Recent experience suggests the constitutional imagination of many senior UK politicians and commentators still seriously struggles to encompass the idea of devolution. They don’t understand it. They don’t understand what it is for. In their heart of hearts, they don’t value it.Andrew Tickell
Or perhaps they do understand what it is for. Perhaps their frustration derives, not from a failure to understand devolution, but from the failure of devolution to fulfil what British Nationalists understand to be its purpose. If your understanding is that the purpose of devolution is to kill Scotland’s constitutional aspirations “stone dead” then the last twenty years must have been a torment of thwarted anticipation. If you take to heart Enoch Powell’s assurance that “power devolved is power retained” then you may well respond with annoyance to continued questioning of where power lies – or should lie. If you acceded to the devolution experiment having been persuaded that the experiment was devised so as to constitute no threat to the Union then you are bound to be a bit pissed off about how things have actually worked out.
Devolution didn’t prove Tom Nairn wrong when he said “the last thing the British state was prepared to do was to re-evaluate the centre of its politics”. Devolution was not, for British Nationalists, a re-evaluation of Westminster’s supposed sovereignty over all things. It was an affirmation of that superiority. The act of granting power is itself an assertion of superior power. The power to grant power necessarily implies the power to withdraw the power that has been devolved. Real power is not given. To be real, power must be taken. If your purpose is to preserve a power relationship which is being challenged than one very effective way is to forestall the taking of power with devolution.
As British Nationalists understand it, the purpose of giving a modicum of power to those uppity Jocks was to forestall them taking all the power to which they are entitled. Devolution was, for British Nationalist, always about withholding power more than granting it. The abiding condition of devolution is that ultimate power must always reside with the British state. The British political elite felt unthreatened by devolution because they retained a de facto veto over all devolved powers. The structures of power, privilege and patronage which constitute the British state remained sacrosanct. The Union would be preserved.
Believing this, the reality must be hard for British Nationalists to accept. The outrage they evince at Scotland’s First Minister conducting herself as a real political leader is not feigned. They are genuinely affronted by the fact that Nicola Sturgeon has earned the status that she has. This is not how it was supposed to be. They are profoundly perplexed by the fact that Scotland’s independence movement didn’t evaporate in the wake of the No vote in 2014. They are baffled by the continuing electoral popularity of the SNP in defiance of a propaganda campaign that should have seen them off years ago.
None of this is because the “constitutional imagination” of the British Nationalist “struggles to encompass the idea of devolution” so much as that they have their own idea of devolution. And this ain’t it. They thought to subdue Scotland with a strong sedative and it has instead acted as a stimulant. They thought to create a placid servant but have contrived to make a monster. They understand very well what devolution was supposed to do. What they can’t understand is why it isn’t doing it.
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