Henry Hill is a British Conservative and Unionist activist and writer  follow him on TwitterHe is also editor of the non-party website Open Unionism, which can be followed on Twitter here.

Salmond vows to stand again in 2016

During the unionist wobble a few weeks back, there was much speculation about the position of David Cameron in the event of a ‘yes’ vote to Scottish independence. Barring Ed Miliband being elected in 2015 to oversee the handover, he’d have the inglorious distinction of being the last Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in anything like its current form. The leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party would need to explain to Her Majesty that, on his watch, the foremost of the unions underpinning her kingdom had been severed.

But to turn the lens the other way, what happens to Alex Salmond if the Scottish people vote no? He’s without doubt the SNP’s most successful leader, although he owes some of that to devolution – the party held almost twice its present number of Westminster seats in the 1970s under the leadership of some unsavoury characters. He’s secured a separatist majority in a chamber designed to hold them at bay and forced the complacent forces of the Union to the field of battle.

Could he survive failure? He wants to, certainly – he has just declared that he “will be available” to be First Minister in the 2016 Scottish elections “whatever the political circumstances”. It is certainly in keeping with his character to keep fighting, to continue to want to be a big beast in Scottish politics.

He will also be able to cite the post-referendum devolutionary effort as having been wrung from a reluctant Westminster by his campaign. Win or lose, Scotland will soon be a slightly more foreign place after 2016. It might be enough to satiate his critics – and in the sour aftermath of defeat, the inexplicable triumph of the hated Union, he’d have critics galore from his nationalist base. It might also have occurred to him that he might even need to hold the SNP together.

No matter his position now, Salmond sounds as if he will be able to reconcile himself to a ‘No’ vote. There’s very little prospect of a second referendum in his political lifetime, so he can afford to settle back into the role of elder statesman, defanged and genial – perhaps on the Scottish version of the This Week sofa, and the Lords. Younger, ambitious colleagues like his deputy Nicola Sturgeon, on the other hand, are already setting down markers for a rematch within a couple of decades – i.e. within their political lifetimes. There will also be that wing of separatist ultras for whom any distraction from the cause of independence, any compromise with the realities of defeat, would be a betrayal.

The SNP owes much of its present dominance in Scottish politics to Alex Salmond, and its post-Salmond future is hard to divine. He knows it, and his potential rivals know it. In the event of a No vote, he’s determined to stay at the helm of the good ship Scottish Nationalism. But unless the result is razor-close, ambitious lieutenants and bitter activists might not let him.

Will devolution lead to the end of non-English ‘big beasts’?

Speaking of ‘big beasts’ from my beat, Peter Hain has announced his retirement. Not much of a news story on its own, but it comes at an interesting time. It is now 15 years since the establishment of the Welsh Assembly, and with the Welsh government’s dire record of public service provision coming under intense scrutiny even the BBC are starting to run articles with titles like “Is devolution better for Wales?”. In a glowing portrait of a ‘Welsh big beast’, Wales Online poses an interesting question: will we see Hain’s like again? They explain:

“Today, ambitious young Welsh politicians face the choice between fighting for a seat in an Assembly in which they will not have a say on international affairs, defence and, for the time being, welfare, or seeking to enter Westminster where they will not be able to vote on Wales’ health or education policies. It is interesting to ask where Aneurin Bevan would go if he was starting out today… UK politics will be diminished if we do not see his like again”.

You can still see MPs railing against the remorseless logic of devolution, from time to time – if you want to hear a good old pre-1998 integrationist speech, listen to Welsh and Scottish Labour MPs speaking against English Votes for English Laws. But it is an interesting question: in the course of defeating nationalism we are on course to extirpate the pan-British dimension from most of this country’s domestic government. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to think that we’ll have fewer Scottish Prime Ministers, or Welsh foreign secretaries, when Westminster scarcely governs their constituencies.

Mainland police in Northern Ireland should be armed, argues Police Federation of England and Wales

After all, Ulster hasn’t produced many figures of British national significance since it was put in its devolutionary box by the Liberals in the 1920s. Since that time Northern Ireland has grown into a province which, whilst still very identifiably British compared to the Republic (and I speak as someone who has made the comparison first-hand), is still a very different place to the mainland.

For example, the Police Service of Northern Ireland are quite unlike any mainland force. They are one of few forces expected to handle both regular and political crime, for example. They routinely use riot-control equipment the mere purchase of which sparks agonising hand-wringing on the mainland. Most significantly, they’re all armed. To a man (and woman).

This is justified by the unique security situation that prevails in Northern Ireland – rarely on the mainland will riot police be confronted with improvised explosives or the threat of serious bombs. Northern Ireland is also a gun-owning society in a way the mainland is not (handguns are still legal, for example).

All of these provisions are unique to the PSNI. Yet due to the risk of severe public order problems in the province, large numbers of mainland officers are ready to deploy there on 24 hours’ notice during the summer marching/riot season. Yet unlike their fellow officers in the distinctive green uniforms that denote our Irish constabularies, they’re not armed.

The Police Federation chairman, Terry Spence, maintains that it is ridiculous to argue that the PSNI need to be armed as a matter of course, yet mainland officers can be drafted in times of acute distress and deployed unarmed. He has a point – if the threat justifies arms, then deploying officers without tools adequate to the theatre of operations is surely severely negligent.

But it represents, on a fairly extreme level, something we might need to become a lot more accustomed to: significant culture clashes between different portions of our United Kingdom. It won’t always be as jarring as Ulster’s gun culture, of course. It could be savouring your e-cigarette on the train to Cardiff but having to switch it off at the station, due to the Welsh government’s proposed e-cig ban.

More generally, it will be finding the local editions of the papers discussing politicians and problems of which you know nothing, as they didn’t make your own edition, and realising you hear very little about what goes on within the realms of other devolved areas. There’s already a sense in which the London press has become the English press – who knows, perhaps every paper will need its own version of Red, White and Blue one day.