New Statesman Scotland
With clear-eyed dispassion the distinguished historian Norman Davies wrote in the Scotsman (5 November): "The foundations of Britishness are in the late stages of decomposition. The status quo cannot last long." He argued that Britain was in constitutional crisis and, with the bloody example of Ireland in mind, he asserted: "Devolution delayed is a surefire recipe for accelerating the disintegration of the state. In all probability, the postponement of Scottish and Welsh home rule in the 1970s will have the same effect. Scotland and Wales will follow where Ireland led."
Politicians should pay attention to Davies. His brilliant brick of a book Europe: a history has helped to build a different way of seeing our neighbours. Understanding that most Europeans are Slavs, he looked at the continent from the east. Rejecting artificial and traditional compartments, he pushed aside weary western versions of history and found a new Europe inside the old. In his forthcoming The Isles: a history, he promises another revelatory tour-de-force where he tries to assemble a Celtic as well as Anglo-Saxon story of Britain. Davies is wary of partiality and precisely because his analysis of the past is undeniably brilliant, his predictions need to be taken as more than simply another view.
Two incidents in the recent past support Davies' judgement that "The Devolution Settlement" is far from being just that. The Home Secretary, Jack Straw, finds himself at the centre of both stories. The first is a mere technical matter, which will affect very few people in Scotland or Britain. MSPs are complaining that Jack Straw has interfered in Scottish legislation, albeit through a UK bill. The Asylum and Immigration Bill, currently in the House of Lords, will alter the way in which asylum-seekers are maintained. The bill will replace a system of payments with a voucher scheme. Now, political asylum is an area of legislation reserved to Westminster, but a difficulty arises because part of Straw's bill will supersede a clause in the Social Work (Scotland) Act of 1968. This currently allows cash payments to be made to asylum-seekers in Scotland. And social work is an area of legislation under the direct control of the Scottish Parliament.
This is more than an anomaly. The political reality is that Westminster will always try to assert its primacy over Holyrood, and while the issue of asylum-seekers by itself will not ignite widespread resentment against that reality, it is only one of many contentious matters due to come between the two parliaments.
By far the most contentious is the forthcoming legislation on fox-hunting. We are seeing the very real possibility that hunting with dogs will be outlawed in Scotland, but not in England. An inquiry into the economic effects on rural communities of such a ban will be announced by the Scottish executive, along with a promise to the anti-fox-hunting faction that this will not delay legislation. Jack Straw is due to announce a similar inquiry for England - but the likelihood is that this will postpone the passage of a bill though the House of Commons. And, to add a further layer of complication, the House of Lords - even with the recent removal of so many huntin' and shootin' hereditaries - still has the power to delay and amend. With no second chamber in Scotland, Mike Watson's bill to ban fox-hunting will be enacted by a simple majority of MSPs, who are very likely to vote to ban.
Leaving aside the disgraceful nature of this bill, its passage into law in Edinburgh significantly earlier than at Westminster will have a dramatic effect. For the first time in 300 years, the border will become a meaningful frontier. It is likely that many of the people who will be thrown out of work and dispossessed by Watson's bill in Scotland will travel south, perhaps on a seasonal basis, to find jobs, even if they are only temporary. They will be followed by thousands of riders who will swell the numbers of hunts in the north of England. But most significantly and symbolically, you will be able to do something in Northumberland that will get you arrested in Berwickshire. The members of the College Valley Hunt will be able to gallop up to the border fence on the Cheviots, and no further. No doubt smart foxes will develop an acute sense of exactly where the writ of the Scottish Parliament runs.
Make no mistake, this is important. Even though, as a percentage of the Scottish population, tiny numbers of people are involved in hunting, passions run dangerously high. There will be spectacular television pictures that no producer will be able to resist, and Watson's bill and the struggle to oppose it will dominate the news agenda for many months. In turn, this will open a box of trouble between Westminster and Holyrood almost immediately - to the delight of the SNP, which, of course, has a simple solution.
To those wise heads who had hoped that the undoubted difficulties existing between the two parliaments could be worked out calmly over time, the incendiary nature of this daft bill will be more than an irritation. It could just be the minor matter that makes Norman Davies' siren words come true.