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  1. The Staggers
21 April 2023

What David Frost doesn’t get about devolution

The Tories should get their own house in order before looking at a question which has been settled for decades.

By Joanna Cherry

In a Telegraph article headlined “The SNP’s implosion is a chance to put failing devolution into reverse” on Wednesday (19 April), the former chief Brexit negotiator David Frost wrote that “not only must no more powers be devolved to Scotland, it’s time to reverse the process”. He said “devolution was designed in a different world – a world in which many powers theoretically devolved to Scotland were actually held at EU level and could not be exercised in practice”.

The last thing Scotland needs right now is advice on how we should be governed from a Tory peer who undermined democracy in Northern Ireland and threatened the Good Friday Agreement with his inept Brexit deals.

Certainly, the Scottish Tories were quick to denounce the article. The MSP Murdo Fraser said: “Devolution has allowed us to shine a light on SNP failures. The Conservatives will not be rolling it back.” Another Conservative MSP, Stephen Kerr, tweeted his disagreement too, saying “devolution works”. This all seems indicative of the wide base of support that devolution has in Scotland. 

Indeed, what Frost doesn’t realise is that devolution is the settled will of the Scottish people. It had nearly 75 per cent support when put to a referendum in 1997 after years of cross-party support and civic campaigning for a constitutional convention. More than 25 years later, only fringe elements seriously think devolution should be rolled back. Frost seems remarkably ignorant of this political reality. 

Frost’s opportunistic attack on Scottish democracy seems to have been prompted by problems with the internal governance of the SNP, and that, after 15 years in government, it is presiding over some problematic policy outcomes. And yet, Frost might be better advised to address the problems in his own party. After 13 years of Tory misrule the nations of these islands are suffering because of the serious damage wrought on our economy by Brexit and the foolishness of the 44-day Liz Truss administration. Boris Johnson, meanwhile, is awaiting the outcome of a parliamentary inquiry into whether he misled parliament. There are multiple questions over donations from Russian donors and about terrible deals for personal protective equipment during Covid. While still only 1 per cent has reportedly been recovered from the £1bn in lockdown grants lost to fraud under Rishi Sunak’s watch as chancellor. Perhaps Frost should instead be asking whether the parliament in Westminster, which has seemed powerless to stop this mess, should be shut down.

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[See also: The humbling of the SNP]

Devolution is bigger than any single party. It survived the death in office of one of its greatest champions Donald Dewar, the ignominious resignation of the first minister Henry McLeish in 2001, and the collapse of Scottish Labour in Scotland – and it will survive any troubled waters the SNP is enduring. One reason Scots voted so enthusiastically for devolution, and still support it, is that it’s the only thing standing between us and decades of Westminster Tory governments, which we haven’t voted for since 1955.

Rather, the real lesson of recent times is that devolution is very limited, and that it cannot protect us from decisions taken by English voters, such as Brexit. For this reason, support for independence in Scotland is still strong despite temporary drops in SNP fortunes. Support for independence, like support for devolution, goes beyond any one party. In the meantime, those of us whose ultimate goal is independence will be steadfast in our support for devolution. Problems made in Scotland, whether they be legislative difficulties, such with the Gender Recognition Reform Bill or governance issues – such as those that are coming to light in the SNP – should be fixed in Scotland. 

This said, perhaps I should be more forgiving of Frost – he has ascended to the heights of government without ever being elected. Perhaps that is why he cannot understand that the SNP’s dominance in Scotland has been a result of the democratic choices of Scottish voters.

I have written before why this must not make the SNP complacent and what we must do to tackle the party’s problems. But Frost’s opportunistic attack is so far off what people in Scotland actually want, it’s almost comedic. The Tories should stop meddling with devolution and get their own house in order.

[See also: Andy Street: “Our devolution deal is the end of the begging bowl”]

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