The phrase Home Rule is freighted with historical connotations. One instantly thinks of Ireland and Gladstone, of Charles Stewart Parnell and Kitty O’Shea, of unionist intransigence and the Easter Rising and all that followed, even up to the Good Friday Agreement and today’s wretched Brexit zugzwang.
Home Rule plays large in the Scottish political imagination too. If it lacks association with revolutionary violence and star-crossed lovers, it still occupies a romantic place in the story of the nation’s struggle towards self-determination.
This is elegantly captured in a new book, Scottish Home Rule – The Answer to Scotland’s Constitutional Question, by Ben Thomson, a businessman and campaigner (Thomson also founded Reform Scotland, the think tank that I run). Thomson’s argument, as is clear from his subtitle, is that there is a third way between the status quo and full independence that could deliver a sustainable settlement.
Home Rule was for a long time the dominant preference among constitutional activists and scholars. The Scottish Home Rule Association was founded in 1886, and involved both Keir Hardie and Ramsay MacDonald, as well as Robert Cunninghame Graham, who in 1934 would become the first president of the Scottish National Party.
The association’s demands and language were of their time: “to maintain integrity of the empire, secure a Scottish legislature for purely Scottish matters, maintain Scotland’s position within the Imperial Parliament and foster national sentiment”. But its main objective, plainly spoken, could easily come from the mouths of Nicola Sturgeon or perhaps even Gordon Brown: “the right of the Scottish people to manage their own affairs”, because “the Scottish people know their own business best”. Growing momentum behind the proposal was knocked on the head by the First World War and the collapse of the Liberal Party.
Over the years the meaning of Home Rule has become rather fuzzy, and loose, ill-defined phrases such as “devo max” and “devo plus” have hardly helped. All the parties have advocated some form of devolution at some point. John Buchan, the Scottish Unionist MP and author, stated in 1932 that “every Scotsman should be a Scottish Nationalist”, and in 1968 Edward Heath’s Declaration of Perth committed the Conservatives to a Scottish assembly. Labour dominated the Constitutional Convention that ultimately led Tony Blair to create the Scottish Parliament. The SNP has its origins in the Home Rule movement and in 2014 Alex Salmond urged David Cameron to offer the prospect as a third option on the independence referendum ballot paper, because he doubted the separatists could win outright.
But today Home Rule is the Cinderella policy of the constitutional debate. Scots are faced with a binary choice between the devolved parliament, perhaps with a few more powers, and independence. With polls showing support for independence above 50 per cent, Sturgeon is unlikely to ape her predecessor in asking for a third option in a second referendum – the odds of success have changed in the SNP’s favour.
Thomson insists, however, that we think again. An important difference between Home Rule and devolution, he argues, is that under the former sovereignty would be split between London and Edinburgh. At present, Holyrood is an instrument of Westminster and sovereignty rests legally in the south. This would change to a federal arrangement, backed by a written constitution, and “mutual respect” between the parliaments. Scotland would take control of all domestic powers, leaving Westminster with only those necessary for the maintenance of the Union, such as monetary policy, foreign policy and defence.
Home Rule is preferable to full independence, says Thomson, because it retains access to the UK market, where Scotland does 60 per cent of its trade, and avoids difficult and possibly damaging decisions about currency, debt and the euro. It allows Scots to keep the international clout that comes with UK membership.
Holyrood would be responsible for raising all that it spends, bringing greater fiscal discipline and seriousness, and the Barnett Formula would be replaced by a UK-wide Social Cohesion Fund, which redistributed resources according to need. It all might be a precursor to a fully federal UK.
If this all sounds too good to be true, then that’s probably because it is. There are a number of problems with Thomson’s proposals, not least that none of the main parties seems keen to adopt them. But beyond this, the case for independence has moved on to territory that Home Rule would not address.
For example, Home Rule would not have stopped Brexit. England’s scale in relation to the other nations of the UK meant that even though Scotland voted comprehensively to remain in the EU, a narrow majority south of the border for Leave was enough to carry the day. Scotland’s economy and international associations would still be subject to the consequences of English decisions, whether fiscal policy was fully devolved or not.
Foreign policy is another issue. The 2003 Iraq War was responsible for pushing a fair number of Scottish leftists towards support for independence. Again, Home Rule would not prevent Scotland from having to take part in unpopular conflicts.
Further, the sense that Boris Johnson’s government has an over-inflated view of the UK’s global importance, that its values are not shared by a majority of Scots, when Northern Ireland is being treated as so much chattel, and that ministers only pay lip-service to consultation, is driving the current rise in support for independence. This goes beyond domestic policy, into areas of identity, integrity and self-respect that are harder to capture in public policy.
Thomson’s book is worth reading, both as a history lesson and as a well-argued, thorough case for modern Scotland to take an alternative path. But it’s ultimately difficult to avoid the conclusion that we are now on another track, and that Home Rule, like Parnell and Hardie, has had its day.