The fight for the Union is in the final straight, and it is much closer than we unionists would hope. Our twenty-point lead of five weeks past is long gone, and now we’re actually happy with polls that show us ahead of the separatists by less than the margin of error. Anything, anything but a repeat of what we shall call that poll.
Well, not quite anything. Much as I understand the panic reaction amongst the UK’s supporters, as much as I sympathise with the reflex urge to do something to turn the fight around, there are limits. Last week’s panicked retreat into the booby-trapped bunker of “more powers” is going to haunt the constitutional politics of this country for a very long time.
It seems such a long time ago now, but I still remember the furious – and victorious – battle waged by the pro-Union side to keep ‘Devo Max’ off the referendum ballot paper. Of course as the polls have tightened there are no shortage of wise heads popping up to criticise this move, but even with the benefit of hindsight the decision has two very strong arguments in its favour.
First, and most importantly, there is the fact that you quite simply cannot have a unilateral declaration of devolution. “It’s Scotland’s choice” is a fine (and true) phrase but it applies only to the brute, binary choice: in or out? Scotland’s membership of the Union is for her to choose, but the terms of that membership must be negotiated with the rest of the UK. This was not a referendum on devolution, and one cannot read Gordon Brown describing the evolution of the constitution as “a great unifying British project” without noticing the gulf between word and deed. None of the British got a say in Brown’s new deal.
Until very recently, the common assumption was that a ‘No’ vote would lead to a broad, pan-UK convention which would seek to bring about a joined-up, equitable and above all stable constitutional settlement for the whole United Kingdom, with representatives of all the British peoples having their proper say. Instead, one terrifying poll saw the champions of the Union reflexively offer yet another bout of the sort of unilateral concessions which have brought the United Kingdom to its present, parlous state.
Second, putting Devo Max on the ballot paper would have made it impossible to actually defeat Alex Salmond. The strategic aim for the unionists here, aside from the continued existence of the country, was to win a positive endorsement of it from the Scottish people. We wanted them not just to reject independence, but to choose the Union. Devo Max eliminates this possibility by turning ‘No’ votes into calculated endorsements of a particular offer, rather than of our country.
Now we have the worst of all possible worlds. At this stage the scramble for “more powers” looks transparently desperate. We have a one-sided question on the ballot (which makes no mention of what is lost with the choice) because we chose to expend our early political energies defining the options, only to then throw away the rewards of that effort at the last moment. If we had just gone to the SNP at the beginning and asked to take ‘No’ off the ballot and leave ‘Devo Max’ on it, the unionist camp could surely have saved itself a lot of effort on that front.
Yet these are all to one extent or another rather ethereal points of principle. The true impact of this decision can be best seen in the shadow it now casts over the future development of the constitution.
Writing from a Labour perspective, Dan Hodges is incredulous that the party is seriously endorsing what amounts to the near-abolition of British domestic government. As I pointed out in an earlier column, under any resolution to the West Lothian Question Ed Miliband risks being elected as the British Prime Minister and finding, as Hodges puts it, that: “he would not have the votes to abolish the Bedroom Tax in England. Or secure the reversal of the Government’s NHS changes. Or reverse the Gove education reforms.”
The problems raised by having MPs with different mandates in a single chamber first came to light during the battle for Irish Home Rule. They were not resolved then and have not been resolved since. Yet Labour has been storing up this body blow for some time now with its wilful disregard for the WLQ.
Hodges and I differ in our attitudes to the issue. He regards it as “a product of the constitutional crisis industry” and commends Blair’s decision to ‘stop asking it’, on the grounds that “there was no solution that would not effectively consign his party to decades of opposition.” Yet even setting aside the wrongness of maintaining an iniquitous arrangement for party gain, such an attitude has proved disastrously short-sighted.
Because they have got to continue governing more than 80 per cent of the country, Labour in general and its Scottish and Welsh MPs in particular have not linked devolution to any diminution in their own power and status. They have thus been very blasé over the years as devolved Labour administrations have heaped the blame for the various problems they face on Westminster, always seeking a solution in the expansion of their own power and prestige.
Unchecked by a neglectful Labour Party, this alliance of conviction separatists and power-hungry devolved politicians has created a centrifugal dynamic which has delegitimised Westminster and pan-British government to the extent that it has practically disembowelled the Union. At every stage Scottish and Welsh MPs have, by supporting this transfer of power, acceded to the diminution of their own position. Even if they didn’t realise it at the time.
As a unionist who truly believes the vital importance of maintaining the British dimension to domestic government across the home nations, horror at the constitutional implications of such negligence takes most of the edge off the schadenfreude I feel at seeing the devolutionary pigeons come home to roost. But when Scotland holds them to Brown’s promise, and England holds them to the consequences thereof, Labour will find that they have very much pulled the rug from beneath their own feet.