Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Mistake - or simply disinterest?

Blair told us over the weekend that he’d made a mistake over devolution, because he “failed to do enough to ensure Welsh and Scottish devolution did not undermine the UK's national identity” and “did not understand in the late 1990s the need to maintain cultural unity between the different parts of the United Kingdom”.  An admission that he might have ever got anything wrong is something of a departure for him, but it seems to me that what it really tells us is that he did not understand at the time, and still does not understand now, why people in Scotland and Wales wanted devolution in the first place.
At the time that devolution was enacted, he – like many others in his party – saw devolution to Wales and Scotland as just the first step in the regionalisation of the UK, to be followed by the creation of regional assemblies across England.  They saw it, primarily, as being about better governance and administration rather than having anything to do with identity.  The regionalisation plan got as far as a referendum for the North-East, but came to a sudden and abrupt halt when the idea was overwhelmingly rejected. 
One might have thought that a rational response would be to ask why the idea was so popular in Scotland, and managed a small majority in Wales, but was so clearly rejected in England – but that seems to be a question Blair never asked himself.  Had he done so, he would have understood at the time that identity was at the heart of the demand for the creation of national elected bodies for Scotland and Wales.  If it were purely about the regionalisation of the UK and good governance, why would anyone choose those particular boundaries, particularly in the case of Wales?  The answer is because they mark the boundaries of perceived nations containing within them people who identify with a nation other than simply the UK.  It doesn’t follow that all those who voted for devolution were or have since become independentistas, but had it not been for that sense of identity and belonging, and a desire to see that expressed in political terms, there would never have been a majority for devolution in either country.
It follows from that that it was always inevitable that giving political expression to that perceived sense of nationhood would lead to differences in policy (there’s no point otherwise), and a probable strengthening of those different identities.  None of that necessarily leads to a demand for independence, as the different paths trodden by the two devolved nations shows, but the belief that it would have no effect on the way in which people choose to identify (or not) with the UK, let alone that it could have been prevented by taking stronger action to promote UK identity, shows a surprisingly naïve side of Blair.  Or perhaps it merely confirms that he never saw the issue as important or took much interest in it.

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