Daniel Hannan: Voters tend to get some things wrong, but the big things right. So it is with the Internal Market Bill.

16 Sep

Daniel Hannan is a writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

As usual, the public has reacted to Westminster’s hysterics with an amused shrug. Lawyers and diplomats, pundits and politicians, are in a frenzied rage about the Government’s announcement that it might violate the Withdrawal Agreement. In some cases, the rage is confected; but in most, it is genuine.

The country as a whole, though, takes an altogether more relaxed view. Where politicians get bogged down in detail, voters tend to see things impressionistically. They sense – correctly – that international law is protean and often disputed.

Countries are forever being charged with infracting this or that treaty. The EU, for example, is in breach of several trade agreements, ranging from its groundless bans on overseas agricultural produce to its illicit Airbus subsidies. It also frequently violates its own treaties, sometimes on issues of enormous consequence. The eurozone bailouts, for example, were patently illegal, not just in the sense that they had no basis in the European treaties, but in the sense that they were expressly prohibited. No one in Brussels tried to claim otherwise. Rather, they pleaded raison d’état.

So when British voters see Eurocrats fainting like so many affronted Victorian matrons, they just don’t buy it. They know that Brussels has negotiated in a bellicose spirit from the start. They sense the difference in tone between Michel Barnier and negotiators from, say, Australia or Japan, who are uncomplicatedly keen on maximising mutual gains.

Where Labour and a handful of Tories see a violation of international law, most voters see the people who have always backed Brussels doing so once again. No doubt John Major and Tony Blair think of themselves as distinguished elder statesmen cautioning their country against error; but I’m prepared to bet that most people’s reaction will be, “Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?”

For what it’s worth, I think most of the Bill’s opponents have decent motives. Some, no doubt, are driven by personal rancour, or by a reflexive opposition to anything the Prime Minister does. Some are still sore about Brexit. But many have genuine worries about international law.

I happen to think they are wrong. First, the Bill itself doesn’t violate any laws: it merely creates an emergency mechanism by which the most damaging aspects of the Northern Ireland Protocol can be prevented. Second, the bits that Brussels dislikes would come into effect only if, despite all its promises, the EU failed to agree a trade deal. Third, even if it came to that, there is a strong argument that not taking preventative action would constitute a worse legal breach than taking it – in other words, that suspending some aspects of the Protocol would be a lesser infraction than violating the principle, affirmed both in the Belfast Agreement and in the Protocol itself, that Northern Ireland’s status cannot change without its consent.

This last point barely featured in the debates, but it strikes me as elemental. If there is a clash between legal obligations – if, that is, we can only apply aspects of the Protocol by breaking other laws, such as Article VI of the 1801 Act of Union – then we should give  priority to our domestic constitutional order. This is not some Powellite assertion of British exceptionalism. It is a widely-shared principle upheld by, among others, the EU.

For example, in its 2008 ruling on the Kadi case (involving a Saudi businessman whose assets had been frozen), the European Court of Justice reiterated its doctrine that “a treaty can never enjoy primacy over provisions (including protection of fundamental human rights) that form part of the constitutional foundations of the Union.” That is, of course, precisely the argument that the Attorney General has made in a UK context.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that lots of people have pondered ECJ precedent and concluded that the EU is applying a double standard. Rather, in a shrewd and largely instinctive way, people have sussed that Britain faces an ill-disposed and hypocritical negotiating partner which is making unreasonable demands.

That, ultimately, is why Boris Johnson will get his Bill. It’s not just that he is right to have acted as he has (though he is). It’s that the country is with him. The Internal Market Bill has lined up everyone against the Government – except the general population. That split – radical lawyers, Europhile politicians, unelected peers and woke actors versus everyone else – is one with which Tory strategists are comfortable.

This is emphatically not an argument for always following public opinion. Apart from anything else, we are a fickle species. We demand the strictest possible lockdown, complete with curfews, and then complain about the downturn. We ask for increases in public spending, but we will react with fury when the money runs out. The last thing we want, when confronted with the consequences of our own choices, is to be reminded of what we asked for. Gavin Williamson could no more say “but you all told me to close the schools” Tony Blair could say “but you all supported the Iraq invasion when it was launched”. As Dryden put it, “Crowds err not, though to both extremes they run”.

Governing by opinion poll fails in its own terms. But, over the cycle, people generally get the big calls right. Not always; but more often than the elites. Brexit was a case in point. So is the Internal Market Bill.

Daniel Hannan: Does the army really still need tanks? Or the navy aircraft carriers? Or the rest of us, the Trident system?

2 Sep

Daniel Hannan is a writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

My late father commanded a tank in Italy in 1944. He rarely mentioned it (except, somewhat illogically, when reassuring my mother during car journeys that she could trust his navigation skills) but I always thought it must have been a wonderful thing to do. What a privilege to direct that mighty mass of metal, that extraordinary combination of armour, mobility and firepower.

So my immediate reaction on hearing that tanks might be phased out was one of grumpy and nostalgic scepticism. Tanks were declared obsolete after both world wars, yet they turned out to be vital to the liberation of Kuwait in 1991. They played a role in subduing Fallujah in 2004, and have been used more recently in the Russia-Ukraine war. Are we truly prepared to dispense with what, for a hundred years, has been the best way to hold (or seize) ground?

The question needs to be put. We are, as a species, irrationally change-averse, and never more so than when we work for a state bureaucracy. Some of the most inexcusable wastes of money in British history happened because generals, defence contractors and Ministry of Defence officials were unwilling to admit that a shiny new project was already passé.

Think, for example, of the Eurofighter, designed to dogfight Soviet MiGs over the skies of West Germany, and already redundant many years before the first wings were welded. Again and again, that white elephant came up for review – and, each time, the Defence Secretary of the day took the politically easier decision to throw good money after bad.

A Minister who suggests phasing out any part of our established capability will get a reputation for being too clever by half and ignoring the professionals. It is no use pointing out that Ministers are there precisely to resist producer-capture. In any argument between a politician and a craggy-faced retired general, the public will always back the general.

Still, it is the politician’s job to ensure that a necessarily limited defence budget translates into maximum force. So let’s ask the question directly. In an age of irregular warfare and increasingly powerful guided missiles, do we need manned armoured mobile guns?

Iraq and eastern Ukraine were exceptional in that their terrain happened to be ideal for tank warfare – respectively desert and steppe. Tanks are of less value in cluttered or inhabited lands. They may be (as both the exceptions again demonstrate) useful against other tanks. But how useful are they against advanced missile systems? Or, indeed, against low-tech guerrilla forces?

Israel’s offensive against Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006 exposed the tank’s limitations. Expensive Israeli armour was hammered by cheap IEDs and low-tech missiles. Israeli generals have absorbed the lessons of that campaign. Have their British counterparts?

Actually, yes – at least, to a degree that many will find surprising. Overall, our Armed Forces are in the world’s top five; but, measured by number of battle tanks, we barely scrape into the top 50, well behind Greece, Jordan, Morocco, Romania and the UAE. It makes sense. We are an island nation which has traditionally relied on sea-and air-power. When we do engage on the ground, it is often out-of-area and asymmetric.

So what should we do with our tanks? We can’t put the question off. Whether or not tanks as a concept are outmoded, there is no question that our own main battle tank, the Challenger 2, is showing its age. Since it went into service in 1998, the Americans and the Germans have completed two major upgrades, the Russians five. Our chief armoured vehicle, the Warrior, is even rustier, essentially unaltered since the Cold War.

Given that big changes are overdue, now is the moment to ask whether tanks give us a decent bang for our buck. If we decide that they do – if there is felt to be no other credible way of holding territory – then we should think radically about what the new version might be.

Might we, for example, make a substantially lighter vehicle, easier to airlift and deploy at distance? Might we, in doing so, reduce the manning requirement – or even remove it altogether, relying instead on remote guidance?

I have picked tanks because leaks suggest that they are up for review, but the same logic applies across the board. The most expensive items in our conventional repertoire are our two new aircraft carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales. They cost around £6 billion to build, with a similar price tag for their aircraft.

What else might we have done with such a colossal sum? Instead of floating runways which launch manned planes which in turn launch missiles, might it be more cost effective to cut out the aircraft, and simply launch the missiles (or the reconnaissance drones) directly from the ship? Obviously that would imply some diminution in capability, but did we properly consider what else we could have done with the savings, or were we, as with the Eurofighter, beguiled by the sheer vastness of the thing?

Again, simply to raise the issue is to invite an angry reaction from good and patriotic Service personnel whose job is to consider capacity rather than opportunity cost. So politicians rarely do it. Still, any defence review worth the name needs to put hard questions. Do we need a parachute regiment, for example? There are occasions when we need to drop special forces, but how likely are we to need to make a mass airborne deployment?

And, since I’m deliberately raising the most difficult and provocative issues, how about Enoch Powell’s objection to the nuclear deterrent – namely that, since we would never actually use it, it was money down the drain? Paradoxically, more limited nuclear weapons, capable of battlefield use, might be a more credible deterrent.

There may be good arguments, in all these cases, for sticking with something close to the status quo. But let’s hear those arguments without preconditions. Let’s have a no-holds-barred strategic review which sets out to ask how Britain can best defend its interests given the vertiginous acceleration of military technology.

Many of our postwar strategic assumptions are overturned by hypersonic missiles, weapons of extraordinary stealth and destructive power. At the moment of impact, a hypersonic missile is travelling at 1200 miles per hour, and its kinetic force is equivalent to three tons of TNT. Russia, China and the United States are engaged in a hypersonic arms race which makes a nonsense of much of what we used to think about air superiority, armour and the defence of naval vessels. A total overhaul, in short, is both necessary and urgent.

We should, in reassessing our defence needs, look at our allies’ capacity. It seems likely, for example, that in any major engagement, we would be on the same side as the United States and other Anglosphere nations. It makes sense to co-ordinate our procurement, while still ensuring that we can act independently in a Falklands-type situation. What we can’t afford is to cling to current practice for reasons of political convenience.

My father’s regiment, the North Irish Horse, was reduced, between the wars, to a single officer. It rapidly expanded after 1939 to deploy in Tunisia and later in Italy. It exists today only as a squadron in the Scottish and North Irish Yeomanry. That is what I call flexibility. Our Armed Forces are extraordinarily good at preserving traditions, but they are also supremely adaptable. It is this second quality, in the end, that wins war

Dean Godson: The new ethnic minority voices who are challenging left-wing orthodoxy on race and culture

20 Jul

Dean Godson is the Director of Policy Exchange.

The membership of the Government’s commission on race and ethnic disparities represents a significant evolution in the story of race in this country – and in the Conservative Party in particular.

Tories have been frightened of their own shadow on race for many decades. Modernisers feared that too many of their own members were still really Powellites at heart. Frightened that they didn’t speak the modern language of diversity and multiculturalism well enough (partly because minority voters mainly lived in Labour seats). Frightened that too few minorities voted for them, and they didn’t know how to make themselves more politically attractive to them.

One result of these fears is that the party has been unable to take the initiative on such issues, or dared to have its own views, and has allowed itself to be painted as deaf to the concerns of ethnic minorities. So as the country’s ethnic minority population has grown, and issues relating to diversity have become a more mainstream political subject, the Conservative Party has found itself, in recent years, turning for affirmation on such matters to exponents of the leftish-inclined, race relations orthodoxy.

It was Conservative ministers who appointed David Lammy to oversee a review of racial bias in the criminal justice system. It was Conservative ministers who appointed race campaigner Simon Woolley to chair the Race Disparity Unit, and also made him a peer.

This meant that Conservative policy ended up being a less strident version of Labour views on race: that Britain suffers from severe systemic racism; that things have barely improved over the past 30 years, with prejudice and discrimination merely becoming more subtle, and any departure from the proportional representation of minorities can only be explained by white discrimination.

This failure to think for itself on race meant that the Tories ended up ignoring a growing body of ethnic minority opinion that rejected large parts of the standard racism narrative.

Yet as the ethnic minority educated middle class has grown in recent decades, it has inevitably become more intellectually and politically heterogenous. The overwhelming majority of minority voters still lean left and accept the standard narrative on race but, as in America, a dissident minority has started to find its voice.

Some of the leading dissidents wrote for a special “rethinking race” issue of Prospect magazine in 2010 including Munira Mirza, an academic who worked in the arts, and who served as a Deputy Mayor of London; Tony Sewell, Managing Director at Generating Genius; and Swaran Singh, Professor of Social and Community Psychiatry at the University of Warwick, and a former Commissioner of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Several, including Mirza, Sewell and Trevor Phillips, have worked for the Policy Exchange think tank.

It has often been noted that many ethnic minority voters have small-c conservative values: hard work and aspiration (symbolised by the shopkeepers from a variety of Asian backgrounds whose children go to university and become medical consultants); a belief in the centrality of family; parental authority; and, often, a rejection of liberal secularism.

Yet negative associations with the Conservative Party’s past ambivalence about multi-ethnic Britain and Labour’s happy embrace of it meant that those small-c values did not translate into voting Tory. There was a small upward blip in the minority Tory vote in 2015, though much of that progress was wiped out in 2017.

Nevertheless, in recent months, thanks in part to the new Government elected last December, the Conservative Party has evidently started to think for itself on these matters, and those dissident minority voices have been invited in from the cold.

The fact that the Cabinet has more non-white figures in senior positions than any before in British history, that Kemi Badenoch is an effective Equalities Minister, and that Number Ten has minorities in several key positions – above all, Munira Mirza as Head of the Policy Unit – has given this Government a confidence and moral authority on these issues lacking by previous Tory governments.

There was an interesting skirmish between the different strands of minority opinion over how to respond to the fact that Covid-19 was disproportionately hitting minorities. Munira Mirza and Phillips were on to the Covid-19 trend as soon as it emerged and were keen to monitor it closely and to set up an official investigation. Sayeeda Warsi and Simon Woolley, representing more conventional thinking, wrote a piece in the Guardian essentially blaming poverty and discrimination for the Covid deaths.

Sewell, an educational reformer, has now been appointed to chair the commission on race and ethnic disparities. Moreover, the ten person commission is full of independent-minded people of minority background including some, such as Samir Shah and Mercy Muroki, who have actively spoken out against the dominant anti-racist left narrative. It is not an accident that Maggie Aderin-Pocock, a space scientist, is also on the commission. The intent is to put evidence before emotion.

After the anger, and often sectarian politics, stirred up by the Black Lives Matter moment, the appointments to this commission constitute a notable step change. The mainstream “structural racism” left will try to discredit it and the Guardian has already dug up some embarrassing quotes by Sewell from 30 years ago.

But the race dissidents are now too entrenched and too powerful to be easily scared. And they are themselves an interestingly mixed bunch both socially and ideologically. Many, such as Rishi Sunak or Kwasi Kwarteng or Kemi Badenoch, are capital-C Conservatives.  Others such as Mirza and Phillips come from the left. There are younger voices emerging such as Remi Adekoya, Inaya Folarin Iman and Muroki.

What is perhaps most striking is that none of them owes their prominence purely to being race campaigners. Some like Sunak have prospered in the private sector, though he subsequently did write an influential portrait of modern Britain when working for Policy Exchange, focusing heavily on these issues. Mirza was a long time writer and analyst of these issues. Badenoch was a systems engineer, then a banker

None of them believe we live in a post-racist society. But they reject the critical race theory assumption that everything about a majority white society is racist unless proved otherwise. And most are sceptical of the notion of systemic or institutional racism and think Britain is more open than the standard narrative gives it credit for.

I think all would sign up to Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous attack on the “soft bigotry of low expectations” towards minorities, and the way that the standard narrative removes responsibility and agency from ethnic minority individuals themselves – a consistent theme of Britain’s “strictest headmistress” Katharine Birbalsingh. Along with that goes a certain suspicion of white “saviour” liberalism.

This group is now being heard in the media and in government, and is becoming organised and self-aware, learning from the Left on how to make their presence felt. These ethnic minority free thinkers will help to counter some of the excesses of BLM subjectivism and guide the country to a more mature debate about race and discrimination. The Government’s new commission might be seen in the future as signifying their formal arrival on the political scene.

The “equalities” industry has entrenched division. It must be swept away.

11 Jul

“I have a dream,” declared Martin Luther King on August 28, 1963, “that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.” That inspirational cry for justice – for a colour blind society of individual opportunity and responsibility – has been betrayed. Those thwarting that dream are not the white supremacists, but the supposed “anti-racists” in the equalities industry.

This bitter irony will not have escaped the notice of the more assiduous followers of current affairs. Outfits such as “Black Lives Matter” have not been championing cohesion, harmony, and equal treatment. They have been dedicated to division, discrimination, and separatism.

We have seen ethnic minorities being targeted for abuse for exercising dissentient thought. As Kemi Badenoch, the Treasury and Equalities Minister, said:

“Sadly, some are willing to casually dismiss the contribution of people who don’t conform to their expectation of how ethnic minorities should think and behave. This, in itself, is racist.”

This is not an accident. BLM is a revolutionary group – with the usual demands about overthrowing capitalism, defunding the police, generally smashing the system, and so on. From their perspective, generating a race war makes perfect sense. They will be delighted if white people are antagonised and start unfurling “white lives matter” banners.

Enoch Powell gave a speech in 1968 quoting a constituent warning that the “black man will have the whip hand over the white man”. Fair-minded people would have to say that in the half century that followed, Powell’s lurid warnings of conflict have been proved wrong. We have remained an island of great tolerance. But police officers getting down on their knees to atone for their collective guilt in being white will not help race relations. Provoking thoughts that, “maybe Enoch was right after all,” is, of course, exactly what many BLM militants hope white people will think.

What should the Government’s response be? It should pass a Non-Discrimination Act ensuring the public sector follows the principle of true equality. That doctrine genuinely is and should be colour blind. We should not “positively” discriminate based on colour, or on sex or sexuality: this discrimination is exactly the evil our credo is meant to be fighting.

When I became a councillor in Hammersmith and Fulham in 2006 I proposed that we should treat people on merit and regard their colour as irrelevant – and so cut back to a minimum, all the box-ticking, form filling, creepy ethnic monitoring, and the legion of staff required to undertake all this. At one of the first presentations I went to, the Regeneration Director talked about the Council’s programme to ‘help black and ethnic minorities into employment.’ The justification was that unemployment was disproportionately high among this – intrinsically artificial – category. But my point was that any help to unemployed people should be provided on an equal basis – that the ethnicity of an unemployed person is irrelevant and assistance should be purely determined by their individual need. They are people, they are not categories.

It would follow that a “colour blind” law would prohibit any part of the public sector (or any organisation funded by the public sector) asking anyone questions about their ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation.

There is lots of doublespeak in the law. Talk of “positive action” rather than “positive discrimination”, of “targets” rather than “quotas” abounds. Mike O’Brien, the Home Office Minister in the Labour Government, defended the introduction of ‘targets’ for ethnic minority recruitment into the police force. “Quotas are illegal,” he said. “Targets are about fairness, rewarding talent and putting an end to glass ceilings. Managers will have to deliver their targets.”  The reality is that discrimination is required.

As the sociologist, Peter Saunders, wrote in his excellent Civitas paper, The Rise of the Equalities Industry:

“This means that it is not unfair to discriminate against somebody provided you are helping someone else who belongs to a group which the government favours.’ Once such privileging would have been seen as abhorrent and the last thing public policy would set out to do. Now it is such a commonplace that we struggle to even notice it being done.”

We even saw the Association of Chief Police Officers declare:

‘”Colour-blind‛ policing means policing that purports to treat everyone in the same way. Such an approach is flawed and unjust … This is not enough. In a passively non-racist environment, racists can still thrive, discriminatory organisational structures and practices can still persist, and racism in the broader community can go largely unchallenged.”

Another way that the “equalities” agenda has harmed the interests of those it is supposed to help is for children in care. Social workers now seek, not a willing home, but an “ethnic match”. The upshot is that many black children are stuck in the care system, if only white prospective adopters are available. Thus those children are denied a permanent loving family and their life prospects are greatly harmed. A colour-blind law would make such discriminatory behaviour by the police and social workers illegal.

Could it be done? It would certainly break the consensus. One example will give a perspective on the parameters in which current policy operates. In 2011, David Cameron attacked Oxford University saying it was “disgraceful” it admitted so few black students. The university responded with statistics showing that it had 12,671 white students, 1,477 Asian students, 1,098 Chinese, 838 mixed-race, 254 ‘other ethnicity’ and 253 describing themselves as ‘black’. If the Chinese and Indians are ‘over-represented’, as they do well at A-level grades, should they be turned down to make space for white children with lower grades? With a colour-blind law, this pernicious exchange would not even be possible. Oxford would be prohibited from even asking their students such questions.

Would such a change be impossible? There is an analogy with Brexit. Initially only a handful of MPs would be expected to back such a demand openly. Just as only a handful of them backed Better Off Out when it was launched in 2006. However, there would be significant support in terms of public opinion, and not just among Conservatives.

In the film, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Dr. John Prentice, played by Sidney Poitier, a black man is cautioned by his father against marrying a white woman. John tells his father:

“You think of yourself as a coloured man. I think of myself as a man.”

That encapsulates the issue we face.

A clean break is needed. Just lifting requirements on the public sector is not enough. All the equalities paraphernalia must be banished. All the grievance-mongering for collective groups swept away, to allow a true end to discrimination, with the rights of each individual valued and respected. All the quotas, targets, monitoring, thought policing, impact assessing, “Women’s Studies”, “Black Studies”, “Black History Month”, need to be not just pruned, but pulled up by the roots. Then put down plenty of salt to stop it all growing back. Then we can be – as the tennis player Serena Williams tweeted  – “one race, the human race.”

A longer version of this piece has appeared in The Critic.

Richard Ritchie: What the great Commons debates on devolution can teach today’s unionists

4 Jul

Richard Ritchie is the author of a recent history of a secretive group of Conservative MPs called The Progress Trust (Without Hindsight: A History of the Progress Trust 1943-2005). He is Enoch Powell’s archivist and is a former Conservative Parliamentary Candidate. He was BP’s director of UK Political Affairs.

The appearances by Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister, at her regular Covid-19 press conferences are a reminder of how skilful politicians never waste a crisis.

One should not be surprised at her zeal in presenting herself as a Prime Minister of an independent nation, with a distinct approach from the British Government’s. All this will be very useful when normal politics is resumed, and Scottish independence is restored to its primary place on the UK political agenda.

If anyone doubts this, or is surprised by her behaviour, they need only turn to the historic Parliamentary debates on Scottish devolution, which commenced on the floor of the House of Commons in the late 1970s when a Labour Government with a very small majority sought to establish legislative devolution for Scotland and Wales.

Always, the crucial difference of opinion has been between those who believed offering devolution would discourage nationalism, and those who believed precisely the opposite. And although the jury is still out, a reading of past Hansard debates suggests that those holding the latter view are most likely to be vindicated.

Both parties had woken up to the threat posed by Scottish nationalism some ten years before. In opposition, Edward Heath established a Scottish Constitutional Conference which, under the leadership of Sir Alec Douglas-Home, the former Prime Minister, recommended in 1970 “a directly elected Scottish Assembly with legislative responsibility and powers of debate and supervision.” But once in government, the Tories did nothing.

In October 1973, a Royal Commission established by the previous Labour Government under the chairmanship of Lord Kilbrandon advocated the creation of directly elected Scottish and Welsh Assemblies. Within months of its return to office in 1974, the Labour Government committed itself in a White Paper to directly elected Assemblies; a further White paper in October 1975 discussed the detailed schemes for doing so, which were the subject of important Parliamentary debates in January 1976.  These culminated, on 13th  December 1976, with a four-day Second Reading debate of the Scotland and Wales Bill.

But Parliament’s first substantial discussion took the form of a two-day adjournment debate on 3rd February 1975, concentrating on the Labour Government’s White Paper of the previous September.

These were the days when the economic policies of both parties were interventionist, and neither front bench wished to be regarded as unsympathetic to Scotland so long as Westminster maintained “overall management of the economy” and avoided what Edward Short, Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons, called “the fragmentation of the UK which could be the consequence of an unwise, ill-planned scheme”.

For the Opposition, William Whitelaw at least posed the possibility that “response to demands for self-government in Scotland and the maintenance of the unitary character of the state are ultimately capable only in the realm of rhetoric.” But it was left to backbenchers to confront the issues directly. Robin Cook referred to the White Paper as a “stalking horse” for the SNP. John Biffen argued that devolution “provides an unreal resting place between union and separation” and Tam Dalyell – who was destined to be the leading opponent of any attempt to establish a Scottish Assembly or Parliament – warned that “there is conflict in the situation by its very nature.”

Enoch Powell concentrated on “the problem of England which is central to whatever conclusions are going to be reached” and in particular the implications that a Scottish Assembly would have for “representation in this House.”

The next significant parliamentary occasion was a four day debate which started on 13th January 1976, when Harold Wilson set out his Government’s detailed proposals for the legislation planned later in the year as outlined in the White Paper Our Changing Democracy.

The Government hoped the consultative approach embodied in the White Papers would encourage cross-party support, which was essential given its tiny majority and internal divisions. Prominent Labour MPs – notably Eric Heffer and Neil Kinnock – disputed that the Labour Party was democratically committed to devolution of the kind envisaged.  Both saw the proposals as incompatible with socialist state planning of the economy, and Heffer argued that “if we allow these matters to get out of hand and if we go too far, the risk that we run is that eventually we shall see the break-up of the United Kingdom.”

Edward Heath on the other hand, who had just been removed as leader of the Conservative Party, became a leading advocate of the opposite view: “The Union is in danger…I do not believe that the complaint is about over-government (which was precisely the belief of Thatcherites) … we have to decide whether we are dealing with a passing whim or a settled conviction of the people.”  He concluded: “I can foresee a situation at Westminster in which both major parties suffer great losses in Scotland, in which there is a large nationalist representation pledged to separation.”

He was right, but for the wrong reasons.  Heath’s belief was that pressure for separation would be strengthened by a failure to provide devolution. In fact it has grown, despite the creation of a Scottish Parliament and Government (which amounts to a much more substantial measure of devolution than Heath or others were pressing for at the time).

This would not have surprised Powell, Dalyell and the many Conservative critics of the Bill. Powell predicted that the establishment of directly elected Assemblies “will confront us with the choice of separation, of conversion to a federal state with all its implications, or an attempt to reverse the process and somehow subordinate the new Assemblies to the sovereignty of this House.”  The high Tory Julian Amery put it even more starkly:

“But my advice to the House, for what it is worth, after experience of several devolved constitutions under the Colonial Office and the Commonwealth Relations Office, is that it is difficult to find a single foothold on which we can stand.  It did not happen in Australia, nor did it happen in Canada. I do not believe it has happened in any other instance.  They all went on to demand full executive control…An assembly that will not slide into total independence…I do not believe that is possible.”

In the end, because it was a debate on a White Paper designed to reach a wider consensus, only 37 MPs forced a division against the Government.  But this disguised the latent principled opposition to the proposals.  It was only because Margaret Thatcher lacked sufficient political strength within her own party to oppose outright what she instinctively detested.

These were but opening skirmishes. On 13th December 1976, James Callaghan as Prime Minister introduced his Scotland and Wales Bill, promising as many as 30 sitting days on the floor of the House to consider its details and leaving open the possibility of a referendum. The Government’s principal case was that the status quo had become untenable; that the SNP would never be satisfied; but proper devolution would remove their support.

No direct tax-raising powers were on offer.  The “block fund must remain the main source of revenue for the devolved services” and what was to be devolved had to be laid out in detail, with everything else reserved to Westminster. But, Callaghan argued, nothing short of a legislative Parliament would suffice.

The Conservative Party remained divided. Unlike her former leader, Thatcher indeed believed the problem was ‘over-government’, but some of her MPs were more sympathetic to Heath’s position and a few – including Alick Buchanan-Smith and Malcolm Rifkind – disobeyed their whip and supported the Bill on Second Reading (when the Government achieved a majority of 45).

Indeed, Buchanan Smith had resigned as Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland five days before, arguing that “the worst course of all is to do nothing. Opinion in Scotland cannot be ignored… If we in the House appear to frustrate the genuine aspirations of the Scottish people, this is the very thing which turns moderates into extremists.”

Under David Steel, the Liberals were in favour of going even further than the Government and their support was vital to the Government’s survival.  More crucial and uncertain were the Ulster Unionists, who under Powell’s influence were indirectly sustaining the Labour Government on issues of confidence. Stormont was often cited, by the Bill’s advocates, as a precedent for Parliaments in Scotland and Wales. However, as James Molyneaux, the Ulster Unionist leader, argued: “the devolution which matters and has always mattered in Ulster is not legislative but administrative devolution.” This might have been the view of Unionists in Westminster, but not necessarily in Ulster itself.

Once the Bill began its Committee stage, Parliament’s lack of enthusiasm became apparent. Most of the credit for the Bill’s demolition lay with Dalyell, the Scottish Labour MP who represented West Lothian from 1962-1983, and thereafter Linlithgow until 2005. It was Powell who, on 14th November 1977, coined the phrase the ‘West Lothian Question’, and justifiably so because, from the start, Dalyell had been the most assiduous and relentless in asking how it could be justified for Scottish MPs at Westminster to influence English legislation, while lacking the power to do the same in Scotland.

As Dalyell explained in Committee, under the Bill’s proposals:

“I can vote on policy and money for the Arts in Alnwick, but not in Armadale, West Lothian. I can vote on aerodromes at Heathrow and Gatwick, but not Edinburgh, Turn house. I can vote on buildings in Bath but not in Bathgate in my constituency. I can vote on the burial laws in Blackpool but not in Blackridge. I can vote on betting, bookies and gaming in Blackburn, Lancashire. But I cannot touch the bookies or the gaming laws in Blackburn, West Lothian. Etc. etc.”

These lists became a common feature of Dalyell’s contributions to these Committee debates, exasperating his front bench and providing delight to the Bill’s critics.

The West Lothian question raised further difficulties. First, there was the over-representation of Scotland in the House of Commons. As an answer, some proposed a reduction in the number of Scottish MPs, as well as restricting their right to vote on ‘English’ matters.  But Dalyell countered:

“In no way would reduced representation solve the problem of irresponsible participation in other People’s business. The principle remains the same. It makes it no better whether 50, 57, 35 or ten. Hon. Members can vote on matters for which literally they have no responsibility whatever.”

Powell supported Dalyell, reminding the House that the idea of “in and out” members had been raised and rejected in the past when dealing with Irish Home Rule, and that “there is no logical reason and no logical ground which underlies the proposition that representation should be proportionately reduced.”

Even today, when the number of Scottish MPs has been reduced to 59 and a change in Standing Orders facilitates “English votes for English Laws”, the objections of Dalyell and Powell remain valid.  As Powell explained on 24th February 1977, “if we were to attempt something in between (i.e. the situation today)…the Scots would be under-represented when deciding upon Imperial matters (i.e. all those matters not devolved) and over-represented when deciding upon all other matters”, not to mention the difficulties of classification.

In 1977, however, such questions remained academic since the Bill could not be carried without a timetable motion, which Michael Foot, contrary to all his past beliefs and arguments, was embarrassingly forced to introduce on 22nd February. He reminded the House that the Bill had already received a four-day debate on Second Reading and ten days in Committee (involving all-night sittings).

He proposed a further 20 days of debate, but the House of Commons was having none of it. The Government’s guillotine was defeated by 29 votes, and from that moment this Bill was dead.

But not the arguments. Labour’s first attempts to create devolved legislative assembles had marked out a divide.

Either one agreed with Heath’s conviction “that neither the people of Scotland nor Wales want separation. I do not believe they will move in that direction, provided they get meaningful and viable devolution”; or with Teddy Taylor, who claimed twenty years later: “Those who think that devolution will knock the SNP on the head are living in cloud cuckoo land.  Those who think the move to devolution will lead to the collapse of the SNP will be subject to a brutal shock.”

It was another twenty years before fresh legislation was introduced. Callaghan had made a second attempt in November 1977 by introducing separate bills for Scotland and Wales, and promising a referendum before their enactment.

In response to the objections which had killed the previous legislation, the Scottish Bill sought in various ways to reduce “the scope for dispute between the United Kingdom Government and the Scottish Executive” and, in particular, by limiting the UK Government’s rights of intervention to defence, trade, the economy and industrial relations (but leaving out health and education which had previously been included).

But no concessions were made in response to the West Lothian question. Moreover, the Assembly would continue to be funded by a block-grant from Westminster, always regarded by critics as another source of conflict. This time, the Government managed to guillotine the Bill from the outset, thus denying Dalyell, Powell and other opponents of the Bill their opportunity to renew their detailed onslaught.

Both Dalyell and Powell were now clear that ‘independence’ was preferable to the Government’s proposals. But that should be up to Scotland since, in Powell’s words:

“…none of us has the means of knowing whether Scotland is to be a nation. What is quite certain is that we cannot answer that by passing legislation which is itself incoherent… this is a constitution which, being inherently unstable, will force those who live under it in one direction or the other; and there is all too great reason to guess in what direction they will be forced.” 

In this, Powell had the support of the SNP. Its leader, Gordon Wilson, made it clear that: “My party regards the Bill as the first step along the road to self-government.”  Or, as Dalyell had said first time round:

“Many electors want an independent Scotland and will continue to want that. Jolly few people, the more they know about it, want devolution… those who want devolution want it as a stepping-stone, a launching pad for a separate Scottish state.”

But finally, what killed this Bill was a change in the proposed referendum rules. Through the Cunningham amendment, the Act could only come into force if it gained the support of 40 per cent of the registered electorate. In a referendum on 1st March 1979, it gained only 32.9 per cent. thus putting to an end any chance of creating a Scottish legislative assembly in time for the next election.

Thatcher was never tempted down a similar path. It was not until Labour’s landslide victory in 1997 that a fresh attempt was made – and by this time the Labour Party had learnt a lot, at least from its former tactical mistakes.

For a start, in 1997 a pre-legislative referendum was held before the House of Commons had the opportunity of debating the legislation.  The referendum posed two questions i.e.

  • I agree/do not agree there should be a Scottish Parliament
  • I agree/do not agree that a Scottish Parliament should have tax varying powers

On 11th September 1997, the first question was agreed by 74 per cent of those who voted, and the second by 63 per cent.  A government with a massive majority and the authority of a referendum was clearly not to be obstructed, even by die-hard opponents such as Dalyell, who remained an MP.

Moreover, instead of listing devolved subjects, the Scotland Bill 1998 merely specified matters which were reserved to the UK Parliament, not those which were to be devolved. In addition, the new Scottish Parliament was promised a limited power to vary the basic rate of UK income tax in Scotland by up to 3p.

This power was never used, but in April 2016 the Conservative Government gave Scotland a range of new tax and financial powers (including Scottish Income Pax paid directly to the Scottish Government), which went much further than ever would have been contemplated by even the most fervent devolutionists of twenty years earlier.

This new bill reached the statute book in 1998 without difficulty but to no avail since, on 16th May 2007, Alex Salmond formed the first SNP Minority Government in Edinburgh. Four years later, he rubbed salt into the wound by winning an overall majority – the very result which Labour had hoped to prevent by granting such a significant amount of devolution in the first place.

Some say this was because too much was devolved; others too little.  But whatever the cause, Dalyell had predicted thirty years earlier “if a majority of Scots voted for the SNP, it would be a separate state.  There is no question about that.”  Except the Union still stands.

True, those who said it would satisfy nobody have been vindicated.  But those who claimed a Scottish legislative Parliament was a logical impossibility within a unitary political system haven’t yet been proved right. Attempts have also been made to address the West Lothian question, although not to the satisfaction of those who posed it originally and who still believe it’s unanswerable.

During debates on the Scotland Bill 1998,  Liam Fox put it thus: “An answer to the West Lothian question requires either a federalist solution, providing a balanced solution constitutionally within the UK, or independence, which would remove the question altogether.” Powell would have agreed with the latter, but not the former:

“The reason why federation is only a logical reduction ad absurdum and not a practical possibility is that we do not want it. The House and the vast majority of people behind Members are not prepared to consider the notion of resolving ourselves into a federal state.”

But perhaps they are now, given the quantity and complexity of modern legislation which threatens to overwhelm Parliament and which a federalist approach is designed to mitigate. It wouldn’t, however, placate the SNP, at least not while they have 48 members of the House of Commons. In the late 1890s, there were over 80 Irish Nationalists in the House of Commons and history tells us what happened next.

Exactly the same situation is faced today. Once a separatist element is represented significantly in the House of Commons, only two things are possible.  Either it is removed via the ballot box; or independence is granted, and it departs voluntarily.  As Powell had put it as early as 27th September 1968 in a speech at Prestatyn: “England will never again consent to live through the long and harrowing episode of the coercion of the Irish. We have learnt, and learnt once for all, that enforced unity is a curse, to which almost any other consequence or condition is preferable.”

Renewed calls for independence are now portrayed as Brexit’s fault. But past Hansards show how there were always only three choices – unionism, federation, or independence. Unionism could embrace extensive administrative devolution, including special laws for Scotland if passed at Westminster. Federation would necessitate English participation. If neither is an option, then independence becomes the least harmful. As concluded by Powell:

“I have always said that if it be the preponderant and settled wish of the inhabitants of any part of this Kingdom no longer to remain part of this Kingdom, that preponderant and settled will should not and could not be resisted.”

But how does one know this “wish” exists?

Some hard and unfair things have been said about those who sit in the House as members of the Scottish National Party or of Plaid Cymru. They sit in the House by the same right as the rest of us. If we are looking for  the answer to the question “Is it or is it not true that there are nations in this kingdom which will not abide the present constitution of the United Kingdom?”, they are a way whereby we can find out.

We can identify a nation, as it were, only after the event. We cannot identify a nation by historical, sociological and cultural studies. A nation is a people who have made good the right to be a nation, not necessarily by force but, according to our institutions, by proving overwhelmingly that they are not content to remain part of another State, in our case the Kingdom as it is at present constituted.

Such “overwhelming” proof is not yet forthcoming, but we may be close to it. Ironically, by accepting this reality and remaining neutral, England has the best chance of averting it.

England’s love of Scotland has made her zealous in her opposition to independence. An understandable mistake, but a tactical error. If both Scotland and England are united in believing the current settlement unstable, then maybe this will concentrate minds on the real choice. The best hope of maintaining the Union lies with England remaining neutral in any further independence referendum.

But what England cannot be neutral about is the prospect of Scottish MPs determining the political composition of a Westminster government which has transferred power to Scotland. Had Jeremy Corbyn been able to form an administration last December following the General Election, it is almost certain that he could have done so only through the support of SNP MPs with the power to influence English issues but no power to shape legislation directly affecting Scotland.

The fact that this danger was averted does not mean that it won’t arise again.  It almost certainly will, unless and until Scotland becomes an independent nation, is governed once again as an integral part of the United Kingdom; or the UK breaks up into a federation.

That is the lesson from Hansard.  What will be the lesson from Covid-19 we shall also know soon.