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Devolution – a failed idea from a failed era

Separatists on the march in Inverness on 28 July show their true colours: not independence but dependence on the EU. Note the presence of Union flags on the left, part of a counter-demonstration by supporters of British unity. Photo Workers.

While the separatists pledge their continued devotion to dependence on Brussels, devolution belongs in the era of the EU – and an independent Britain needs to ditch it…

The Scottish separatists’ agenda cannot succeed politically. Their rallies are shrinking despite inflated claims of numbers. At the 2017 general election the pro-EU Scottish National Party dominance was rocked by a significant loss of seats. The party won only 35 of the 59 Scottish constituencies – a fall of 21 seats from the 56 it took in 2015.

The anti-EU Conservatives, on the other hand, secured 13 seats in Scotland – the party’s best performance in the country since 1983.

So now the Scottish government has resorted to the “legal” route to undermine Brexit and thwart the fight to achieve a united and independent Britain. Behind this desperate move is the hope that the quest for a second Scottish independence referendum can be revived.

‘An unprecedented battle is under way at the Supreme Court in London.’

An unprecedented legal battle is under way at the Supreme Court in London in which the British government is challenging the Scottish parliament’s right to pass Brexit-related legislation. It is one that the devolved parliament in Edinburgh could clearly see coming when they voted (by 94 to 30) – against the advice of their Presiding Officer that the bill was outside its competence – to pass the EU Continuity Bill.

This bill was an attempt to have a slate of 24 administrative powers handed to the Scottish parliament after Britain regains them back from the EU after Brexit. That Britain as a united whole deals with these issues (such as fisheries, agriculture, food labelling and public procurement) is seen to be essential by the British government in order to safeguard the integrity of the UK’s own internal single market.

Seven Supreme Court judges are hearing the case, which opened in July. The Court resumes in October, when judgement will be reached. The opening statement by Lord Keen QC was clear: “The principal point is really a very simple one – the Scottish Parliament has sought through design to overcome the clear and expressed limitation placed upon it by the United Kingdom Parliament under the Scotland Act itself. The sovereign (UK) Parliament is untrammelled by the statutory legislative restraints imposed on the Scottish Parliament. The UK Parliament is sovereign, the Scottish Parliament is not.”


The written submission from the British government insisted: “The Scottish bill purports to adopt powers to continue to give effect to EU law, requires the Scottish Ministers to have regard to EU law in certain areas after withdrawal including subsequent changes in that law, and to restrict the ability of UK ministers to legislate. 

“In simple terms: legislation addressing the effect of withdrawal from the EU, in particular making provision for the continued application of established law in areas currently within the competence of the EU, is a matter for Parliament and not the devolved legislatures.”

Lord Keen QC pointed out that such a bill would create “dual and inconsistent regimes” within Britain and was designed to “directly frustrate the purpose” of the Withdrawal Act which was aiming to create a cohesive body of laws after Brexit.

‘The adherents of separatism are becoming increasingly embittered.’

He said the Scottish bill would create “a separate and novel body of law” which would “fundamentally undermine” the Withdrawal Act. He said he was clear that the Scottish bill was “inconsistent with the UK Act at the most basic of levels” and that “the two simply cannot stand together.”

It is worth spelling out these points as they could not more clearly demonstrate the pinnacle of folly that devolution has become. Its architects – and the Blair government that ushered it in – must have been aware of such ultimate contradictions.

The concept of devolved legislatures, developed during the decades of our dalliance with the European Union (and its attempt to construct a United States of Europe) rested on the EU idea of compliant “regions” – just like Scotland and Wales. The people of the north of England stood firm against the devolutionists and rejected the ideas of regional or federal parliaments – and so began the decades of successful struggle to break free from the EU and gain independence.

But it will be a hard task to reverse the embedded ideas of separatism, regionalisation or federalism. Six industrial trade unions took a robust stand for unity and against the break up of Britain in the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence; and the RMT was the splendid example of a trade union voice pitted against the EU and its privatisations and migration of labour and capital, in the 2016 referendum on the EU.

We must revive such voices of workers now – especially in the upcoming battle for independence and success for a whole, united Britain. Of relevance to organised workers is the history of the journey to devolution and separatism: look at how the industrial militancy of the late 1960s and early 1970s in Scotland was channelled down the path of separatist thought in movements led by the Scottish TUC, such as the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly.


The same process was seen in Wales as early as 1950 in the “Parliament for Wales” campaign. The National Union of Mineworkers in South Wales resisted taking part. Yet the separatists did not give up, even after the rejection of the devolution idea in the 1979 referendum on forming a Welsh Assembly.

In northern Ireland, there is the farce of legislators idling on large salaries while their assembly has lain closed for over a year and a half. Although DUP support for Brexit is welcome, in the Supreme Court case under discussion, the leading law officers of both the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly have given active support to the Scottish government.  

If “direct rule” works in northern Ireland - life goes on almost as normal – why not apply the same to Scotland and Wales and be rid of expensive and futile layers of bureaucracy that are at odds with achieving the best for Britain following Brexit?

But with the growing realisation that the separatist project has failed and is going nowhere, its adherents are becoming increasingly embittered. This may result in a period of social stress and turbulence in the areas of the country affected. A good example was the 28 July separatist march and rally in Inverness where many EU flags were on show alongside saltire flags and other “yes to independence” banners.

As usual the number of marchers was inflated: the whole march was videoed, and careful counting revealed no more than 3,500 against the claimed number of 14,000. But the vehemence of the abuse shouted at people on the pavements opposing them was quite startling. The local supporters of the pro-British unity and anti-separatist campaign A Force for Good were particularly targeted by a sinister phalanx of black-clad, saltire-waving motorcyclists. 

Those opposed to the separatist marchers included trade unionists from the RMT and Musicians’ Union. A schedule of further rallies is planned, but already leading SNP members – like Kenny MacAskill – have warned of the futility of holding them, given such opposition in the streets and the danger of turning the public against their project.

Still, the vision of breaking up Britain is not going away any time soon. A kind of gradualism is being employed. Accumulating powers through a raft of minor legislation and acquiring economic control over a long period of time could eventually result in quasi-independent entities within Britain, all the more fit to break away and return to the embrace of the EU.

The concept of “full fiscal autonomy” is a demand that falls easily from the lips of both SNP and Scottish Labour, with weak opposing ideas from Conservatives and Liberals. The call for federalism – which may mean to some a pathway to separation, to others a cover for regionalisation – became a catch phrase as the defeat of separatism became obvious in the 2014 referendum.

Gordon Brown vowed to gift it to the whole of Britain, the Cameron government toyed with it, and on the “left” it was dressed up as Progressive Federalism. 

The Scottish government will still have several cards to play. In an article in The Scotsman in August 2013 headed “SNP abuse machinery of government”, former Labour MP Brian Wilson wrote: “It is improper for civil servants to be used to churn out Nationalist propaganda and pronouncements.”

That was during the course of the referendum on Scottish independence when the full force of Holyrood and its funded bodies was brought to bear to boost the separatist cause. Likewise, the Cameron government it spent over £9 million on the side of the EU the 2016 referendum. In both cases the people won through, despite the odds stacked against them. 

Taking a stand

The SNP, severely diminished by the electorate at the last general election, still has 35 MPs in Westminster. This rump has gained much succour from the Labour Party’s decision to back staying in the EU’s single market and customs union. (Let’s not bother with whether it’s “a” customs union or “the” customs union.)

As Daily Telegraph Scottish Editor Alan Cochrane put it, “SNP call the tune and Labour are happy to play along.” What’s on the cards is a so-called “progressive” alliance aimed at dealing a mortal blow to a real Brexit. 

If this attempt to retain the essential elements of the EU leads to a long transition out of the EU, the SNP would take the opportunity to engineer a long transition back into the Brussels net, trying to gain its support for Scottish independence en route. That’s another reason why the Brexit process must be much more speedy and decisive.

Meanwhile, unions and industry are taking a more robust stance against the Scottish government. Education unions and educationalists are seething about falling standards, NHS staff decry the lack of investment, the powerful whisky industry opposes the policy on the single market, and National Farmers’ Union speakers have called for a united front with the whole UK to take advantage of opportunities post-Brexit.

‘Austerity’ drive

Workers from several trade unions have condemned the pro-austerity policies in the Scottish government’s recent Growth Commission Report (widely seen as a blueprint for future Scottish independence). They find that growing youth unemployment remains untackled, and that this is related to the upsurge in drug-related problems in cities like Glasgow and Dundee. 

Opposition to the merger of British Transport Police with Police Scotland under devolved powers continues unabated, despite being given the go ahead by the Scottish Government. All three rail unions, RMT, TSSA and Aslef have united in opposition to it and demand its reversal.

‘Unions and industry are taking a much more robust stance against the Scottish government…’

Mike Hogg, speaking for the RMT on BBC Radio Scotland news on 24 July, said the forced merger was a result of “an ideological obsession” on the part of the Scottish government, and that it was “a recipe for disaster” and that “was not working”.

Citing the railway network as “a magnet for anti-social behaviour” he insisted that the specialist skills of the British Transport Police were needed and that the general police force was preoccupied with many other pressing problems and lacked the skills base required to deal with the railway.

The overwhelming economic case for workers and the country, Britain, to remain united and to develop and enhance that unity is a powerful one.

As an integrated part of the United Kingdom, Scotland will be best placed to pursue the current revival of naval architecture and shipbuilding, the continued development in exploration for oil and gas in the North Sea, the fledgling aerospace industry and spaceport plan for Sutherland, the specialist products in fishing, farming and whisky, as well as plans for the revival of a new technology steel industry. All of this, of course, requires Britain-wide investment, support and national planning.