You could say the question was answered by Ian Blackford at PMQs this week. I quote – Ian Blackford: “His attack on devolution was not just a slip of the tongue – it was a slip of the Tory mask …”.
Devolution and the creation of the Scottish Parliament was initiated by the new Labour Government after Blair’s landslide historic victory in May 1997 by a pre-legislative referendum held in Scotland in September 1997 to determine support for the creation of a Scottish Parliament with devolved powers, and following the clear majority for both proposals, the UK Parliament passed the Scotland Act 1998, creating the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Executive.
The intent was clear – to halt the impetus for Scottish independence driven by the SNP and to consolidate Labour’s electoral dominance and that of unionist parties in Scotland by a form of proportional representation – the d’Hondt system – that it was hoped would ensure that the SNP could never form a government, a hope encapsulated by George Robertson’s 1995 quote “Devolution will kill Nationalism stone dead”. To make this Union copper-bottomed, The Scotland Act specifically asserted the continued power of the UK Parliament to legislate in respect of Scotland, i.e. power devolved was power retained.
The Tory Party, however, had been resolute in their opposition to devolution, and despite having to face the reality of the popular vote and the Scotland Act, the former Tory Scottish Secretary Michael Forsyth never abandoned his deep distrust of the process, and continues to express his opposition to this day. From the standpoint of the Scottish Tories and Westminster Tories, devolution and the Scottish Parliament have indeed been a disaster in the 21st century, notably from 2007 on.
There simply would have been no way the 2014 Referendum could have been run without a Scottish Parliament. The old received wisdom that all that was needed for Scotland’s independence was the election a majority of Scottish MPs to Westminster was blown out of the water by the 2015 astonishing SNP landslide, 56 out of 59 Scottish MPs, a landslide which Nicola Sturgeon totally failed to capitalise on.
So, as Iain Macwhirter and other more astute commentators have observed, Boris was right – devolution has been a disaster – for Scottish Unionist parties, and for the Westminster Tory Party and Boris as they watch the disintegration of the Union under the twin pressures of Brexit and Scottish independence polls, compounded by the challenges of the pandemic.
Where does this leave independence parties and the YES Movement in formulating a response to the golden apple that Boris has handed them?
The Tory response, predictable and feeble, was to say that what their hapless Leader had really meant was that SNP government’s misuse of the tools of devolution graciously gifted to mendicant Scot – ever ungrateful for generous handouts from the benevolent Union – was what had constituted the disaster of devolution, reciting a litany of ‘failures’.
The problem for SNP, in their equally predictably response, is that their recent record in devolved government has been less than stellar, and their potential has been stifled by the limitation of devolution, notably the lack of the key financial levers, e.g. borrowing powers, the sad and sordid nature of the whole Salmond/Sturgeon debacle and now the pandemic.
However, their aces in the hole are continued electoral success through three terms of devolved government, a likely fourth term on an explicitly independence mandate in May 2021, consistently favourable YES polls and the starkly evident attack on Holyrood’s powers by the Brexit-related internal market legislation.
There is of course the slightly embarrassing contradictions that are inherent in devolved government and a presence in Westminster by a independence party that’s committed to rejecting devolution in favour of full independence, but these are easily rebutted by justifying them as necessary to protect the interests of Scotland while it’s still reluctantly in the Union and must offset the inimical aspects of Unionism on the interests of Scots.
So, all things considered, the Boris gaffe was to let Tory mask drop, and like the unmasking of the Phantom of the Opera in the old Lon Chaney silent movie, reveal the real face that the bland mask concealed.
The facts are simple – no Tory has ever been happy about Scottish devolution or the Scottish Parliament, although Scottish Tory MSPs must speculate on what would happen to their comfortable seat should Westminster ever end it. But, unlike the SNP MPs in Westminster -who face a starker redundancy reality after independence – Tory MSPs can take comfort from the fact that they can still hope to hold seats in the first elected Independent Scottish Parliament. Their party vigorously opposed the creation of the devolved Parliament, but nonetheless pragmatically sought seats in it when they lost the argument. And after all, they know these seats can lead to the Lords, as the latest Baroness and others before her have demonstrated.
The immediate threats are still very real – the pernicious nibblings at Scotland’s current limited devolved autonomy will be only the beginning of the process of rendering it impotent in all things that really matter if not stopped. But the ultimate defence lies in a decisive win by a majority of independence-committed MSPs in May 2021 and speedy and decisive action thereafter by what must be an SNP-led independence government to either secure a legal referendum or frontally challenge a refusal by political means, including direct action by the YES Movement.
The AUOB Assembly online was significant way beyond the numbers participating because of the forensic questioning of Ian Blackford by Lesley Riddoch and the powerful speeches of Robin McAlpine, George Kerevan and others, designed to stiffen the backbone of SNP while securing unity of YES Movement purpose.
In that over-arching context, the Boris Gaffe will be seen as an entertaining but helpful Unionist blunder, one of many, on the road to the crucial election and crucial year of 2021.