It was all so predictable. That’s what makes it all doubly frustrating. So much of what is happening could be foreseen and forestalled. Indeed, it was foreseen. If not in detail then certainly in general terms and with predictions necessarily being updated as events unfold. I was warning about the rolling back of devolution as far back as 2012, perhaps earlier. I expected that the British government would begin stripping powers from the Scottish Parliament if there was a No vote in 2014. I warned that it was one of the consequences that No voters would have on their conscience, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one issuing such warnings. But it would not be proper for me to associate others with what I have to say.
The Scottish Parliament’s fate was decided in 2007 when the SNP formed the first Scottish Government since the Union was imposed. That wasn’t supposed to happen. It wasn’t supposed to be possible. Devolution was only permitted on the strict understanding that it could never imperil the Union. The electoral system was designed to ensure that no one party could ever achieve a majority. This was intended to ensure that the British parties would retain control in perpetuity by forming coalition governments. Unionists strenuously deny that the system was designed to keep the SNP out insisting, rather, that it was designed to promote a more collegial, consensus-building Parliament. But it’s the same thing. Purposeful or not – and you can make up your own minds about that – the effect was to obviate any threat to the Union by ensuring that the British parties in Scotland were kept firmly in control.
Any plans to weaken the Scottish Parliament after the British parties lost control in 2007 were blown out of the water by the electorate. In 2007, voters had put a big dent in the system. In 2015, they smashed it to pieces by giving the SNP an overall majority. Plans to put the brakes on devolution, or put it into reverse, were derailed. As were the predictions made during the referendum campaign. But if reining in Holyrood had become more problematic, it had also become more imperative. The thing the British establishment feared most; the thing they’d been assured would not follow from devolution, was happening. The SNP was in power. What was worse, they were doing a good job. The administration was competent. That wasn’t supposed to happen either. Worst of all, Scotland under the SNP was visibly diverging from the rest of the UK (rUK) in myriad ways. If that continued, the Union would surely become untenable.
It is not my purpose here to essay a potted history of the period. Suffice it to say that where the British establishment thought it was getting a Scottish Parliament that was unadventurous and a Scottish Executive that was meekly compliant, instead they got a Parliament that threatened to compete with Westminster in terms of authority and a Scottish Government that put Scotland’s interests first. The scene was set for confrontation.
But that confrontation never really came about. There were skirmishes between the two governments. The media made a big fuss about the Scottish Government always “picking fights with Westminster”. But there was no major confrontation. The British political elite still wanted desperately to undermine and weaken Scotland’s democratic institutions. They wanted this more than ever. Hobbling Holyrood had become a political imperative. The Union was meant to do that. But the devolution ‘experiment’ had put the Union in jeopardy.
The British government tried a new tactic. Rather than try to directly trim the powers of the Scottish Parliament, they decided to weaponise devolution and turn it against the Scottish Government. Changes to the devolution settlement, principally in the area of finance, were set up as a mesh of political and fiscal traps. The idea was to discredit the SNP by subtly forcing the administration to make unpopular political decisions and to cause budgeting problems that would be portrayed as ‘SNP incompetence’.
This plan backfired. Largely due to the skill of then Finance Secretary, John Swinney, the Scottish Government managed to avoid most of the traps. They even found money for impressive new projects and to mitigate socially or economically damaging Westminster policies in reserved areas. And they were doing it deliberately!
The situation was desperate. Scotland had always been a separate country, but now it was becoming very much a different country in ways that were obvious even to the politically disengaged. Something had to give.
Then came 2016 and the EU referendum and the beginning of the protracted tragi-comedy that is Brexit. The British establishment saw its opportunity, and seized it. Once again, the consequences of a Leave vote were foreseen. Obviously, nobody anticipated the monumental incompetence of the British government. Nobody predicted they would make quite such a disastrous mess of the whole thing. But certain implications of the UK’s departure from the EU were accurately foretold. Some are about to be proved painfully accurate.
It was entirely predictable that there would be long and loud squabbles about the economic entailments of Brexit. Politicians invariably take debate on to this battleground for the simple reason that they can get economists to say whatever they want. Maybe it would be fairer to say that they can always find an economist who is saying what they want. Economic arguments have the further benefit that they are rarely, if ever, conclusive. No politician wants to find themselves on the wrong side of a concluded argument. So long as they’re arguing, they’re not losing. Not losing is better than winning. If there’s a winner, there must be a loser. And one of these times it might be you. By keeping debate in the realm of economics that risk is minimised.
I probably should leave it there. But I can’t resist pointing out another benefit to established power of making it all about money. Not only does it allow politicians to pick and choose from among a plethora of statistics and charts and tables and graphs in order to construct an economic argument for any purpose, this deluge of data baffles the electors and induces them to switch off and leave it to the experts. Contrary to the received wisdom, I postulate that no voter was ever swayed by an economic argument. Just as politicians can select the economic ‘facts’ that work for them, so voters can pick the economic argument which gives a sheen of rationality to choices that are anything but rational.
But I digress. While dispute raged over the economic consequences of Brexit, little attention was paid to the constitutional implications. During the campaign for the EU referendum I warned that, whatever else it might entail, Brexit would provide the British state with an opportunity to unilaterally redefine constitutional arrangements within the Union. That is what is happening now and it’s what will happen more in the very near future.
The groundwork has been done. The ‘power grab’ of the EU Withdrawal Bill is just the start of it. The endpoint for the British establishment is Scotland locked into UK redefined as a unitary state, indivisible and indissoluble. All significant powers stripped from the Scottish Parliament and absorbed into ‘UK-wide common frameworks’ administered by the ominously named ‘UK Government in Scotland’. A final solution to the Scottish problem. Greater England realised at last!
You can take that as another prediction.
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