Tony Blair’s Labour government legislated for devolved legislatures for Scotland, Wales and NI on the basis that England couldn’t have one. Instead, there was a token effort to create English regional assemblies. This was doomed to failure at the first hurdle, which is why John Prescott was put in charge of it.
The fundamental problem with a devolved English parliament was – and is – that with 85% of the UK population under its powers it would completely overwhelm the other UK nations and seriously undermine the UK parliament’s sovereignty into the bargain. This in turn would make the downward movement of powers under the principle of subsidiarity in Europe – which in theory balances the upward ‘pooling’ of sovereign powers – impossible. It would also mean that, for the large part, the English legislature would be running the UK. Under a UK Labour government, the notion of a Tory- dominated England having such powers was naturally very attractive to the Tories and that is why the call for an English parliament was always a pastime of the right.
If it seems odd that an English legislature exercising ‘devolved’ powers would stymie all the others in this way, the NHS provides a useful example of why. Health is devolved to Scotland, of course, but the Scottish government’s true powers are constrained by the way it is party to many decisions agreed by UK-led institutions. So the Royal Colleges make big decisions which govern professional standards and which in turn have a profound effect on the cost of Labour. Unions in Scotland unstandably combat substantial regional pay negotiations because it would likely mean less for their members by comparison to English colleagues. NICE effectively decides which medicines are used by the NHS and therefore controls price. The purchasing-power of English trusts and commissioning bodies are such that they essentially set the price of many goods and services. To the chagrin of the Scottish government, therefore, its powers over ostensibly devolved issues are much like an English school head who is told that she has 100% of her budget devolved but is in fact hedged-in by decisions which already account for over 90% of her apparent powers.
So, no English devolution then, while the UK parliament and, crucially, the powers pooled at the EU have together served to prevent English institutions from leaving the devolved legislatures with little more than the scraps.
Brexit has changed all of this in the most profound of ways by removing the EU as a guarantor of how subsidiarity will apply within the UK. Added to this, from a Westminster point of view there are no UK-wide parties any longer. Having a single MP in Scotland – and very little is like to change there – is no more politically relevant than having none at all. The Tory party in the UK’s parliament is all about the priorities of English Tory MPs. And, guess what? The same is true of Labour and the Lib Dems. All of these parties have ‘discounted’ Scotland – they all assume the SNP will continue to hold almost all the Scottish voting power at Westminster and so internal power-brokering and leadership contests are only truly concerned with the opinions of England’s and Wales’ representatives.
In other words, outside the EU context in which the UK’s present constitutional structure has been carefully put together, and in the face of the non-existence of any party with proper UK-wide representation at Westminster, the UK parliament is evolving into the English legislature officials and politicians have feared since devolution began in earnest. We do not even have to wait until Brexit officially takes place. Every single powerful cabinet minister responsible for Brexit negotiations – and therefore responsible for the most important legislation every put before the UK parliament – has been drawn from the English Tory Party’s Eurosceptic right. Their job is to drive through an agenda which cements the ascendancy of the English right in a long-term Tory country. Scotland’s distinctive social democratic culture is not simply an afterthought for these highly motivated and ideological people – it is an anathema. For them, the SNP government in Scotland represents what Labour does in England – an opposition to be defeated along with the core values of those they represent.
In these circumstances, the role of the Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson cannot help but be to serve the UK Tory government’s interests in Scotland (her reversed position on Brexit is a perfect example of this). In the process, Davidson has in effect taken on governmental responsibilities at UK cabinet level (Theresa May will obviously regard Davidson – and not Scotland’s only MP who spends his week at Westminster – as her primary adviser on Scottish matters). Yet Davidson’s powerful new role has no checks and balances as she has never been elected in that capacity.
The terms upon which Scots collectively voted ‘No’ at the 2014 Scottish referendum – the defence of Scottish social democracy in partnership with a Westminster parliament constrained by the UK membership of Europe to acting in the UK as a whole’s best interest – have now been completely exploded. The profoundly undemocratic nature of UK governance, from the overwhelming dominance of the English right to the unelected powers of the Scottish Tories to the desire by the English right to reverse the social democratic choices of Scots have rendered the new status quo within the UK untenable and potentially monstrous. It simply cannot hold.
Nor, to be frank, do politicians in England expect it to. Most Labour members in England think Scots should preserve their social and political cultures through independence in Europe. And most Tories do not care much about Scotland at all other than to occasionally reflect, misty-eyed, about the role of Scotland in empire.
For Scotland’s great social-democratic middle, therefore, moving from No to Yes is not a question of whether they are being forced to support the SNP government. It is a question of existence. Without Scotland, Great Britain is no more and the notion of a United Kingdom becomes a sad and unintentional joke. There are two countries now – England/Wales and Scotland. The only thing to be done is to accept the moral force of that proposition and begin working for a new relationship – one country of the right on the margins of Europe, the other social democratic and very much at Europe’s heart. Mutually-respecting, good neighbours of course. But certainly different.