UK voters and politicians, argue that devolution would work if the SNP weren’t in charge at Holyrood, but this isn’t the case, as they will never give up on pursuing independence. So long as Holyrood exists, and there is a chance that they can get back into power again, they will just eternally pursue the neverendum, pushing for one poll on independence after another, until they get the result they want.
We can see this in the SNP’s last leadership contest, where Ash Regan said that a result of 50%+1 of the votes and seats for pro ‘independence’ parties in any Holyrood or UK General Election, would mean that she would start independence preparations with the UK Government automatically. Red meat for the indy hardcore, with scant disregard for the Supreme Court’s ruling that the Scottish executive has no competence on constitutional issues.
Tam Dalyell’s prescience has been vindicated on legislative devolution. It is the process of legislative devolution, its mere existence, that has led to the current constitutional crisis faced by the United Kingdom today. A system that can be hijacked by nationalists is, by its very nature, one that is broken.
Voting out the SNP can only be a short-term measure to prevent them from forcing another referendum to be held in the near future. The only viable way to stop this endless cycle is to get rid of the mechanism that enables nationalists to pursue their independence agenda, against the will of the majority of Scots, that most opinion polls continue to show, who don’t want it — devolution itself.
A viable, durable constitutional settlement for the UK should encompass the following principles:
- The UK is a single (unitary) country, not a loose confederation of sovereign nation states, as the SNP (and even some pro-Union advocates) assert.
- All resources and sovereignty are pooled for the benefit of everybody, in all parts of the UK.
- Sovereignty is invested solely in Westminster, which functions as the common UK Parliament with common UK laws.
- Power over purely Scottish affairs should be localised.
- Anything that concerns the UK as a whole should be within the remit of Westminster.
- Tax harmonisation, the removal of different bands and tax rates, to be replaced with standard tax rates and bands across the UK.
This can be achieved by a process of administrative devolution in which authority over Scottish matters is devolved to local councils, working with a revived Scottish Office, along with individuals, such as the Secretary of State for Scotland.
This way, power and democracy are kept localised to the constituent parts of the UK, and the integrity of the UK is 100% guaranteed as there are no devolved legislatures (Holyrood, the Welsh ‘parliament’ and Stormont) through which modern aggressive nationalism (the SNP, IRA/Sinn Fein plus the SDLP and Plaid Cymru) can pursue independence – the major intrinsic flaw in the kind of legislative devolution we have now, and the undeniable result of its introduction in Scotland.
This is not, therefore, simply the re-centralization of all power in London. It is an authentic pro-UK principle.
Administrative devolution has the great advantage, over the legislative variety, that it spreads decision making out to local areas without centralising it in London or Edinburgh.
It enables local people, who know what’s best for their own locale, to make decisions, as opposed to the centralising tendency of legislative devolution that tends to take power and decision making away from local people, thus putting it in the hands of a far away central government.
Administrative devolution offers a viable alternative. It poses no threat to the integrity of a unitary United Kingdom and can’t be used to break up the UK. It does not devolve any legislative power (i.e. legislative authority) to the constituent parts of the United Kingdom or need the setting up of elected political structures such as parliaments or assemblies. It delegates decision making (i.e. administrative) authority to official organisations (like the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland Offices), local government (such as councils) or individuals (such as the Secretaries of State for Scotland , Wales and Northern Ireland).
It is fair, organisationally efficient and costs less than the legislative variant.
One of the earliest questions devolution brought up was on the role of Scotland’s MPs, a debate we will not go into here, other than to say that in an administrative devolution system, these MPs would have a potential role in the scrutiny of parliamentary bills that affect Scotland only, possibly by creating a Scottish Grand Committee. This would ensure that the few Scotland-wide issues would be dealt with by Scots elected representatives.
The above are just some of a host of options on how to better organise Scotland’s administration, ranging from full abolition to reforms that specifically target specific areas of concern.
How to repeal?
It is often asserted in various quarters (and not always by the usual anti-UK nationalist suspects) that legislative devolution is, or should be, a permanent part of the UK Constitution. Even the so-called ‘Conservative and Unionist Party’ is guilty of this. David Cameron said he wanted to make legislative devolution permanent and inserted a clause in the 2016 Scotland Act that asserted unequivocally that the UK Government accepted the permanence of legislative devolution. His successors have also publicly stated, on more than one occasion, that they are committed to supporting the continued existence of legislative devolution.
Pro-legislative devolutionists argue that it is impossible to abolish legislative devolution as it has existed for twenty plus years now and so is too deeply entrenched to be scrapped. Time is not a factor that comes into consideration under UK Constitutional Law. If that was the case, we could never repeal old laws that have become outdated. David Cameron appears to have misunderstood, or deliberately misrepresented, the Parliamentary sovereignty principle of the UK Constitution:
No Parliament can be bound by any previous Parliament or pass an act that will bind a future Parliament. No other body has the power to override or set aside an Act of Parliament.
The doctrine of implied repeal is a concept in constitutional theory which states that where an Act of Parliament or an Act of Congress (or of some other legislature in a common law system) conflicts with an earlier one, the later Act takes precedence and the conflicting parts of the earlier Act becomes legally inoperable.
Under the UK Constitution, any law passed during the sitting of one Parliament can be repealed by a subsequent Parliament, irrespective of any clauses inserted in it. It is also specious to assert that devolution is too deeply entrenched to be scrapped, for the same reason. If we can repeal a law from centuries ago for certain reasons, then we can certainly do so to one from around twenty years ago.
The UK is a unitary (single) country in which the House of Commons (HoC) may devolve power over certain matters to any part(s) of itself, but no sovereignty is transferred to the devolved legislature – it remains entirely and solely with the HoC. The difference between a central government and a federal government is that the autonomous status of self-governing regions exists by the grace of the central government of the unitary whole. As such, they may be unilaterally revoked with a simple change in the law that repeals the Parliamentary acts that set them up in the first place.
If a political party includes abolition of the devolved legislatures and their replacement with the administrative variant of devolution in its manifesto for a UK General Election, and won that election on a manifesto pledge to abolish legislative devolution, then that would give it a cast-iron democratic mandate to do so.
A pledge to hold a referendum on abolishing legislative devolution, if they won the election, would impart a similarly cast-iron democratic mandate to do so (the current constitutional settlement was set up after Tony Blair’s New Labour Government won the 1997 General Election on a manifesto commitment to hold referenda on devolution in Scotland, Wales and NI, so it’s fair and consistent to abolish that settlement with a similar method).
Once a future government has won a mandate for the abolition of legislative devolution through a general election victory based on a manifesto promise to abolish legislative devolution, the path to ending legislative devolution is straightforward and clear. Under UK Constitutional Law, all that is required to end the existence of the devolved legislatures is to introduce an act into parliament that repeals the original acts that set up legislative devolution in the first place, and that would be it – no more Holyrood.
There is a clear procedure to implement the abolition of legislative devolution. All that’s needed to implement that procedure is to first get majority democratic consent to do it.
Building a movement
The anti-devolution revolution is here. Irrespective of whether you agree with Brexit or not, an examination of the processes that drove Brexit and which are currently driving attitudes towards legislative devolution, reveal striking similarities.
In 1991, an obscure Cambridge academic, Dr Alan Sked (a Scot) founded a political party called ‘The Anti-Federalist League’, later to become ‘The United Kingdom Independence Party’, UKIP, with an aim to get the UK to withdraw from the then European Economic Community (today’s EU). Sked and his early followers, were vehemently sneered at and derided by this country’s chattering classes as holding extremist views.
In June 2016, the long journey of the Eurosceptics, largely led by an initially small, but gradually larger, UKIP, triumphed after all those years of campaigning, leading to the majority of the UK backing leaving the EU in the referendum of that year. There are now no longer any MEPs in the UK, and they are not missed.
Just as the Eurosceptics employed persistence and determination in the face of intense hostility from all corners, especially the Establishment, people who are sceptical of legislative devolution’s benefits to the UK, the constitutional crisis it has created, and the clear and present danger it presents to the Union – the Devosceptics – must show similar persistence and determination in pursuing the goal of securing the existence of the UK into the future by persevering on a path towards reuniting our country by consistently presenting the positive case for keeping the UK together. Like Brexit, it won’t happen quickly, but for those who believe in the sovereignty of the UK, the result is definitely worth the effort.
The same process can happen with abolishing the devolved legislatures. Natural conservatives are already aligned against Holyrood, while Labour voters can be persuaded, especially when Labour returns to power at Westminster.
But it is one thing for people to know that devolution is not providing value, and another for them to actively speak up against it and to join a movement. If the positive case for abolition is consistently and assiduously put to the public (with objective empirical evidence to support it), it will gradually be recognized for what it is – the truth – by the majority of the public in the UK. Maybe one day in the not so distant future, the UK will stand on the brink of ‘Reunification Day’ as this nation becomes entirely whole again, no longer fractured by legislative devolution.
It should also be noted that proposing abolition as a strategy is more effective than simply calling for reform. MSPs will pay lip service to reforms until they realise that their jobs are on the line.
Save the UK? Kill nationalism off forever? Almost twenty five years ago, legislative devolution’s proponents promised Scotland that legislative devolution would herald the beginning of a bright new era of strong, competent and vigorous government.
Reality has been completely different. Legislative devolution has been an extremely expensive flop. It has completely failed to provide better governance for the citizens of the devolved parts of the UK, in terms of improving their living and working conditions or general governance terms.
What’s more, it has enabled modern aggressive nationalism, as personified by the SNP in Scotland, to rise to power in Holyrood and use it as a platform to promote independence with considerably enhanced ability. Far from ‘killing [anti-UK] nationalism stone dead’, it has actually provided them with a massively enhanced platform to pursue their separatist agenda. This has provoked a severe constitutional crisis that is a very real, clear and present danger to the existence of the United Kingdom as a unified nation.
The SNP is monomaniacal in its pursuit of independence/reunification and will never give up trying to force separation on their part of the UK. Consequently, as long as devolved legislatures exist, there is always the possibility that they will regain power at a later date and start pushing for independence again, plunging Scotland again into the neverendum.
The system was poorly thought out and is unredeemable. The only viable option to maintain the UK is to get rid of the mechanism that enabled twenty five years of constitutional failings, incompetence and waste – legislative devolution.
All those who desire to maintain the UK should begin to vigorously and robustly strive to advocate, at every turn, the case for abolishing Holyrood to those in power and to the wider public, as a matter of extreme urgency.
Stephen Bailey is pro-UK author who has written over 150 articles on the Constitution, especially as it concerns Scotland and the abolition of legislative devolution. His website is here.
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