Henry Hill is a British Conservative and Unionist
activist, and author of the blog Dilettante. Follow Henry on Twitter. He is also
editor of the non-party website Open
Unionism, which can be followed on Twitter here.
This past week, I have had the unusual experience of watching people whose politics are diametrically opposed to mine making a case that I wholeheartedly agree with. And on devolution, no less.
In the past week, Wales has been doing what more of us should be doing and facing up to the constitutional consequences of the Scottish referendum. The big concern, naturally, is what happens to Wales in the boldly renewed/sadly diminished United Kingdom that emerges at the tail end of 2014. Arch-devolutionary first minister Carwyn Jones and hard-left separatist leader Leanne Wood are both understandably worried about the departure of scores of Scottish Labour MPs from Westminster. There’s some talk of a ‘constitutional crisis’.
At its most tedious and least useful, the response is simple “more-powers-ism”. Whether or not Scotland leaves, argue several Plaid spokespeople, Wales will need to receive lots of new powers, either to counter-act the “privatising instincts” (if Scotland leaves) of the Tories or as part of a “positive vision” for the United Kingdom – i.e. a less united one – if Scotland doesn’t.
Much more interesting, and in accordance with David Cameron’s own thinking, is the need for a constitutional convention to come up with a joined-up, stable and defensible settlement for governing this country, and bring an end to the devolutionary process. A constitutional convention which Tony Blair should have organised when he initiated devolution, and which is thus years overdue.
I hope one day to write more fully on the hollowness of the unionist effort in the devolution ‘debate’ since the defeat of the integrationists in the late Nineties. But it can be summed up very simply in that we have been totally rudderless. On the one hand, devo-scepticism has been turned into the domain of ‘Dinosaurs’ and other species of bad people. On the other, we’ve lacked the imagination or the courage to take the bull by the horns and come up with an alternative vision for where devolution is headed than that of the nationalists.
Somebody once said, when Labour passed what many then assumed to be a one-off set of reforms in the initial devolution measures, that “devolution is a process, not an event”. This then-profound insight has since become a rather feeble excuse trotted out when that ‘process’ ran far beyond the expectations of its initiators. Anybody who opposed the latest devolutionary proposals simply didn’t understand this fundamental truth.
I think a more accurate way to look at it would be less as a process and more as a journey. The journey had a starting point: the integrated United Kingdom, with one parliament for all and equal representation within it. The Whig vision, as it were. With devolution, we then left that state of affairs and then set off towards somewhere new.
For the separatists, that destination is perfectly obvious: the rocky cliffs upon which the good ship UK will break. So they continue to agitate and exert pressure for more and more devolutionary measures. The notion that devolution would somehow ‘kill nationalism stone dead’ is now a standing joke.
Yet unionists haven’t yet come up with an alternative destination. The result is that it is always reluctant and reactive, either opposing the latest tranche of new devolutionary proposals – which to stretch the journey metaphor is akin to demanding we stop the car in the middle of nowhere – or enthusiastically agreeing with the next tranche, which is the ultimate triumph of hope over experience in that it believes that some future concession will kill nationalism when all the previous have strengthened it.
Moreover, the devolution process has in fact consisted of three bilateral processes, between the three devolved administrations and Westminster. This means that each new devolutionary settlement is drawn up solely with regard to the political circumstances of the devolved administration demanding it, without thought to its wider UK impact.
The end result of all this is plain to see. Scottish separatists have actually brought about a referendum on the UK and are demanding that, if they lose, ‘More Powers’ be handed over as a sort of consolation prize. Devolutionaries and separatists in Wales and Northern Ireland are, and will continue to, trying to leverage the Scottish crisis to extract further powers for themselves.
In all the devolved areas, the British dimension is being increasingly marginalised from their political discourse. It’s reached the point where there is earnest debate about the constitutional implications of England voting a different way on Europe to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The concept of a legitimate ‘British’ vote, is being seriously undermined in devolved discourse, for all that it is talked about in London.
This is why a constitutional convention is so urgently needed. Whatever the arguments for or against it, devolution has fundamentally destabilised the integrity of the UK. A convention, capitalising on a presumed victory in 2014, has to take three distinct one-on-one political projects and bring them to one conclusion.
That is not going to be easy. For a start, different people will obviously have different visions for how they want the UK to end up looking. Some will want out-and-out federalism, others won’t. How money is raised and redistributed will be debated. Some solution to the West Lothian Question – shamefully ducked by Blair – will have to be found. Whatever that solution is – two-tier parliament, regional devolution, a National Assembly for England – it is going to find a lot of opponents.
The separatists, meanwhile, will be profoundly dismayed by the prospect of an end to their continued unravelling of our state and will kick up an almighty fuss. Expect any and all proposals to be anti-Welsh/Scottish/whatever.
Apart from injecting a sense of British perspective into what have been narrow devolutionary battlefields, the most important thing about a settlement is that it must be defensible. By this I mean that pro-union politicians must be willing to do what they are not currently prepared to do, and stand against the continued ‘ever looser union’ agitation of their local separatists. If the findings of a convention end up being another swiftly washed-out ‘line in the sand’, it will all have been in vain.
Devolution may have proven to be a process, not an event. But even the least confrontational unionist politician must realise that, as a process, it will still come to an end. The question is whether it ends with the dissolution of the Union or before that point. The well-aired worries of the Welsh devolutionary class illustrate this all too well. Although I’m sure that was not their intention.