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14 July 2022

Nicola Sturgeon makes a better case for Scottish devolution than independence

The SNP’s latest paper shows why transferring further power from Westminster to Scotland is a far more attractive option than separation.

By Chris Deerin

Were you to walk on to any rail station concourse in Scotland today, you would find them: hunched and wretched, gripping empty WH Smith sandwich packets and half-drunk Diet Coke bottles. Every few minutes they would peer at the destination board, then sigh, shake their heads, and stare off into the middle distance.

These are the lost commuters of Alba, poor souls at the mercy of a railway system that has effectively ceased to function. All they want, like Griffin Dunne in After Hours, is to get home. As Griffin Dunne found, this is easier said than done. The trains don’t turn up, or are cancelled at the last minute. They are forced to take Kafka-esque journeys in the opposite direction to the one they intend, in search of a route that is faintly rumoured to get them to their destination.

Too often in recent months have I been a ScotRail Odysseus, simmering with rage at missed appointments or child collection, my backside aching from the stations’ hard steel chairs, trying not to take it out on the rail staff. Longing for my Ithaca (OK, Stirling), I instead find myself on my way from Edinburgh to Croy, near Glasgow, before eventually doubling back. Hours slip painfully by, days are ruined.

Perhaps this is why I have responded to recent news so ungenerously. A glance at the top of the Times’s online Scotland section on Thursday morning (14 July) first told me that “Strikes will bring trains to a halt again”. Third was “Exams may yet be scrapped after review told to consider all options”. In between was “Independent Scotland ‘to tackle colonial past’”.

With the present so unappealing, one might wonder why the Scottish government is prioritising an unknowable future in order to make good on a historic wrong. But such has become the norm in SNP Scotland. As public services fail, they throw a blanket over it all and strike Zoolander poses in front of a section of the population that is all too keen to be dazzled.

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Yes, Westminster’s a mess, and yes, the Tories are awful. They may be about to become even more awful. But whoever becomes PM won’t run our trains or our schools or our hospitals. Permit me my disgruntlement.

The colonial story came on the same day as the second in the Scottish government’s series of papers making the case for independence. The first, a carefully collated comparison of the UK’s economic performance to that of a variety of smaller nations, unsurprisingly found the latter outperforming the former.

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The second is about democracy, and specifically how independence would renew democracy. This is probably the best card in the SNP’s hand – though it is a philosophical, often abstract argument, it inspires strong emotions while not troubling itself with the sticky stuff such as currency, debt and future trade arrangements. The paper is an amalgam of old arguments – very old arguments – and some relatively new ones.

Nicola Sturgeon was in full Abraham Lincoln mode at the launch – she had the Bute House stage to herself, with no off-putting Green smirking beside her – and her speech was incisive, hard-hitting and, at times, inarguably correct. Scotland is indeed a nation that must only remain part of the UK on a voluntary basis. There is a lack of an obvious democratic route to deciding its constitutional future, which needs to be addressed. The relationship between the London and Edinburgh governments must be better, and more effectively patrolled. Relatively few Westminster governments have secured overwhelming support from the Scottish electorate.

But there were some curious points, too. It seems to surprise the First Minister that Westminster retains sovereignty over Holyrood, a fact that underwrites the devolution settlement. The Scottish Parliament was created to give Scotland a significant measure of autonomy within what is otherwise a unitary system – that was the deal, and it has become a better deal over time as more power has been passed to Edinburgh in areas such as taxation and welfare.

It is wearying to say it again, but Scots were given the opportunity to throw all this up in the air in 2014 – only eight years ago – but decided instead to retain Westminster sovereignty, which they had also approved in the 1997 referendum. Brexit, which is the main reason we are back here again, was certainly an affront to the 62 per cent of Scots who rejected it, but still – and Sturgeon cannot get away from this – there is no clear public support for a second referendum. Largely, people are getting on with the many challenges they currently face, aware that the Union has economic and social advantages as well as weaknesses. 

The paper makes the case itself: “Following the 1997 devolution referendum, the creation of the Scottish Parliament and the transfer of devolved powers from Westminster to Holyrood extended and deepened democracy in Scotland. It established democratically accountable national self-government – allowing Scottish decision-making on key issues in line with the choices of people in Scotland… Devolution, which the people of Scotland supported in the 1997 referendum with an overwhelming 74 per cent of votes, has delivered material benefits for the people of Scotland and is trusted by them to work in Scotland’s best interests.” There follows a long list of actions taken over the lifetime of Holyrood that Sturgeon agrees have improved Scotland.

The paper talks of “a lack of symmetry” in the UK’s constitutional arrangements, which is and has always been true. But of the four nations that comprise the British state, Scotland has more freedom than any other. The Welsh are considerably underpowered in comparison, Northern Ireland has a parliament that requires jump-starting every few years, while England has none at all. Constitutional symmetry is for academic bores. And through history Scots have hardly been under-represented in the senior offices of the UK governments, even if there are fewer at present. The paper even admits that the devolution of further powers, covering employment and greater control of taxation and borrowing powers, would improve matters. I would add in VAT and immigration, dangerous unionist that I am.

Confusingly, devolution emerges from this pro-independence paper as a worthwhile and largely successful arrangement. From the way it’s presented here, I’d certainly vote for it again. There is much criticism of the cavalier approach taken to government by Boris Johnson, but that criticism would be shared by many Tory MPs, and we shall see whether he takes the garbage out with him when he goes. Indeed, the British government is already changing its approach to Holyrood, seeking to work more constructively with Sturgeon’s administration.

“Independence is not separate from bread and butter issues,” said Sturgeon, and she is right. It’s perfectly reasonable for the Scottish government to make the case for separation while running the Scottish parliament. As the First Minister is fond of saying, she can do more than one thing at once. So, I ask again: where are the trains?

[See also: Nicola Sturgeon: Scotland must choose its own destiny]