The Westminster Conservatives must sometimes have the impression that Scottish politics are trapped. It all looks perfectly simple from where they are, but seconds after stepping inside, they are hanging by a peg from a tree branch surrounded by menacing natives.
Boris Johnson is still treating his welts after wandering unsupervised in the decentralization debate on Monday. He said the process had been a “disaster” and “Tony Blair’s biggest mistake”.
He might as well have been standing on Hadrian’s wall with a target painted on his chest.
Much has been said about his astonishing faux pas in giving the SNP such an advantage, as if the problem was not so much thinking it as saying it out loud.
But the real question is much more fundamental than that: this is what the Prime Minister’s words betray about his understanding – or lack thereof – of decentralization and Scotland. He has a bad case of what generations of Scottish politicians have called ‘Westminsteritis’, a debilitating condition associated with myopia and tunnel vision, preventing the victim from seeing the country from any perspective other than that of the central command center. of SW1.
If he understood decentralization better, the penny could drop because the UK needs more – not only because federalism is the only way the UK government can prevent Scottish independence, but because that the Scottish experience suggests that the British public might be happier if they could have a little of what we have.
Decentralization is popular, really popular. The Scots consistently hold their parliament and government in higher esteem than Westminster.
It is because it offers them important things that Westminster does not.
Clearly, Holyrood has brought government closer to the people and is completely focused on Scottish affairs.
Most importantly, Parliament reflects political opinion in Scotland much more faithfully than Westminster because it is elected by a more proportional voting system. People feel that their votes count.
Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the portrayal of the Scottish Conservatives. Scottish Conservative voters spent almost 20 years after 1997 feeling disenfranchised in the UK general election, electing no more than one MP at a time despite an average vote share of 16%.
In Holyrood, on the other hand, the interests of Conservative voters were represented from start to finish by a large and vocal group of Conservative MPs.
That’s not all. With the major exception of the issue of independence, there is something closer to consensus in Scotland than in the UK about what kind of society people want and the role of government in it. This vision could be broadly described as inclusive and progressive.
You can see this most clearly by looking at the distinctive identity of the Scottish Tories compared to their Westminster counterparts. For example, anti-immigration rhetoric common among Tories south of the border has been absent here, Scottish Tories have mostly opposed Brexit, and the party is okay with high spending to fight poverty – it suffices listen to Douglas Ross talk about free school meals.
PSM never made a truly major decision that did not receive the support of the majority of the public. This might help explain why, so far at least, Scottish voters have never shown any significant signs of feeling alienated from Holyrood or the Scottish government.
How different from Westminster, where Leave won the Brexit referendum by a mustache only to have the government taken over by extremists who have gone to war with Parliament and who will come up with a basic deal or maybe a no-deal Brexit for which no one actually voted.
The need for the ruling party in Scotland to attract support from other parties to pass legislation helps promote a spirit of compromise, albeit limited.
But Scotland is also a small and relatively cohesive society. Much of the Scots live in post-industrial communities, creating an affinity across regional borders. You can overestimate that, of course: there is also great diversity in this small country, for example between the Highlands and the central belt. But the differences in history and lived experience that distinguish millions of Northerners from millions of Southerners in England are absent here.
What can the UK government learn from all of this? Well, first of all, in a large and diverse country where people’s interests vary depending on where they live, decentralization is a very good idea. It gives people who have felt neglected a real chance to shape their own future.
But there is also this: As long as Westminster is elected by a first-party system, people whose votes do not help elect an MP will feel estranged from politics. Westminster is a contradictory, win-win system; each voter is either a winner or a loser. This cannot fail to create discontent.
Sadly, Boris Johnson doesn’t see or accept any of this. His most striking misconception, for me anyway, is his belief that decentralization was Mr Blair’s miscalculation, as if the refusal of a Scottish Parliament would have stifled calls for independence.
I am sure the opposite is true. The moral justification for a Scottish Parliament was so overwhelming, and so strong was the Scottish public support for it, that if Labor had resisted it, anger and disaffection (see above under ‘disenfranchised’ ) would have boiled and fueled SNP support and independence: let’s not forget how great a militant Alex Salmond was. The case of Holyrood was simply irresistible.
If we could zoom out and see this debate in its global and historical context, I guess we would see that it is part of a bigger story. The deferential society has collapsed since the war. Discriminatory attitudes towards minorities are no longer tolerated. Perhaps we should take the desire for self-determination in British nations and regions as part of this story. No sane politician in 2020 should expect to be able to resist further decentralization if that’s what voters in parts of Britain want.
Scotland is far from immune to serious internal divisions – the last independence referendum split us in two and arguably the next one will be too – but decentralization has not created this division.
If Mr Johnson is to consolidate the UK, he should learn from decentralization, not blame it.
Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the point of view of the Herald.
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