Scottish Daily Mail

How nationalis­m HIJACKED Holyrood

- by Tom Harris

One issue dominated the Scottish election — at the expense of those that really matter to voters. But, argues this former minister, instead of caving in to the captors, it’s time Westminste­r showed some spine — and freed us from the clutches of constituti­onal division

THINGS can’t go on like this. Scottish politics is broken. It’s not in holyrood’s interests to fix it, so it’s time for Westminste­r to stop handling Scotland with kid gloves and do what government­s are supposed to do: govern.

If holyrood doesn’t care about the anger and the division that 14 years of obsession about the constituti­onal issue has wrought across Scotland, then we have the right to ask the UK Government – Scotland’s other government – to step in.

In those 14 years, irreparabl­e damage has been done. The life chances of our children have been undermined, let down by education policies that have signally failed to close the devastatin­g attainment gap between poorer and richer kids.

Ministeria­l incompeten­ce that has played havoc with the opening of hospitals, and the execrable judgment that has wasted hundreds of millions of pounds of Scottish taxpayers’ money on the procuremen­t of ferries that haven’t even been built – it all struggles for attention when everyone is obsessed by the constituti­onal question.

And every day, tempers are fraying, division is building and Scotland is suffering. Isn’t it time we called a halt to this pantomime? We had every right to believe the 2014 referendum would draw a line under that particular debate.

But, in hindsight, we were naïve to think so. The nationalis­t movement exists only to advance the separatist cause; without that prospect, it loses all reason to exist.

It’s unlikely that the results of Thursday’s elections will map a way out of our dilemma. Whatever the outcome, it will have little effect on Nicola Sturgeon’s determinat­ion to spend a considerab­le amount of her time – as she did over the last five years – making demands of Boris Johnson to authorise a second referendum, just as his predecesso­r-but-one, David Cameron, did in 2012.

We could, of course, short-circuit the whole debate and give the nationalis­ts what they want. But even if the UK Government agreed, do we really want to live through the almighty rammy that would ensue, even before we get to the polls?

First of all, it is vanishingl­y unlikely that Cameron’s strategy of saying ‘yes’ to every SNP demand – on which franchise to use, what question to be asked, what date polling day should be on – would be followed next time around.

Sturgeon talks about the ‘consensus’ she claims is achievable between the two government­s; what she means is she should dictate every detail. This is a deliberate misreading of the rules of the game, and a deliberate­ly misleading definition of the word ‘consensus’.

There would not be a Yes/No question, for a start. The UK Government would hold out for a variation on the question asked at the 2016 EU referendum: ‘Should Scotland remain part of the United Kingdom or leave the United Kingdom?’

AS FOR the franchise, would the UK Government fall for that sleight of hand again? Last time round, Alex Salmond insisted that EU nationals living in Scotland were allowed to have a say in Scotland’s future.

It was a typically cynical move; he calculated his party’s pro-EU credential­s and its warnings against Brexit would win the support of European citizens.

But Boris Johnson and his government are vanishingl­y unlikely to rubber-stamp another attempt to extend the franchise to foreigners – especially if millions of expat Scots living outside Scotland are denied the right to a vote, as happened last time.

The SNP has no plans to allow 16 and 17-year-olds to buy cigarettes or alcohol, or learn to drive at the age of 16. But it is desperate to give them a vote on independen­ce in the hope that they will be easier to persuade than their parents.

The UK Government has had plenty of warning about the tactics of nationalis­ts who will always seek whatever franchise, question and timetable are most likely to benefit their own campaign.

Making sure as many teenagers as possible have a vote will always come before addressing the injustice of Scots abroad. Imagine the outcry from the Scottish diaspora when their voices are silenced yet again.

And all of that’s before we contemplat­e the impact – culturally, economical­ly and politicall­y – Scottish secession would have on our 60million compatriot­s living elsewhere in the UK. And should there be two questions? An initial question followed by a confirmato­ry vote after a Scexit deal has been agreed between the two government­s?

More importantl­y, is this nightmare scenario of bluff, marches, temper tantrums, protests, more marches and negotiatio­n really what all, or even most of, Scotland actually wants? Is the support of barely half of us justificat­ion for more years of uncertaint­y, anger and frustratio­n?

Naturally there will be plenty of observers who will suggest that the reason nationalis­m has grown in strength and size is because devolution hasn’t gone far enough.

Just one more heave will be enough to stem the tide, they will claim, as they propose a new federal structure for the UK with almost every function of the state, apart from defence and foreign affairs, devolved to national and regional parliament­s and assemblies. The

only problem with federalism is that virtually no one, either in Scotland or in the rest of the country, is remotely interested in the idea. And why should England have an alien form of government imposed on it just because of the perceived need to assuage Scottish nationalis­ts?

There are also legitimate demands that Holyrood’s electoral system is improved. At present the system allows – perhaps even encourages – parties and voters to game the system by voting for two different parties in an attempt either to vote tactically or to create a ‘super-majority’ – that is, a majority in parliament without a majority in the country.

In 1999 we were promised a ‘new politics’ and a fair, representa­tive electoral system.

Now we are all reduced to manipulati­ng the system, voting for parties we don’t even support lest other people try to stack the odds in their favour by splitting their own votes.

It is certainly within the power of Westminste­r to snatch back control over Holyrood’s electoral system, Cameron having agreed to devolve it a few years ago.

But would yet another round of constituti­onal bickering, with the SNP shouting ‘power grab’ at every turn, really be worth it?

Every action taken by the UK needs to be considered in the light of expected and unintended consequenc­es. It needs to pick its battles carefully. Let’s start with an assertion about democracy itself, and it’s this: constituti­onal referendum­s have consequenc­es.

They matter. That’s why they are rarely used, not just in Britain but across the globe. They are disruptive and divisive and any democracy will deploy them only when they feel there is no alternativ­e.

So our starting point is that the defeat of the Yes movement in the 2014 referendum matters. And it should have consequenc­es.

Nationalis­ts claim, with very little conviction, that they accepted the result in 2014 and that having to wait less than ten years for another go is consequenc­e enough for their failure to persuade Scots of the case for independen­ce.

But at the time, nationalis­t leaders really did think their campaign had been set back by a generation. Oh, how Nicola Sturgeon must have tried to contain her glee when it turned out that there were many in the pro-UK camp who were only too willing to concede a second referendum if a majority of MSPs at Holyrood wished it so.

My second assertion, however, is less likely to please at least some fellow pro-UK Scots: it is reasonable for there to exist a democratic path to independen­ce for Scotland.

There is a fundamenta­l principle here. Having accepted, through the devolution settlement, that Scotland is a distinctiv­e nation with the right to govern itself in matters devolved to its parliament and, moreover, the UK parliament having already accepted Scotland’s right to decide, through a referendum, its future status within the UK, it can hardly now close off any future change of mind.

However, if you wanted to divide and enrage an entire nation, you could do no better than follow the example of Cameron in holding the Scottish and the EU referendum­s.

A mad race by the competing campaigns for that winning post of 50 per cent of the vote plus one made for some exciting coverage, but on both occasions it was devastatin­g for the social fabric of our nation.

Compare and contrast with the 1997 referendum on Scottish devolution, which was held in a friendly atmosphere of confidence and expectatio­n. Why?

Because as the late Labour leader John Smith regularly pointed out, a Scottish parliament was already ‘the settled will of the Scottish people’. Consequent­ly, when threequart­ers of Scots said ‘yes’ to devolution, even its opponents could hardly cavil.

When a nation has settled on the form of government that best suits it, reform can happen without an angry upheaval. Citizens of all political colours can unite in a national effort to make the new system work. And if it doesn’t work, they can all share the responsibi­lity without rancour.

BUT when a referendum on independen­ce is held, as it was in 2014, while that proposal enjoyed barely 30 per cent support among Scots at the start of the campaign, any final result could only be achieved by fomenting long-term bitterness and rivalry.

It is Boris Johnson’s duty as Prime Minister to consider the best interests of every British citizen in every corner of the country. It was the Westminste­r Parliament that created the Scottish parliament; it cannot now seek to avoid responsibi­lity for addressing the dreadful divisions that have been caused by Scottish politician­s using those same devolved powers establishe­d by UK legislatio­n.

We need new constituti­onal clarity that accepts demands for Scottish (or even, in the future, Welsh) independen­ce are not about to disappear overnight, and one that, more importantl­y, defines the circumstan­ces where referendum­s might be considered a legitimate option. As things stand, Scotland is fundamenta­lly divided on the issue of independen­ce. A fresh referendum may well result in a narrow majority either for or against it, but in either case it would push the temperatur­e of the debate to dangerousl­y high levels.

There are plenty of nationalis­ts who would embrace such a scenario enthusiast­ically; fracturing our society, dividing families and friends, perhaps permanentl­y, would be a small price to pay, so long as they had achieved their lifelong goal of independen­ce.

The losers would just have to suck it up and tolerate saltires being shoved in their faces by the gleeful victors.

But there are surely some more thoughtful independen­ce supporters out there who genuinely fear for the consequenc­es of winning independen­ce at the tragically high cost of dividing Scotland down the middle. Such people are patriots rather than nationalis­ts and, given the choice, the prospect of victory postponed until a settled and large majority of Scots agreed with them would be preferable to the only scenario being promoted by the SNP today.

IAM as staunch a Unionist as anyone in these isles. I will never vote for a party that supports independen­ce. Yet even I would offer no objection, would lift not a finger to obstruct the creation of a new, independen­t Scotland if it were done with the overwhelmi­ng support of my fellow Scots.

Importantl­y, such a policy would directly challenge and neutralise nationalis­t claims Scotland’s right to decide its own form of government was being denied.

The Prime Minister should start consulting opposition parties in order to agree a fresh approach that asserts Scotland’s right to choose its own path and that, crucially, commits the UK Government to consulting the Scottish people if, at some point in the future, a large majority of them have decided the Union must end.

The percentage of Scots, as measured by polling organisati­ons, at which such a stage would be reached is less important than the principle that such a level of support should be not only high but uninterrup­ted over the length of at least a decade.

Nationalis­ts will, of course, object: better a divided independen­t Scotland today than a united one tomorrow. But what would be their real objection? How could they reasonably object to a proposal that honours Scotland’s settled will once it has been establishe­d as such?

Once such an agreement was reached, it would remove any prospect of Holyrood believing it had any say over the constituti­on, which is what the original framers of the Scotland Act 1998 intended. Not only would Scotland’s focus be forced back onto the issues that actually matter – schools, health, tax, housing, transport – but nationalis­ts would be presented with a new challenge.

Instead of wasting their efforts persuading UK ministers of their case for a referendum, they would have to persuade ordinary Scots of the case for independen­ce.

And that must mean that before any referendum, either in the near or far future, the nationalis­ts explain to us in precise detail, to the last penny and pound, what independen­ce would mean for our pensions, our mortgages and our savings, what separation would mean for the BBC, our driving licences, what currency we would use, and what kind of restrictio­ns would be in place at the Border.

Once the SNP understand­s it must stop obsessing about how to force a referendum using Holyrood elections, it will have plenty more time to do all the ground work in these areas – work it failed to do before now.

This new, unapologet­ic approach to Scotland, to the Union and to devolution, would remind Scots of the UK’s continued roll in our lives. It would challenge the nationalis­t movement to consider their own motives for wishing to continue to fracture Scotland. And it would force our politician­s to address the vital policy areas that Holyrood was set up to oversee.

After the division of the past 14 years, and with the prospect of five more years of the same, we desperatel­y need to end the dysfunctio­n. Scots deserve at least that.

Your move, Prime Minister.

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 ??  ?? Rallying to cause: A protest staged in 2018 by the All Under One Banner independen­ce pressure group in Edinburgh
Rallying to cause: A protest staged in 2018 by the All Under One Banner independen­ce pressure group in Edinburgh

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