Boris Johnson’s trip provoked synthetic outrage from Scottish nationalists who knew the visit would be seen through a nationalist-unionist lens.
Johnson gets the same unwelcome welcome that Margaret Thatcher received on visits north of the border. During the last week of the 1997 devolution referendum, pro-devolution campaigners could not believe their luck on discovering that Mrs Thatcher would be in Glasgow addressing an American travel agents’ conference.
But devolution did not prevent ‘more Maggies’. Scots were generally content when Labour was in power in London but the return of a brand of Tory fuelled demand for further change. Boris is the new Maggie and Brexit the new poll tax.
Demands for Scottish autonomy have long been driven by perceptions that the Scottish voice is ignored, marginalised or demeaned by the centre. But Scots demanded a voice at the centre before demands for autonomy. That had led to the establishment of the Scottish Office in 1885, giving Scotland a voice in the heart of government – though not necessarily one most Scots agreed with. Over the following century, adding responsibilities to the Scottish Office became the standard response to Scottish grievances.
In 1954, the Royal Commission on Scottish Affairs noted: ‘History shows that misunderstandings due to thoughtlessness, lack of tact and disregard of sentiment can be serious… needless English thoughtlessness and undue Scottish susceptibilities’. Not a few English Tories, including the Prime Minister himself in all likelihood, would echo P.G. Wodehouse: ‘It has never been hard to tell the difference between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine.’
The Prime Minister would be unwelcome in England too, Liverpool most obviously. Majority opinion in Scotland shares that feeling of being abandoned by government in London. Demand for more autonomy in Scotland has its echoes, faint but growing, elsewhere in today’s Britain. Autonomy is a prophylactic from Tory rule.
Independence is presented as insulation from London rule though the SNP is content to share some (unreformed) UK institutions leaving Scotland still exposed to policies made elsewhere. The rhetoric involves one almighty assumption. Constitutional independence does not insulate states from larger, more powerful neighbours. Neither devolution nor independence will prove much of a prophylactic if England’s economy tanks. When London sneezes, Scotland will still catch a cold and when London catches a cold, Scotland will still get pneumonia unless there are changes at the centre.
Constitutional and economic power are conflated and confused. An independent Scotland, no less than a devolved Scotland, needs a reformed neighbour. It will be similar to the UK and EU. Just as the UK will continue to be affected by decisions taken by the EU but have no influence, Scotland will be affected but have no voice.
Relations with the rest of the UK proved one of the weakest areas for pro-independence supporters in 2014. While there is plenty of reassuring talk about interdependence, there is precious little serious analysis. The apparent assumption that similar calls for more frequent and formalised meetings, as an endless stream of reports have proposed since the establishment of devolution, will suffice highlights a poverty of ideas.
Labour might have been expected to come up with a coherent pan-UK policy, not least given the sense of grievance against Tory Westminster Governments across Labour-supporting areas throughout Britain. Labour’s failure to offer a coherent state-wide alternative that includes reform at the centre reflects its constitutional ad hocery. The Blair constitutional reform programme was held together with little more than the rhetoric of modernisation.
But the most notable change has been the shift to a demand for autonomy from a focus on reform at the centre. Devolution without reform at the centre leaves the source of the problem largely untouched. The assumption that devolution could insulate Scotland and Wales from ‘more Maggies’ had some merit. There is much that has been done – though much more could be done if the SNP were not so conservative – to protect the vulnerable but devolution’s prophylactic qualities are limited. And nobody should be under any illusions about independence. Nationalists are fond of quoting Pierre Trudeau’s, ‘In bed with an elephant’. But the late Canadian Premier was talking about independent Canada’s relationship with its larger neighbour.
The political and constitutional core of the UK is the problem. And that problem will remain whether or not Scotland is constitutionally independent. Change will be limited unless the centre changes and the regions and nations are given authoritative voice at the centre. This is not simply about replacing the House of Lords with a House of Nations and Regions, though that should be part of the reconstitution of the state. Central institutions such as the state (central) bank, which in some states are acknowledged to be ‘constitutional’, treat territory as neutral or, at best, occasionally nod in the direction of regional representation also need to be refashioned.
Devolution was grafted onto an unreformed centre, an unreformed state. Without addressing what is literally the central problem, the prospect of constitutional stability looks remote. There are glimmers of hope. The assumption that there is no demand for reform in England ignores recent, albeit rudimentary, developments in need of leadership, elaboration and mobilisation.
Debate needs to be reframed. Ex-Tory MP Matthew Parris was right to caution against reforming England to appease Scotland in his article in the Times. But reforming the state for all of its components is in everyone’s interest.
Main image: by Andrew Parsons/No 10 Downing Street, CC BY-SA 2.0, via flickr