Devolution: A Costly, Divisive, Failed Experiment
Updated: Dec 6, 2020
We’re now over two decades on from the devolution referendum of 1997, when the rather odd and uncomfortable alliance of the SNP and Tony Blair’s New Labour spearheaded the original ‘Yes’ campaign and triumphed in the devo-poll.
Some say this democratic mandate must put the issue to rest, but such logic does not stand up to scrutiny. Not a single voter currently under the age of forty – including this author – was eligible to vote in the 1997 referendum. To deny us from ever having a say on the matter would be the real outrage to democracy. We have every right to judge devolution on its record over the past two decades.
That aside, devolution in its current form does not much resemble what the electorate were promised all those years ago. Devolution has been an ongoing process: when the Scottish parliament opened in 1999 on the back of the referendum two years earlier, that was just the beginning. Since then we’ve had several enormous power grabs by Holyrood: for example the devolution of railways in 2005; of conservation, fishing, wind and wave energy in 2008; of borrowing, spending and a host of taxation powers through the Scotland Act 2012; of the Crown Estate, welfare and everything from road signs to gas extraction through the Scotland Act 2016. These are all powers that the SNP have mis-managed, yet nobody voted for any of that to be devolved in the 1997 referendum.
The financial cost of Holyrood has expanded even more rapidly than its legislative power. The devolved assembly now costs just short of £100,000,000 to run every single year. In 2016-7, costs ranged from £25.6 Million in staff salaries, to £15.8 Million in parliamentary expenses, to £1.75 Million on upgrading lights in the main chamber – working out at £357 per bulb.
Worst of all, the Scottish parliament has been hijacked by the SNP to push their politics of grievance and difference. Holyrood is the platform through which the SNP push constantly for another divisive, unwanted referendum; all the while legislating with the sole purpose of making Scotland’s laws and regulations different from the rest of the UK.
Little wonder that support for abolishing Holyrood has grown in recent years. One Panelbase poll for the Sunday Times last year placed support for abolition at 22%, with a remarkable 57% of Conservative voters and even a quarter of Labour voters backing it. For context, around 5.5-6% of the vote will typically elect an MSP in any of Scotland’s list regions at a Holyrood election (presuming that party has not won any constituency seats).
The democratic grounds to challenge the stifling devolutionary consensus in Scotland are clearly there. Perhaps next year’s Holyrood elections are an opportunity to change the agenda; to stop talking about another separation referendum and start moving constitutional debate in the other direction by making scrapping Holyrood the primary talking point.
by John Mortimer
Leader, Abolish the Scottish Parliament Party