Saturday 22 April 2023

Choosing our enemies


From the outset, there have always been different ideas about what devolution was about. According to David Frost, in his demand earlier this week that devolution should be rolled back, it was supposed to be about simply running “an effective local administration”, and that was more or less the basis on which it was sold to many, including the most recalcitrant elements of the Labour Party. The implication was that the devolved parliaments would be largely restricted to implementing central government policy, rather than making policy themselves; and where they did make policy, they would be doing so within a UK framework. Over time, most of the Labour Party seems to have come round to the idea that it is about more than that, with one Labour MS complaining last week that the lack of powers granted to the Senedd “… relegates the Welsh Government to little more than ‘managing’ public services on behalf of the Westminster Tory Government”, Well, yes – but as Frost shows, whether that’s a virtue or a vice depends entirely on perspective.

(As an aside, it was interesting to note that part of Frost’s justification for his proposal is that many of the Scottish Parliament’s powers were theoretical prior to Brexit. In his words, “…devolution was designed in a different world – a world in which many powers theoretically devolved to Scotland were actually held at EU level and could not be exercised in practice”. So, membership of the EU was a good thing if it prevented the Scottish government from exercising its powers, but a bad thing if it stopped the English government from doing so. But, as he sees things, Brexit now means that the powers held by Scotland are real – a situation which, for him, needs to be reversed urgently.)

However devolution was presented at the time, the real underlying reason was more to do with Labour’s fear of losing Scottish seats at Westminster than recognising any demands for a degree of self-government; the commitment of Labour’s leadership to the idea of absolute sovereignty residing in Westminster and the Crown is as unshakeable as that of the Tories. They thought that setting up a parliament in Edinburgh, with an electoral system almost guaranteed to prevent any party getting an overall majority, would cement Labour’s position there. For Labour, Wales was always something of a ‘tag-along’ since the same political threat to Labour’s position didn’t apply.

Many – including, obviously, Frost and a goodly proportion of the English Conservative Party as well as more than a few Labour MPs – would argue that the dominance of the SNP in Scotland since 2007 proves that the argument was wrong, and that devolution strengthened the demand for independence rather than weakened it. Maybe, maybe not; we only get to live history once, despite Marx’s comments about tragedy and farce. When the time comes for a particular idea or proposition, that idea or proposition will generally find a way of expressing itself whatever the political circumstances and structures in existence at the time. The belief that that expression can be prevented by covering the ears and saying ‘no’ loudly and repeatedly is a strange one, and not one to which history gives a great deal of credence. That clearly doesn’t stop the Frosts of this world having an absolute blind faith in its efficacy. If independentistas could choose the opponents most likely to help us win by default, Frost has probably elevated himself to somewhere near the top of the list. Adding to the divisions in his own party in the process is just a bonus.

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