• John Mortimer

There's Nothing Settled About the Devolution Process

At the Scottish Labour Party conference in 1994, the then leader of the UK Labour Party, John Smith, said that devolution was “the settled will of the Scottish people”. Even today, the UK Government will commonly speak about the “devolution settlement” established after the 1997 referendum.

These ideas about devolution being somehow “settled” – either in constitutional or democratic terms – are demonstrably flawed. For over twenty years now devolution has been an ongoing and ever-evolving process. The Scottish parliament of 2020 has vastly more powers that than the assembly established in 1999 on the back of the referendum two years previously; while the once relatively limited Scottish Executive has morphed into a bloated and authoritarian Scottish Government. A host of powers have been transferred both from Westminster and local councils to Holyrood; yet at no point has Holyrood returned any powers to Westminster or implemented any meaningful devolution to local government. Devolution is a process; and it is an entirely one-way, lop-sided one.

When the Scottish parliament was created in 1999, it was given power over all areas of government that were not explicitly reserved. While this meant important issues like immigration, defence and the constitution remained reserved to our British parliament, it also handed the devolved assembly power over the everyday issues like health and education. Granting Holyrood a more direct role in public services than Westminster was a grave mistake, as it has allowed devolved SNP governments to take credit for providing services funded by the British taxpayer and the economic benefits of the Union. GERS 2018-19 revealed that Holyrood controlled almost 65% of expenditure in Scotland, yet raised only 38% of Scottish revenue. Legislative power without financial responsibility allows the SNP to have their cake and eat it, and is one of the most ill-considered aspects of devolution.

Despite this, power after power has been handed to the devolved assembly over the years, in a foolish and ill-conceived attempt to appease the SNP. In 2005, the railways were devolved from the Department of Transport to the Scottish Executive, a move described by then First Minister Jack McConnell as "the most significant devolution of new powers to Scottish ministers since 1999."

In 2007, one of the first things the SNP did upon coming to power was to rebrand the Scottish Executive as the Scottish Government. The intention of this was very clearly to establish it in terminology as the equal of the UK Government – rather than as a devolved arm of the British state which it was supposed to be in theory - and to foster that misconception in the public mind. The Scottish Government logo was previously based on the Scottish coat of arms, which included heraldic representation for the other parts of the UK; yet during their rebranding the SNP replaced this with a new Saltire logo; again, to establish its distinction and separateness from UK government structures.

From 2008, the now-Scottish Government was given extensive new powers relating to conservation, fishing, wind and wave energy for all sea areas at up to 200 miles off the Scottish coast. That same year the Calman Commission began to meet. This was a cross-party commission set up to facilitate the transfer of more powers to the devolved assembly, which were implemented a few years later through the Scotland Act 2012.

The Scotland Act 2012 was heralded by Michael Moore, the Liberal Democrat Secretary of State for Scotland, as “the largest transfer of fiscal powers from central Government since the creation of the United Kingdom”. The Scottish rate of income tax was introduced, to come into effect in April 2016. Borrowing powers were dramatically increased; full control of Stamp Duty, Land Tax and Landfill Tax was handed over from April 2015, while the Scottish parliament was enabled to introduce entirely new taxes with UK Government approval. It was given a raft of new competencies over drug laws and speed limits to name just a couple; more worryingly, it was also given power to administer Holyrood elections, allowing the incumbent SNP administration to timetable elections in a way that favours them.

On 1st April 2013, Scotland’s local police services were merged into the monolithic Police Scotland, while previously council-run fire and rescue services were merged into Fire and Rescue Scotland. These power grabs from local authorities have rightly led to criticism of Holyrood for being one of the most aggressively centralising devolved administrations in the world.

Of course, none of this placated the Scottish nationalists, but rather emboldened them and led us into the independence referendum of 2014. Following the decisive victory for the No campaign, the Scotland Act 2016 was implemented on the back of the notorious “vow” made by David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband.

This Act, passed by Cameron’s Conservative government, gave Holyrood full control to vary income tax and management of the Crown Estate in Scotland; new tax powers for discretionary benefit payments and VAT; control over several benefits such as Disability Living Allowance; and significant new legislative powers over road signs, speed limits, oil and gas extraction and many other areas of everyday governance. Most worrying of all, it attempted to enshrine the permanence of the Scottish parliament in law and legislated that it cannot be abolish without a referendum (however, the Scotland Act 2016 can of course itself be repealed through a parliamentary mandate).

Even after two decades in which powers have ben continually transferred to the devolved assembly, it continues to show no regard for the bounds of devolution by interfering in matters that are explicitly reserved to Westminster. Holyrood has held several votes on Brexit; most recently voting to reject the UK Government’s Internal Market Bill.

In 2015, MSPs passed an anti-Trident motion by 96 votes to 17, despite the fact that defence is of course specifically reserved to Westminster. Yet those MSPs were able to obfuscate by appealing to the fact that although defence is reserved, employment is devolved: and the military of course employs people. The fact that powers cannot be neatly separated in practice only further serves to prove the unworkability of the current devolution set up.

The Scotland Act, 1998, Schedule 5, Part 1 explicitly states that the Union is a reserved – and not a devolved – matter, yet next May the SNP are set to contest the Holyrood election on a ticket for a second referendum. The devolved establishment, and the SNP in particular, are simply incapable of respecting the bounds of devolution. This is because devolution for them will never be enough; it will always be a mere stepping stone towards separation. And the pro-devolution unionist parties, who operate bloated Scottish arms and enjoy lavish salaries at Holyrood, are far too comfortable to stand up against the devolution bandwagon.

To talk of a “devolution settlement” is to be blind to the fact that devolution is not static; it is an evolving process that has transferred power after power to the devolved bodies while marginalising the constitutional bonds of Union that bind our United Kingdom together. Far from “killing nationalism stone dead” as Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland George Robertson promised, devolution is proving to be, as Tam Dalyell warned, “a motorway, without exits, to independence”.

Just as devolution is not “settled” in a constitutional sense, neither is it “settled” in a democratic sense. No voter currently under the age of 40 was able to vote in the 1997 referendum, and all voters have every right to judge devolution on its record over twenty years since its introduction. A major 2019 PanelBase poll put support for abolishing Holyrood at 22%; for context, a quarter of that – just 5.5% - would elect an MSP on an anti-devolution ticket in any one of Scotland’s list regions (the ‘2nd vote’) at next May’s Holyrood elections.

Abolish the Scottish Parliament Party will stand on this basis next May, and give Scottish voters the first chance to vote against devolution since 1997. We will be contesting the Greens for vital regional list seats and if just a little over 1 in 10 unionist voters lend us their second vote, we can deprive Sturgeon of her coalition partners. With your help, we can finally stop the devolution bandwagon, and get a real opposition voice to challenge the cosy Holyrood consensus!

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