Devolution is Dead

Every time the Scottish Government is defeated in court there are wild celebrations from their opponents. The ruling that Downing Street’s unprecedented s35 veto of Holyrood’s gender recognition reform bill was lawful, is no exception. Graham Grant, Home Affairs Editor of the Scottish Daily Mail, Michael Blackley, the papers Political Editor, columnist Stephen Daisley were joined by Euan McColm and Mandy Rhodes and Iain Macwhirter – in fact the newspapers, editors and columnists are completely uniform in their opinion. Dissent is absent. But Unionists were also joined by a raft of Scottish nationalists celebrating with great glee a bill passed in the Scottish Parliament by a two-thirds majority with MSPs from every political party being overturned by Alister Jack.

Graham Grant wrote; “Humza the master tactician: shackling himself to hated, shambolic legislation – then wasting money on trying (and failing) to salvage it. A humiliating political misjudgment. He should quit, along with the Green zealots who helped to create this toxic mess.”

The tone and target is repeated throughout the commentariat, here is Iain Macwhirter: “Now either Yousaf perseveres with this profoundly unpopular legislation on Self-ID for trans people, or he abandons his coalition arrangement with the Scottish Green party.”

Some of this explicitly political. The attacks on the Bute House Agreement and the Scottish Green Party are the join that unites reactionary forces of British Unionism and Scottish Nationalism. But other elements of it is less focused, it’s just part of a desultory narrative that everything in Scotland – almost by definition – is awful.

The mood of miserabilism and self-hatred is everywhere. The Times Scotland (ish) edition published a wonderful piece a few weeks back declaring that ‘Scotland is going downhill in most areas’ . It’s unintentionally hilarious, the Times polled its own readers to confirm that, indeed, Scotland is awful in almost every regard.

The Herald tweeted this out earlier … which seems to be just descending into hysteria:

Some of these platforms have descended into parody.

These are some strange alliances but they’ve been merging and morphing for some time. Now the most reactionary elements of the nationalist bloggersphere are in complete unison with the most reactionary elements of the British press and some of the far-right political figures. Figures that would previously be implacably opposed are now joined at the hip. This is not new but it is now complete.

Some of the level of debate is so toxic as to be immobilising. Some of the AltNats, bloggers and heads of think-tanks have a relationship with Nicola Sturgeon that can only be described as para-social. But the question of the Lady Haldane judgement is not what does this mean for trans people, nor what next for that legislation – the arguments are so entrenched and tired its hardly worth repeating them. The question is what does this mean for devolution and democracy?

Humza Yousaf said: “Today’s judgment confirms beyond doubt that devolution is fundamentally flawed. The Court has confirmed that legislation passed by a majority in Holyrood can be struck down by Westminster.The only way to guarantee we get true self-government is through independence.”

Yousaf is right, we are in completely new territory. The limits of devolution are clear, their outer parameters delineated. No-one had used Section 35 before, and Jack, part of the most extreme government of the modern era, will be happy to do so again and again. The message is this: any policy that deviates from British outlooks and vision will be shut down. If there is the risk of the threat of a good example, or any notion that there will be consequences for any other part of the United Kingdom, any law can be arbitrarily shut down. In simple terms we can do whatever we like as long as its of no consequence at all. What’s new here is that such repression or undermining of devolution will be cheered to the rafters by people who (allegedly) seek independence.

Devolution is dead. It has a Do Not Resuscitate note pinned to its bed, after Labour’s much talked about constitutional reforms were quietly dropped. The Liberals are not even worth mentioning, the Conservatives always opposed devolution until they had no option but to reluctantly take part. They are about to be obliterated. The SNP are in deep trouble and heavily infected with incumbency and failure. Devolution is dead. But this makes us feel trapped, stuck in a sort of constitutional Upside Down, where we are severely hampered by what can be done within Devolution, yet judged by those inadequacies and failings as a test of what independence would look like. Instead we are trapped within a British State that is busy conjuring ever more dystopian solutions to its fever dream about ‘small boats’. Devolution is dead. It was killed by Alister Jack and by the fact that the Unionist parties began to see it as the domain of their opponents and therefore something to be destroyed. Hatred of the SNP has become a defining feature of Scottish politics and the driving force for many politicians. The Bain Principle is writ large. This would be fine if it was shared with an alternative vision of the future, but it’s not. The Unionist message is basically: ‘Don’t’. The backdrop is ‘this is fine’ and the enduring fallacy of ‘UK:OK’. In place of the mythical positive case for the Union you have politicians just defaulting to the courts.

At the start of devolution there was a lot of optimism, much of it misplaced but still very real. After many years of defeat and setback it seemed like a victory. ‘Upturned boats are a watershed’ we thought. This death could be a moment when the prospect of independence becomes more attractive but it seems the old model, that devolution could be used as a prefigurative ‘stepping stone’ to independence by good practice and good governance, trialling more progressive policy and building lasting institutional frameworks now seems like a broken model.


Comments (38)

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  1. Micheal MacGilleRuadh says:

    Devolution does not work. It’s the worst of all worlds. We should either return to the clammy embrace of Westminster and forget about the pretendy parliament experiment or go the whole hog and achieve independence. The current arrangements are worse than ridiculous.

    1. BSA says:

      A choice proposed there which is born of pure petulance.

    2. Alec Lomax says:

      In other words, London knows best.

  2. gavinochiltree says:

    I came to the view that devolution was a constitutional trap some years ago. It has allowed the Treaty of Union to be replaced by the all-encompassing Scotland Act—-legislation which has disempowered Scotland, subjugated its legal system and is destroying our sense of ourselves (we now are “ruled” by a man who does not even believe Scotland is a national entity).
    If I was leading the SNP, I would use Lady Haldanes ruling to lead the party to the backbenches. Let the Brit Nats rule for a while—or maybe they would want a Holyrood election—they could combine with the greens to force one.
    Then stand in every election for independence—no referendums, just negotiations.

    1. Micheal MacGilleRuadh says:


    2. norm says:

      There’s strong logic here, but our opponents would quickly spin this as ‘nationalists walking away’, and ‘giving up on Scotland’, setting the potential back for decades. (see ‘there is no money left’ and UK Labour 13 years on).

  3. Wul says:

    This will be what David Cameron meant in 2014, when he pleaded with Scots to “Vote “No”” and “Lead our family of nations…”

    Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?

    1. Micheal MacGilleRuadh says:

      We’ve been sold the mother of all pups with this Wul

  4. Wul says:

    It is kind of intriguing from an anthropological point of view.

    The one thing that would have killed the independence movement would have been to create a real, actual “family of nations”. Making decisions and setting policy with the full engagement of the devolved nations, as equals.
    The abandonment of the “We subsidise you” narrative. Massive devolvement of economic powers. Formal and repeated recognition of Scotland’s contribution to UK policy, economy and energy, food, water and strategic security.

    But that kind of stuff seems impossible for Tories.
    When one wins, one must destroy and humiliate and shame one’s opponents. Stamp them into the ground. Beggar and neuter them.
    Tories seem congenitally incapable of nurturing anything (they even wound their own children by boarding them out to abusive strangers).

    This will be their downfall. They don’t know when to stop the cruelty.

    1. Micheal MacGilleRuadh says:

      Aye, I’ve been reading a book on the Irish Protestant Ascendancy in the years leading up to 1916 and you can see certain attitudinal parallels with the Tory class in present-day Scotland – the big difference of course that (parts of Ulster excepted) the population in Irleand was such more solidly pro home-rule than is the case here today.

  5. Keith Wood says:

    As a committed supporter of Scottish nationhood, it pains me to see our cause so ill-served by barely literate articles like the above. I despair of any cause that is championed by such poor grammar, imprecise thought and ill-conceived conceit. Imprecise grammar and flawed lexis are indicative of imprecise and flawed thought. We deserve better.

    1. What seems to be the problem Keith?

  6. SteveH says:

    The SNP’s mistake is that their one-trick-pony ambition of Independence makes them think they can slip any old tatty bit of legislation or political sleight of hand through without ordinary Scots noticing.

    What an insult!

    To make the GRR the vehicle for demonstrating the right for ending devolution and the need for independence instead was a massive mistake. Most Scots are not convinced about GRR, and saw through it its use here as the crude device it is.

    The SNP need to persuade ALL Scots that independence is viable for Scotland. This emotional bleating win’t get them anywhere.

    1. norm says:

      That’s not true though is it. No matter your opinion on it, the GRR bill was seeing through a policy position that had all-party consensus after the 2016 election, and puts us into a similar situation to independent countries like Ireland and Denmark.

      It’s the unionist Tories that have sought to use it for constitutional grievance.

    2. Tom Ultuous says:

      The Tories sat through years of debates and inquiries into the GRR and only stepped in at the last moment to maximise embarrassment for the Scottish govt. They’re the ones responsible for all the money that’s been wasted on this and they did the same with the deposit return scheme which also resulted in many businesses losing money.

      [A scathing new report has found that the UK Government attempted to block Holyrood legislation such as gender laws simply for political reasons and experts now warn there could be more to come.
      “There are grounds for believing that this intervention was motivated by party political gain without regard for constitutional sensitivities as suggested by the failure of the UK government to seek a political resolution before deploying Section 35.”]

  7. John says:

    I read the Sonia Sodha (former observer to Ed Milligan’s) article in Guardian which is primarily about falling PISA ratings in Scotland and Wales.
    In the second part of her article she states that the fact that the SNP are trying to implement progressive policies somehow proves they are acting as a populist party.
    There is a discussion to be had about effectiveness of Holyrood’s progressive education policy and wisdom of giving an unpopular policy such as gender reform such a high profile but to use this as evidence of populism is bizarre and typical of the Bain Principle.
    There is of course no mention of the implications of a Section 35 intervention for future of devolution or the questionable antidemocratic rejection of request for an independence referendum just an assumption of Westminster’s rights over Holyrood. There was of course no opportunity to comment on this article as often happens in Guardian in relation to political issues in Scotland.
    I also note on news this evening that David (sorry Lord) Cameron has reported the First Minister for meeting someone from Turkey without any personnel from Westminster being present.
    The demonisation of Holyrood government and by association Holyrood Parliament is now in full swing.

    1. SleepingDog says:

      @John, yes, it was an attack piece rather than a piece of sober journalism:
      Sonia Sodha fails to consider other reasons apart from what the sub-editor (presumably) calls ‘faddish, unproven theories’ that the implementation of the Curriculum for Excellence in Scotland resulted in a fall in OECD Pisa rankings.

      For example, resistance by individual teachers and unions. Or more fundamentally, the OECD methods being interested in quite different attributes that the CfE is aimed at. The differential effects of COVID-19, and data collection methods.

      What is the OECD? Wikipedia says:
      “The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development is an intergovernmental organisation with 38 member countries, founded in 1961 to stimulate economic progress and world trade”
      Its education aims are dedicated to turning our drones for market economies, including presumably obedient hacks for corporate media.

      Personally, I welcome Scotland falling in such tables, although I would like to see evidence on how the CfE is faring in cultivating planetary-realistic ideologies, something I am rather more concerned about.

      But does the OECD Pisa study referred to even disaggregate Scotland from the UK as claimed? I don’t see that it does. While the OECD’s own top hit for Scotland (from 2021) says:
      “CfE offers an inspiring and widely supported philosophy of education.”
      entirely contradicting the Guardian/Observer article, which offers the most appalling, brazen lie that a Scottish future-skills approach is “a theory, based on zero evidence”, especially since the author claims to present ‘evidence’ that it is failing. Yellow journalism.

      1. John says:

        Totally missing was assessment how Covid and lockdowns affected poorest sections of society and education more – which was very predictable. This was raised at covid enquiry in relation to none of cabinet having children in public education system.
        The author periodically writes these articles denigrating Holyrood government and SNP which have no doubt been sourced via a UK Labour apparatchik. I would be interested how often Ms Soda has visited Scotland or Holyrood. She exhibits the condescension of Westminster based journalists of both right and (claimed) left of British political establishment.
        It is also noticeable that the Guardian do not open her articles up for comments which means they are not willing to open her views up to scrutiny.

        1. SleepingDog says:

          @John, yes, although some children may have had some relief (from physical bullying, teacher abuse, noisy environments, competition for attention etc) during lockdown, in more unequal societies (like the UK) both the positive and negative effects are likely to be disproportionately large and unequally distributed compared to more equal societies.

          I had another thought about the teach-to-test educational method apparently favoured by the rankings-obsessed Observer journalist, and that it is easier than ever before to cheat in assessments (not least through AI and online cheat resources). Perhaps the value of these kinds of tests nose-dived forever during enforced remote learning. And of course, so many British journalists came through an educational system engineered for social cheating that perhaps they cannot see the problem, it is just the water they swim in. What value rankings then?

          The OECD-favoured educational approach of decades has created the vast global problems of today which are getting even worse. I wonder what part life sciences were supposed to play in their grand plan.

  8. SleepingDog says:

    Notably missing from this analysis is an assessment of the Scottish civil service, presumably instrumental in any transition of power.
    The related question is of transfer and release of allegiance of civil servants. Currently any subject, let alone civil servant, working towards depriving the British monarch of any part of their dominions is committing treason felony, as far as I’m able to ascertain.

  9. florian albert says:

    ‘Devolution is Dead’

    Far from being dead, it is working as intended. ‘Power devolved is power retained’, as Enoch Powell stated accurately. There were bound to be disputes such as the one that the Court of Session ruled on recently. It is surprizing that there have been so few in nearly a quarter of a century.
    Some supporters of Scottish independence, Jim Sillars is the best known, viewed devolution as a snare. Right now, that conclusion looks spot on.
    The campaign for independence is not dead but is in a weak state. Tom Devine, an independence supporter, has said that it will not happen for a generation. (That may prove an optimistic assessment. There is no sign of a younger generation of independence activists able to move the campaign forward from its present moribund state) Its weak state is due mainly to the utterly inept performance of the devolved SNP government, a fact that too many independence supporters are unwilling to face up to.

    1. Alec Lomax says:

      I was voting SNP when Sillars was still a Labour MP. His bright idea was for the Scottish electorate to abstain from voting in the last devolution referendum. Which, in the unlikely event of them taking his advice, would have resulted in an overwhelming No vote. Oh and he’s a Brexiter as well. How did that work out?

      1. florian albert says:

        Sillars’ argument was that Devolution would lead to the growth of political class content with the new status quo, because they got shiny ministerial cars, lots of media attention and generous pensions.
        In 2014, this prediction did not look like coming to pass. In 2023, it does.

        1. BSA says:

          Entirely typical of Sillars attitude to everything. Would you prefer politicians to walk, to refuse to communicate with the public, to retire to the poorhouse ? Maybe you would prefer mendicant Friars to politicians ? Sillars destroyed everything he touched because he insisted on complete agreement with his purist obsessions.

          1. florian albert says:

            I am not sure how mendicant friars come into a debate on Devolution.

            I would prefer that politicians do a decent job. Near the top of any list of reasons why Scottish schools are failing so many pupils is the unwelcome fact that the politicians involved have performed badly over a long time.

            A particularly worrying development may be that decent people are avoiding a career in politics, both in Scotland and beyond.

  10. John Wood says:

    As I and others said years ago, power devolved is power retained. It’s time for Holyrood to stand up and point out that it is Scotland’s Parliament, with a democratic mandate direct from the people. The Scotland Act gave it complete jurisdiction in all but a few reserved areas. The only problem is that we all seem to be too afraid of the Unionists. It’s as if we have internalised the ‘too wee too poor too stupid’ mantra.

    The destruction of Holyrood by a thousand cuts was always inevitable. Surely everyone must have seen this coming, especially after 2014? The Unionists have always refused to accept that Scotland is a nation at all. To them it os ‘North Britain’, and Holyrood is merely a local authority to be bankrupted and controlled like all others. The UK is actually a kingdom and all power actually resides with the monarch. We are subjects, not citizens. Democracy, north or south of the border, is a fake. You can vote however you like – so long as you provide the required result. Kings generally believe in divine right, even if they keep quiet about it these days. The Claim of Right – even as Charles swore to uphold it – is apparently worthless.

    However we might be fed up with the antics of the SNP and Greens, both of whom are now bought and sold for neoliberal gold, this does not mean we reject independence from (far worse) Westminster. On the contrary, we need our independence all the more. The more propaganda we get running Scotland down, the more we need to to summon up the confidence to fire it right back. Does anyone seriously believe we are ‘better together’ with Westminster’s bunch of corrupt, fascist criminals? Who themselves seem to be a US puppet regime?

    It isn’t a straight choice of parties that beneath the rhetoric all share one neoliberal core . There is always a third possibility.

    At all levels we need politicians with backbone who will publicly stand up for those they are supposed to represent. And civil servants likewise.
    Regardless of threats, inducements, etc. A Holyrood composed of (independence supporting) independents, or perhaps a new party. I can’t see any real; prospect of any of the existing ones redeeming themselves. But one way or another, in Scotland, England and many other countries, politicians, ‘royals’ and plutocrats alike are going to have to wake up and remember that they exist for our benefit, not the other way round. And if they fail to deliver what we need, sooner or later, out they will go.

    Independence from Westminster is inevitable and the nastier the Unionists get the sooner it will come. You cannot rule a country by violence indefinitely. I just hope Scotland will not have to suffer as so many other countries did to get there. I am not optimistic. Because it’s just the way Westminster is.

    Is anyone interested in reconstituting the Highland Land League?

  11. Niemand says:

    Devolution is what it is and what it isn’t, is independence. It offers some considerable powers but with lots of serious constraints. The GRR bill was bound to fail due to UK-wide conflicts and it matters not it had majority support in Holyrood. Why on earth it was taken to court again is beyond me as it was again, bound to fail because the devolution rules clearly state it would. What is it about this that isn’t understood? The SNP seem to like losing court cases, at enormous tax-payers’ expense.

    1. Alec Lomax says:

      The money spent on legal bills concerning the GRR is penny wheep compared to the billions wasted on Westminster’s Rwanda plan.

  12. John McLeod says:

    Very interesting and informative discussion thread, that builds and expands on the ideas in Mike’s article. Much appreciated – particularly the comments towards the end about the recent Sonia Sodha Guardian article on the PISA rankings. As a grandad of two primary school children (I know, small sample…), I am deeply appreciative of the education they are receiving. And in particular – no sense at all of them being ‘taught to the test’.

    1. florian albert says:

      If you have a properly designed curriculum and properly designed tests, teaching to the test makes perfect sense. It allows you to know how much the pupils have learned. You don’t then have to wait for a body like PISA to come along to tell you the pupils have not learned very much.
      (I accept that Curriculum for Excellence is a million miles from a properly designed curriculum.)
      Would you pay a driving instructor who didn’t want to ‘teach to the test’ and left you unaware of the need to do an emergency stop in your driving test ?

  13. John Mc Gurk says:

    As far as I am concerned only INDY will do Let’s get shot of this lot in London and build a better country

  14. Alan Austin says:

    If the devolved government had shown any competence over the past 24 years it may have been supported by a majority of Scots. However, what it has shown is that devolution is a failed political experiment where it has never delivered anything to the population to cover its outrageous annual cost to taxpayers. It also shows that the devolved administration have never read the Scotland Act and hence 7 court cases vs UK government and 7 losses. Section 35 of the Scotland Ac in in black and white and devolved powers are reserved powers whenever the UK decides they are. The clue is innthe word devolved.

    1. John Wood says:

      Power devolved is power retained. Holyrood has been completely hamstrung from the beginning, and powers have been steadily withdrawn. Westminster has refused absoluely to co-operate with Holyrood at all and has instead just determined to destroy it. It is impossible for it to function in such circumstances. The Scottish government, while not perfect, has done far better than the horrific Westminster government in every respect.

      The only possible future for Scotland is complete independence from Westminster. We would do far better learning from our other neighbours in Scandinavia.

      That does not mean and independent Scotland would be ruhn by the SNP or Greens. An independent Scotland would have the possibility for the first time of voting all the existing parties out and starting afresh.

      1. Tom Ultuous says:

        Spot on John. What the Direct Rule Dim don’t realise is that if they had their way we’d have NHS waiting lists 25% longer, 30% less full time GPs, double the waiting time on calls to NHS24, charity dental vans, 27% less police, 25% less firemen, 70% more polluted rivers, 30% more children in poverty, £900 less spent per pupil, less teachers per pupil, 67% less children’s playgrounds, twice as many homeless, poorer NHS & public sector pay, etc. etc. The list is endless but they never get to see the truth because their views are painted by the gutter Tory press.

        Independence related articles on MSN since referendum date announced
        Anti-Neutral-Pro = 695-21-27

    2. Alec Lomax says:

      I seem to recall that the Close Down Holyrood Party got something like .6% of the vote at the last Scottish Parliament election. Obviously it didn’t have the support of the majority of Scots.

  15. Satan says:

    Devolution isn’t dead. Holyrood has withered.

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