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25 November 2020updated 02 Dec 2020 6:04pm

Why the English left should be wary of devolution

The creation of the Scottish parliament precipitated the collapse of more radical forms of territorial dissent, while failing to address the problems driving them.

By Rory Scothorne

On the gentle east slope of Calton Hill, a picturesque lump of rock at the east end of Edinburgh’s Princes Street, there is a large, gherkin-shaped cairn topped by a metal brazier. The Democracy Cairn is still, remarkably, Scotland’s only monument to the movement for a Scottish parliament that triumphed in 1997’s referendum. Unlike the parliament building itself, the cairn is easy to miss, as if placed deliberately out of sight. It is overshadowed by the National Monument, a massive, incomplete replica of the Parthenon commemorating those who died in the Napoleonic Wars that squats further up the hill.

Few venture past the more imposing monument to the cairn, but those who do encounter a plaque that explains it was erected in 1992 as part of a pro-devolution vigil established after that year’s general election, when a Conservative majority government was elected despite an emphatic Labour win in Scotland. The vigil lasted 1,980 days, finally dissipating on 12 September 1997, the day after the “Yes/Yes” result in the devolution referendum (“Yes” to a parliament and “Yes” to tax-raising powers). At the bottom of the plaque, the campaigning organisation responsible for the vigil and the cairn – Democracy for Scotland – is credited. Sometime during the more recent referendum on independence, a small piece of half-hearted vandalism appeared, a single word scratched clumsily into a blank patch of the plaque: “C***s”.

Who would do – or think – such a thing? Democracy for Scotland was a fairly harmless outfit: in his book Claiming Scotland, the sociologist Jonathan Hearn affectionately details the familial, cross-party atmosphere of the vigil, a “social hub” for veteran activists from Scotland’s distinctive socialist and environmentalist traditions. Today, few people in Scotland are opposed to the thing they campaigned for and won. In January a poll measured support for abolishing the Scottish parliament at just 16 per cent.

There are plenty of unionist politicians, however, who don’t share the public’s embrace of Holyrood – a scepticism that goes all the way to the top. Who knows whether Boris Johnson likes to engrave expletives into commemorative plaques, but he recently made his own view of the Scottish parliament clear, reportedly describing devolution as a “disaster” and a “mistake” on a Zoom call with northern Tory MPs.

The audience of Johnson’s remarks is no less significant than what he actually said. England’s internal territorial divisions – already highlighted by Brexit and Tory electoral gains – have been inflamed by the pandemic, with a London-centric approach to lockdown prompting protest from northern politicians of all parties. This has galvanised longer-running but modest campaigns for northern devolution. Yet projects such as One Yorkshire – a coalition of local authorities and wider civil society – have had their demands repeatedly rebuffed by Tory ministers. Johnson’s statement about devolution was leapt upon by the Scottish National Party, but it is more significant as an indicator of Johnson’s attitude to empowering the north.

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Johnson’s opposition is likely to encourage the English left in its renewed embrace of devolution as a kind of gold standard for local and regional empowerment. Throughout the pandemic, the Scottish and Welsh governments have become models for giving a “voice” to London’s peripheralised outlands. Writing in support of “radical devolution” in October, James Meadway – an economic adviser to John McDonnell when he was shadow chancellor – argued that a “voice for the north, and England outside of London, is urgently needed” to rebalance the British economy away from the south-east.

But doesn’t Johnson have a point? The Scottish parliament has, after all, provided the SNP with a platform to style itself as a party of competent governance, while deftly exploiting public outrage over “reserved” powers – from the Iraq War to immigration – without ever having to walk the walk of sovereignty themselves. Though the SNP’s attitude to devolution was ambivalent at best for much of its history, since the creation of the Scottish parliament the party has learned to deploy it as evidence of Scotland’s capacity to govern itself. The Scottish government’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis has been popular, and has assuaged many Scots’ fears that Scotland cannot get through a crisis on its own terms. Unionists can nevertheless note with frustration that it wasn’t the Scottish government but the UK Treasury that paid for the bulk of months of furlough and other forms of financial support.

Management of the pandemic could perhaps be recognised as an example of devolution working reasonably well, allowing the Scottish government to determine much of its own response, with Westminster to fall back on where necessary. But while “good governance” was often central to the arguments for devolution, it was self-interested questions of political convenience that made it happen. Devolution did receive some principled intellectual support from a certain technocratic strand on the right wing of the Labour Party: figures such as the Labour MP and academic John Pitcairn Mackintosh envisioned it as a way of draining the conflict out of Britain’s territorial diversity and encouraging greater participation in decision-making. But for the rest of British politics, devolution was a way of triangulating between more controversial territorial ambitions, from assimilationist unionism to Scottish independence. It has always been, in the words of the cultural critic Scott Hames, “nobody’s dream”.

[See also: Colin Kidd on how the pandemic has accelerated the break-up of the UK]

The politics of devolution can be best understood as a characteristically cynical bait-and-switch by the UK’s governing class. It is designed not so much to empower its recipients as foster their complicity in their own subjugation. Ron Davies, the secretary of state for Wales who oversaw the creation of the Welsh assembly (now called the Senedd) in 1999, famously described devolution as “a process, not an event”. But this is only half the story. “Process” implies gradual transformation, but devolution is ultimately about preservation: underlying the process is an unchanging, one-way relationship between centre and periphery, fundamentally characterised by hierarchy. Under devolution, only the central state can devolve power and determine the shape it takes, while the devolved authority has no real influence over the future development of the central state. 

This kind of hierarchy is only justified if, like most of the Labour Party, you believe that the British state is an essentially benign force. The constitutional consequences of this naivety couldn’t be clearer today. The UK government’s Internal Market Bill gives the central state a sweeping range of powers to intervene in hitherto devolved areas. It can do this because ultimate power to make and change UK law – including laws affecting devolution – is safely “reserved” with the central state. The Crown-in-Parliament giveth, and it taketh away.


How, then, has the SNP been able to use devolution to make Scottish independence more likely? The answer, again, is politics. The political “mistake” of Scottish devolution was not the principle of it, as Johnson suggested, but the belief that it alone would settle the national question. This was rooted in a more fundamental error, which was to see Britain’s territorial problems as emerging from the margins, rather than the centre. It is not devolution that has been a “disaster” for the Union, but the domination of Britain’s politics and economy by the south-east of England. The rest of Britain, be it South Wales, Tyneside or Clydeside, has for most of the 20th century required forms of economic policy and political strategy that are directly opposed to those favoured by the south-east, where heavy industry, and then the public sector, have been less prominent. Yet as Tom Hazeldine shows in his recent book The Northern Question, the south-east has been able to come out on top regardless of which party is in power thanks to its grip on the key levers of political and economic power.

It was this inescapable sense of having someone else’s priorities imposed upon them – being consigned to the edges of somebody else’s dream – that drove Democracy for Scotland to maintain its vigil, and which today drives new waves of regionalist and nationalist dissent, from the north of England to a resurgent Welsh independence movement. Devolution has not resolved these problems, and cannot. But what it has done – in Scotland especially, where devolution is most firmly embedded – is trim back the rough edges of that dissent. By capturing territorial protest in neutral, carefully constrained institutions of representation and administration – from national parliaments to development agencies – devolution has yanked the political initiative out of the hands of extra-parliamentary movements and given it to whichever force can most competently meet the demands of contemporary statecraft within the limits devolution imposes.

The result has been a slow, secular collapse of extra-parliamentary radicalism in Scotland since 1999, as the self-subjugating character of devolution imprints itself on popular consciousness. The SNP deftly transfigures Scotland’s helplessness in the face of global markets and international institutions into a kind of virtue, promoting Scotland as a diligent rule-follower and good global citizen. The Scottish government’s refusal to intervene decisively in Scotland’s faltering economy, under pressure from campaigns for rent controls, public ownership and stricter conditions for procurement and bailouts, is accompanied by a platform for independence that prioritises foreign capital over more local and democratic forms of ownership and control.

This has all worked out relatively well for Scotland’s middle class – admittedly, considerably more cosmopolitan and liberal-minded than its Little-English counterpart – but that was always the point of devolution. The movement for a Scottish parliament was based on an alliance between Scotland’s imperilled industrial working class and what the Scottish political theorist Tom Nairn called its “service bourgeoisie”, who shared an interest in protecting local industry and civil society from Thatcherism. But devolved democracy placed one side of this alliance in the driving seat. It consolidated the representative and administrative autonomy of the Scottish middle class, but left intact Westminster’s ability to keep dissolving the industries, institutions and communities on which working-class identity and power were based.

Britain’s departure from the EU, and the dominance of both major UK parties by the south-east, means that even Scotland’s service bourgeoisie is now straining at its comfortable leash. This may yet prompt a break-up that forces England, stripped of Britain – and perhaps a UN Security Council seat – into a sober assessment of its actual size and qualities. That is a good enough argument for Scottish independence by itself. Devolution has undoubtedly helped get us to the point where that is a real possibility. But it has been more of an orderly retreat from Anglo-Britain than a revolution against it.

The English left, especially in the north, should think carefully about whether that is the limit of their constitutional ambitions. Devolution is nothing like federalism, which implies at least a degree of equality between its constituent units. But just as important as the constitutional detail are the political forces that draw strength from it. What is the point of devolving to the north if it only promotes a new class of local careerists, or consolidates old, complacent networks of patronage and cronyism? It seems likely that something like this will emerge over time, precisely because devolution is not as much of a threat to those in power as Johnson suggests.

It may be the job of England’s regionalist left, in that case, to focus on developing its own local visions of independence – not only from the English centre, but also from their own peripheral elites, tapping into local traditions of dissent and cultural identities that can be turned against opponents at home and further afield. But there should be no illusions about devolution itself, which only stitches territorial protest back into the fabric of elite power. The sad seclusion of Scotland’s Democracy Cairn, hidden away on the side of Calton Hill, is more of a warning than an inspiration: just because you vote for it doesn’t mean it’s yours.

[See also: the former prime minister Gordon Brown on how to save the Union]

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This article appears in the 02 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Crashed