Comment

Devolution will be a disaster until Scotland raises its own taxes

In an age when victimhood is elevated above liberty, Britishness is cheapened

Scottish devolution has been disastrous in at least one sense. It has failed in its primary purpose. It was not designed to deliver better schools or more efficient administration (though its supporters may have believed that these things would follow). It was designed to, as Labour’s then Scotland spokesman George Robertson put it in 1995, “kill nationalism stone dead”.

Measured thus, devolution was, as Boris Johnson has reportedly said, Blair’s biggest mistake. But don’t take Boris’s word for it. Listen to the old freebiemeister himself in 2015: “I did feel that we made a mistake on devolution.”

The SNP wants to portray Boris’s remark as a sneer by an English Bertie Wooster. But Gordon Brown, a politician as unlike Boris as you could imagine, says the same thing: “It was naive not to anticipate that devolution could create a megaphone for intensifying resentment.”

The mistake that Blair, Brown and Boris all identify is not the establishment of a Scottish parliament per se – you can hardly argue with a 74 per cent referendum majority – but the anomalies in the devolution settlement that are pushing Scotland out of the UK.

To see what those anomalies are, ask a related question. What has devolution delivered in 20 years? Critics are quick to list its failures. Healthcare and education, though they have not declined in absolute terms, have lagged behind the rest of the UK. Inequality is rising. The nation that nurtured the sublime genius of Adam Smith and David Hume has passed a series of illiberal laws on everything from alcohol pricing to smoking. Last month, the Scottish Government announced that it would ban “hate speech” even in private houses.

The SNP might point to the fact that it has won every election since 2011 and is currently polling at above 50 per cent as proof that Scottish voters like its authoritarianism. It might add that, as a result of devolution, Scotland now has all sorts of goodies that England lacks, such as free university tuition, free prescription charges and – the latest – a new £10 a week payment for children under six.

Who, though, pays for these things? Aye, there’s the rub. The Barnett Formula ensures that, for every five pounds spent in England, six are spent in Scotland. This gives Nicola Sturgeon an extra £14,00 per head of public spending to play with, and gives Scots every reason to back high-spending candidates, secure in the knowledge that someone else is picking up the tab. As government swells, citizens come to expect it to intervene in non-economic fields, too. Thus, few complain when the SNP bans snacking, smacking and smoking. Few protest when Sturgeon proposes laws against sectarian chants at football matches or seeks to appoint a state guardian for every child in the land, or closes the border with England. I like to think of Scots, my mother’s people, as bloody-minded, undeferential, thrawn. But the country has suffered the SNP’s nannying with, if not enthusiasm, at least acquiescence. Less Mel Gibson yelling “freeeedom” than Ewan McGregor in Trainspotting moaning “wretched, miserable, servile”.

The engorgement of the state is one of the two long-term factors driving separatism. The border between England and Scotland is more accidental than ethnographic: folk on each side shop at the same chains, watch the same films, speak the same tongue, sing the same songs. But, as Scotland veered Left following deindustrialisation, the SNP was able to portray independence as a guarantee against Tory rule.

The other long-term factor is the trashing of the UK brand. Until a generation ago, Britishness had positive connotations: ending slavery, spreading civilization, defeating the Nazis, winning the Cold War. Scotland had contributed disproportionately to those achievements, and England knew it. Nowadays, though, a different narrative is promoted. Britain is portrayed as selfish and racist. Perhaps it is no surprise that the increase in separatism coincided with the Great Awokening – the rise in identity politics over the past decade. In a world where victimhood is elevated above liberty, Britishness loses its appeal. The problem is exacerbated by the contrast between the Scottish and UK media. The first begins from the assumption that the Scottish government is well-intentioned; the second assumes that every UK minister is a charlatan.

Can anything be done to save the Union? Boris aims to underline its practical benefits. The furlough scheme would not be possible with an independent Scotland’s deficit. The UK has elbowed its way close to the front of the vaccines queue. The defence review ostentatiously protects Scottish regiments, orders more ships on the Clyde and promises a Scottish rocket programme. All this is important, but it won’t be enough if, as seems likely, the SNP wins May’s elections.

If Scots reject the status quo, Unionists must propose an alternative. So far, three broad options have been suggested: abolitionism, localism and federalism.

Abolitionism – scrapping the Scottish Parliament – may be ruled out. Though around one in five Scots unwaveringly oppose devolution, it has become a settled fact of life for the rest of the country.

Localism – devolving more power to Scotland’s towns and counties – is an idea well worth pursuing. It was wonderful to hear Boris rhapsodising about it in his speech to the Scottish Conservatives yesterday [SATURDAY]. But it will not, on its own, quell the campaign for severance.

Which brings us to the idea of more devolution, perhaps in the form of a UK federation as suggested, in different forms, by the Marquess of Salisbury and Gordon Brown.

The fact that most Scots favour this option is reason enough to consider it. Many Unionist campaigners promised, on the eve of the 2014 referendum, that a “No” vote would lead to further autonomy. To some degree, it has; but it has stopped well short of the “devo max” that Scots tell pollsters is their preferred outcome.

Once Brexit is done and the economy has been reopened, we need to find a workable settlement. Another referendum would be a massive trauma. But what about a Royal Commission that would look at all aspects of the constitution, including the composition of the upper house and the role of the supreme court? Might we find a balance where Scotland assumed greater autonomy without a separate currency, a new set of embassies or independent Armed Forces?

Such a settlement would imply substantial fiscal independence – something the SNP can hardly object to. Yet, in the long run, the best way to “kill nationalism stone dead” is to create a meaningful link between taxation, representation and expenditure in Scotland. Nothing else will allow a Centre-Right revival, and thus restore normal politics.