The case for a new Act of Union

12 August 2020

11:03 PM

12 August 2020

11:03 PM

Scexit, not Brexit, will be the word that defines Boris Johnson’s premiership. The Times has a new poll from YouGov showing the SNP on 57 per cent with nine months to go until devolved elections. The same poll puts support for Scotland’s exit from the United Kingdom at 53 per cent. This confirms earlier polls from Panelbase: Scexit is now the majority position.

That support for the SNP has leapt along with Nicola Sturgeon’s approval ratings (up 45 per cent on this time last year) is confounding observers, not least given the Scottish exam results scandal of the past week. Sturgeon has, of course, benefited from fronting televised daily Covid-19 briefings, carried live on the BBC, but her polling is as much to do with longer trends in Scottish politics. Scotland has tended towards a dominant-party system. The Scottish Liberal party more than once took over 80 per cent of the popular vote and a century later Scottish Labour began an election-winning streak of 14 in a row. The SNP is simply this era’s dominant party.

This would be a fascinating psephological quirk, but nothing more, were it not for Tony Blair’s creation of a Scottish parliament. That parliament has been weaponised by the Nationalists as a Trojan horse against the very Union that devolution was meant to secure. An entire proto-state has been corralled into the service of the SNP’s political objectives. The spirit and, at times even the letter, of the devolution settlement has been disregarded to drag Scotland towards Scexit.

When Scots go to the polls next May, the SNP is likely to win an outright majority in the Scottish parliament, though even a bare plurality would be asserted as a mandate for another Scexit referendum. David Cameron will play a large part in Nicola Sturgeon’s case: a majority SNP victory in the 2011 Holyrood election was enough for Cameron to grant the original referendum. Boris Johnson is not minded to repeat Cameron’s historic error but saying ‘no’ would not be the end of the matter. Sturgeon would come under immense pressure from her party to take the UK government to the Supreme Court or even hold a ‘consultative’ referendum using the powers of the Scottish parliament. The UK may be heading for a Catalan-style stand-off between Holyrood and Westminster.

The Prime Minister can either wait for the train to hit or he can apply the brakes now. The SNP’s misuse of devolution has been possible thanks to the woolly drafting of that settlement. That is why I have been arguing for a new Act of Union to correct Blair’s mistakes and enhance the unity of the United Kingdom. Such an Act could take many forms but the key principles should be:

  1. The UK is a unitary state in which sovereignty rests exclusively with the Crown-in-Parliament at Westminster.
  2. The convention that the UK parliament does not legislate in devolved areas without Holyrood’s permission should come to an end.
  3. The permanence of the Scottish parliament (one of the many acts of violence committed against the Union by Cameron) should also cease.
  4. The balance of powers between Holyrood and Westminster should be recalibrated and the principle adopted that any power not specifically devolved is reserved. Reserved matters should include elections, referendums and local government.
  5. Prohibit the expending of taxpayers’ money or parliamentary resources on reserved matters.

These reforms would be met by the full force of hysterical self-pity and imagined oppression that the Scottish establishment can muster. (The Welsh and Northern Irish establishments, too. There is no sense in reforming only Scottish devolution when similar flaws threaten the Union elsewhere.) But there are signs that non-nationalists in Scotland are beginning to realise the degree of peril the Union is in and the extent of reform that is required. Last week, the Scottish Fabians, an affiliate group of the Labour party and decidedly devolutionist in mindset, published a blueprint for a new Act of Union. Constitutional reform is not about doing away with devolution but improving its faults so that it better serves the public and the political integrity of the United Kingdom.

I appreciate the English must be heartily sick of the endless talk of Scexit, Scottish nationalism and what the UK must do to keep the Scots onside. The temptation to tell us all to get to buggery must be immense, but understand that baiting you into giving up on the Union is part of the SNP’s strategy. They see you as pawns and believe they can exasperate and insult you into surrender. If you are a social democrat, know that the end of the Union means the end of one of the most ambitious redistribution programmes anywhere in the world. Don’t abandon the Union; build on it with a UK Solidarity Fund that redistributes on a more localised and targetted basis than the Barnett formula.

If you are an English nationalist, don’t be lured into the mirage that Scottish secession would be an opening for strengthening England. The decline of the Union would bring indignity, if not humiliation, on the world stage. Brexit would be cast as an act of hubris for which the UK paid the ultimate price and any subsequent increases in support for Welsh separatism and Northern Ireland nationalism would be gloated over fulsomely. Plus, as I have pointed out before, Scottish secession is a threat to Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent. Whatever England might gain from Scottish independence would be eclipsed by what it stands to lose.

So, I’m afraid there is going to be a lot more banging on about Scotland for some time to come, either because Boris Johnson seizes the moment and saves the Union – or because he fails to and spends the remainder of his premiership overseeing the dismantling of the country. Constitutional reform is not what got the Prime Minister into politics, but leaders don’t pick history, history picks them. Grasp the thistle, Boris.

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