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Henry Hill

Henry Hill: How the arch-devolutionists plan to side-step referendums

Henry Hill is a British Conservative and Unionist activist, and author of the blog Dilettante. Follow Henry on Twitter. He is also editor of the non-party website Open Unionism, which can be followed on Twitter here.

The arch-devolutionaries, who I referred to last week in the Welsh context, have unveiled a new slogan: “Heads we win; tails you lose”. In both Wales and Scotland, the federalist wing of the pro-union camp has been out in force this week. In Wales, the Labour administration in Cardiff put forward its vision for the future of devolution in Wales.

True to the “more powers” tradition, it consists of a radical list of new devolutionary demands, to be implemented largely by the end of this decade. More importantly, Carwyn Jones, the First Minister, calls for a fundamental shift from a ‘conferred’ devolutionary model – where powers are explicitly bestowed upon devolved government – to a ‘reserved’ model, where the opposite is the case.  In a final flourish, Jones asserts that all this should happen without any further reference to the Welsh electorate.

This is an extraordinary position. It is an established tradition in this country that referendums accompany major constitutional forms. His vision would, with the exception of social security, largely bring to an end pan-British government on domestic affairs and mark a fundamental change in our constitutional arrangements, yet he counsels against a referendum and, by implication, proper debate within Wales about the direction of devolution, much less the vital pan-UK settlement I argued for last week.

But if you think that’s extraordinary, you’ve clearly not met Jeremy Purvis, leader of the Scottish federalist outfit ‘Devo Plus’. In a half-hour broadcast with Glenn Campbell of the BBC, he argues that the pro-union parties should come together (good) to work out a sustainable devolution settlement (great) which can outlive all of us (wonderful) – but that this should happen before the 2014 referendum.

Not too long ago, unionists were fighting with proper determination to ensure a two-option, Yes/No referendum question. The fear was, quite rightly, that including a “more powers” proposal would prevent a ringing endorsement of the Union and provide succour to the separatist movement in the event that we defeated them.

If we are to take Purvis seriously, it seems hard to explain why we put that effort in. After all, he is essentially proposing to turn ‘No’ into the “more powers” option, and I’m quite sure that the SNP would have been very happy to concede a binary referendum if it was the unionist option we were proposing to remove in the first place.

As I explained last week, it is inevitable that more powers will pass to the various devolved administrations as part of a stabilisation of the UK’s constitutional arrangement. On that much, Purvis is correct. But such a settlement needs to be worked out on a pan-UK basis from a position of strength, after fighting the separatists on the strength of the Union and winning.

By supporting a binary Edinburgh/London solution Purvis perpetuates the disjointed development of devolution which has destabilised the country, and by turning “more powers” into pre-election bribes he is effectively spiking a unionist victory in 2014 even before we’ve won it.

Where Purvis outdoes Jones, however, is in the nature of his proposals and the manner by which he wants them implemented. He maintains that since ‘Devo Plus’ is simply ‘additional’ to the Scottish Parliament, the mandate has been established by referendum already, no further referendum is required for his amendments. This is nonsense, because Devo Plus is actually arguing for a much greater constitutional change than the establishment of the Parliament itself ever was.

One of the ambitions of Devo Plus is to make the Scottish government ‘permanent’. By this, they mean that it could not be dissolved by Westminster. This is problematic, because at the very core of the British constitution is the sovereignty of parliament. Parliament is the sovereign constitutional body and, crucially, past parliaments cannot bind future parliaments.

What this means is that even if Westminster passed a law to the effect that it could not dissolve Holyrood, a later parliament could happily repeal that law. The only way to place Holyrood beyond the power of Westminster is to bring an end to the sovereignty of Westminster and make Holyrood sovereign in its place. Whether or not you think that is a good idea – and I don’t think it’s too presumptuous to say that the majority of unionists are not federalists by any measure – that is a profound constitutional change on a completely different order to any that have been put before the people to date. The notion that a mandate for it exists already is ludicrous.

Last week, I mentioned wanting to talk more about the “hollowness” of today’s unionism. That time isn’t now, not least for reasons of space. But have we really reached the point where the only section of the broad pro-union coalition showing any signs of self-confidence are those that have been so swept up in the nationalist slipstream that they hold true to the fraying belief that nationalism can only be defeated by outracing it and heading it off at a pass which, on present evidence, does not appear to exist?

In the above video, starting from about 17.30, Campbell nails it in a few key questions. How can Purvis be confident that his preferred settlement will be more stable than any that preceded it? Won’t devolved politicians always want to aggrandise their own institutions? Can he think of a single instance of MSPs wanting to give up power? Is it not true that the looser the Union becomes, the smaller the mountain for the separatists to climb?

In response, Purvis does two things. First, he brings up the “devolution is a process, not an event” line (I should set up a drinking game for devolutionary clichés, any suggestions?). He has no answer to the point about the tendency for people in devolved institutions to seek to aggrandise that institution, and thus themselves, and completely fails to rebut or properly address it. The point about loosening the Union not actually strengthening it is likewise unanswered.

He also cites international examples throughout. The key thing to note is that they are either countries formed from independent colonies where the process of federation was centripetal (Australia and Canada) or they are long-term federations firmly underpinned by an unchallenged sense of national identity (Germany). In instances where devolution is a is a new and centrifugal phenomenon, the results are not so happy – see Spain, a country which has practically disembowelled itself trying to appease the “more powers” tendency and has been brought to the brink of breakup regardless.

What Purvis is doing in Scotland, as Jones is doing in Wales, is attempting to make a radically devolutionary “halfway house” the default pro-union position, boxing out the integrationists whilst trying to slide seismic constitutional change through without proper debate or the referendum that convention dictates. Tam Dalyell’s exit-less ‘motorway to independence’ is paved with this sort of ‘unionism’.


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