Henry Hill: With less than a year to go, Ross sets out his vision for the Scottish Tories

6 Aug

Ross is unopposed as new leader of the Scottish Conservatives

Douglas Ross has said he “won’t be pushed around” by the Government has he takes the helm of the Scottish Conservatives, according to the Times, as he says its time to “turn the page on over a decade of division“.

The Moray MP has been returned unopposed to succeed Jackson Carlaw, who stepped down last week. His is expected to seek a seat in the Scottish Parliament at next year’s devolved elections, until which time Ruth Davidson will deputise for him at First Minister’s Questions.

He has already given an indication of his priorities, promising a ‘jobs plan’ within 30 days of taking up his new position. Ross has also pledged to “strip powers from Holyrood” and pass them to “regions, cities, and towns”, an interesting echo of the Welsh Conservatives’ changing rhetoric on devolution.

Ross has been endorsed by Murdo Fraser, one of the only MSPs viewed as a realistic challenger, and profiled in the Courier, as well as speaking to Michael Crick.

Meanwhile opponents are suggesting that he and Davidson ‘plotted’ to oust Carlaw, pointing to a ‘secret’ meeting between the two of them in his constituency days before the latter’s resignation. Davidson insists Ross only asked her to join his team after he had announced his decision to run.

The change in leadership has clearly got some in the SNP rattled: the usually-slick Nationalist media operation tweeted out a claim that Ross had a “history of racist views” before hurriedly deleting it.

SNP under ‘mounting pressure’ over exam debacle…

The Scottish Government is facing a furious backlash over exam results, with opponents suggesting that John Swinney, the Education Secretary, should have his career on the line.

With Covid-19 rendering exams unsafe, teachers were instead asked to submit predicted grades for their pupils. But the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) believed a lot of the grades to be over-estimates, and ended up downgrading results in 124,000 cases.

Controversially, the SQA measured the predictions against the past performance of the area in question – meaning that bright pupils in poorly performing schools risked being effectively assessed on their postcode, and resulting in sharper reductions in disadvantaged areas.

For her part, Nicola Sturgeon has said that teachers’ assessments were “not credible” – and as Tom Harris has pointed out, she may have a point. But whilst statistical moderation may be fair in aggregate, it doesn’t feel like it when you’re on the receiving end.

A “deluge of appeals” is anticipated – and there are already warnings that even this stopgap might not be available if the same thing happens in England and Wales. The Scottish Government has also been accused of imposing a ‘whack-a-mole’ lockdown on Aberdeen in part to distract from the row.

On the subject of statistics, Sturgeon has also been criticised by the statistics authority for misleading comparisons between England and Scotland – see this report from These Islands for more.

…as Salmond and Sturgeon set for showdown

The current and former leaders of the SNP are set for a furious clash which, Alex Massie argues, yet provide a get-out clause for the Union ahead of next year’s Holyrood elections.

Alex Salmond has reportedly compiled a cache of documents evidencing a ‘conspiracy’ against him by the current Nationalist leadership, according to the Times. This comes as Sturgeon, his successor and one-time close ally, prepares to testify under oath about her administration’s botched investigation into allegations against him.

Salmond’s supporters are already angry that the Scottish Government has missed a deadline for handing over its own documents to the inquiry, as we mentioned last week. And the Herald reports that it has also confirmed that Sturgeon had a meeting with Salmond which she had not previously declared to MSPs.

The battle between these two camps is being waged on multiple fronts. Elsewhere this week, Joanna Cherry MP – a prominent Salmondite – attacked Sturgeon’s fixation on Brexit.

For their part the SNP changed the party’s rules to make it effectively impossible for her to contest Edinburgh Central at Holyrood next year, clearing the way for Sturgeon ally Angus Robertson – not the only controversy over Nationalist selections this week.

Op-eds and Reports:

  • Mystery and suspicion on one question: why did Arlene Foster do it? – Sam McBride, News Letter
  • Is the end for Arlene Foster? – Owen Polley, The Article
  • Hume’s legitimisation of Sinn Fein was an appalling misjudgement – Ruth Dudley Edwards, Website
  • Embracing the compromises of political giants – Tom McTague, The Atlantic
  • London must act to protect the Union, and fast – Ben Lowry, News Letter
  • The mirage of progressive Scotland – David Jamieson, Tribune
  • Presentation is key to beating the SNP – Adam Tomkins MSP, The Scotsman
  • A new Act of Union is needed to save the United Kingdom – Stephen Daisley, Scottish Daily Mail
  • Footnoting the Belfast Agreement’s invisible annex – Owen Polley, The Critic

Graham Gudgin: Now is the time to combat Scottish Nationalism

5 Aug

Dr Graham Gudgin is an honorary research associate at the Centre for Business Research, Judge Business School, University of Cambridge. He was Special Advisor to the First Minister in Northern Ireland 1998-2002.

When Douglas Murray wrote recently that Scottish nationalists are unique in escaping the opprobrium usually associated with nationalism he is only half right. Irish nationalists have pulled off this trick for decades or centuries even when their supporters were killing people. The trick is to make liberals view the nationalist cause as escaping from victimhood. Rather like escaping from a bad marriage, many will support the new beginnings of independence.

Who would not have supported the Finns escaping from Russian domination? The West always supports nationalists escaping from its opponents grasp, like the new nations emerging from the Soviet-bloc, even including Kossova a province of the greatly disliked Serbia.

Even more than the Irish, the Scots have a good case in arguing for independence. Their history and geography set them apart. They were an independent state for many centuries and could be one again. To write, as Murray did, that an independent Scotland would “join sub-Saharan Africa in the world poverty indices” is silly and will, of course, be taken as typical English condescension. The battle to save the union is now deadly serious and must be treated seriously.

We must recognise that devolution in the form adopted in 1998 was a mistake. Although there were misgivings at the time, the Labour view that devolution would strengthen the union prevailed but is now in tatters. Devolution cannot deal with a contested adherence to the wider nation any more than it could in Ireland. Labour domination of Scottish politics was viewed as sufficient protection for the union especially with an admirable leader in Donald Dewar. However, as the unifying memories of the world wars faded, along with strong memories of Scottish martial prowess, feelings of separateness could be built upon.

Although the SNP hate the idea, latent nationalism was reignited by North Sea Oil. The SNP first made real electoral gains under the slogan, ‘Its Scotland’s Oil’. The potent mix of a distinct national identity allied with financial strength was there to be exploited by middle-class Scottish nationalists who stood to gain financially and in status from independence.

The SNP’s problem was to carry with them the working class, especially on Clydeside. Thatcherism provided an opportunity with its use of Scotland as a testbed for the poll tax and the SNP grasped it gratefully. Ever since they have presented themselves as progressives. The long withdrawal of Labour from its historic role in defending working-class interests gradually overcame electoral loyalty, and just as in the red wall of northern England, Labour surrendered its Scottish base.

All of this is a national tragedy, but we are where we are. The task now for unionists is to face up to the realities of the problem and to avoid superficial remedies and soft-soap talk. These include avoiding a reliance on throwing money at the problem. Just as in Northern Ireland, the flow of cash from England does little to soften nationalist sentiments. Money is accepted without gratitude. Feelings of financial dependence can just as easily foster resentment as generating a need to ‘cling to nurse for fear of finding something worse’. In Scotland, the majority have never heard of Rishi Sunak, the saviour of their economy during a global pandemic.

Although the realities do indeed include living standards supported by financial subsidies from London, we should not assume that this will be decisive. Scotland’s economy is quite strong, with per capita GDP at close to the UK average. There is little doubt that Scotland could emerge as an economically successful nation rather like Denmark.

Subsidies are not necessary to bring Scots up to English living standards but rather have allowed Scottish living standards, and especially public services, to be better than in England and higher than their own resources would allow. ONS data shows that Scottish living standards are well above the English average and close to those of London once house price differences are taken into account. Scots may be willing to settle for a degree of austerity in return for independence, and with post-independence living standards at something close to the English average, their lot could be acceptable.

So, what is the case for the union? The core case is that three-hundred years of successful union should not be lightly tossed aside. The UK has been a force for good in the world through this period and can continue to fill this role. As a nuclear power with a seat on the UN Security Council and at the centre of a multi-racial Commonwealth of nations, its global reach is immense.

The SNP’s alternative of a future inside the EU may yet backfire if the UK secures a satisfactory deal with the EU and demonstrates that, like Switzerland, Norway and Iceland, economic life outside the EU can be quite satisfactory. A slogan of ‘Give Back Control (to the EU)’ would hardly help the SNP. An EU border at Berwick would be a nuisance for everyone but especially the Scots.

The financial strength of the UK might not be decisive but is nonetheless a strong card which should be played vigorously. The Barnett Formula under which Scotland has received its subsidies since 1979 does little for the union since it leaves financial support largely invisible to voters. It needs to be quickly replaced by a UK Cohesion Fund. Public funds should be initially allocated on a simple basis pro-rata to population. This would leave Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland well short of what they currently receive, and the difference should be made up from a cohesion fund which makes it fully clear what money is coming from where. We need not go as far as putting Union Jacks on new roads or buildings, but the message would be clear.

Finally, although it is dreadfully late in the day, efforts should be made to contest Scottish beliefs about their own history. Like the Irish, the core of national identity is built upon beliefs about a successful resistance to English attempts at dominance, in the Scottish case most notably at Bannockburn.

The real story, as in Ireland, is not of attack from the English but by French-speaking Normans who, having overrun England, expanded further into Wales. Ireland and Scotland as well as Southern Europe and the Middle East. Scots’ resistance was helped by bringing in their own Norman barons, including the Le Brus and Balliol families, and unifying their own diverse ethnic groups under William Wallach (William the Welshman).

Even so, this would not have worked without the Great Famine, the Black Death and the Hundred Years War to deter the Norman descendants. Independence from then on was then a largely sad story of poverty, feudal dominance and dissension, until the Scots flowered magnificently within the British Empire.

David Starkey’s description of pre-union Scotland as a “benighted hellhole” might be too strong but is reminder of why the union was so positive for the Scots

Having tied themselves to an England on the up, Scots are tempted to jump ship from what they see as English decline. The best tactic is to persuade and demonstrate that a post-Brexit UK has a bright future, remaining a force for good in a troubled world. This needs to be a national effort involving historians, economists and many others. If we leave the task to Johnsonian bluster, we can expect the worst.

Richard Holden: Across the “Blue Wall”, there’s little sign Starmer’s approach to the crisis has cut through

3 Aug

Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.

The Green, Billy Row, County Durham. Nothing brings you back down to reality like properly being out and about in the towns and villages of North West Durham. People don’t hesitate to politely let you know their opinions, which I conveyed – again politely – to Amanda Milling, the Party Chairman.

Since lockdown eased, Amanda has sensibly been out and about across the “Blue Wall” and popped by to formally open my new office, before meeting some local members and constituents in Consett. It was only in 2010 that the Conservatives gained her seat of Cannock Chase. Part of the original “Red” to “Blue Wall” swing seats from 2010. it’s now held with 68.3 per cent of the vote for the Conservatives and a majority of almost 20,000. Something to aspire to and we are nothing if not the part of aspiration.

Lockdown has changed a few things and there is, understandably, concern about the future due to Coronavirus. While the caravan parks are full and people are holidaying in the towns and villages of Weardale, the reverse is true for my local businesses and companies that rely on international travel. From travel agents, through airlines, to aircraft manufacturers, all have been hit hard. How the next few months are managed is really going to set the course for the next few years.

But to date, the management of the economic impact of the crisis is seen as sound. A testament to that is that one first name has joined that very short list of “household name” politicians alongside “Boris” locally and that is “Rishi” – very much seen as someone who has worked hand-in-glove with the Prime Minister and done all he can to help steady the ship, in a credible way, at a very difficult time.

One of the things that really doesn’t appear to have changed though the antipathy of local people towards the London (and on a local level City of Durham) centric Labour machine. It’s quite clear that Keir Starmer, too, certainly hasn’t really cut through in any positive meaningful way here.

This hasn’t been aided by the missteps of the Labour-run County Council who, at the heart of the pandemic in late March, voted to put a new 3,000 sq ft roof terrace on top of their proposed new monstrous carbuncle of a County Hall on a floodplain in the centre of Durham city.

At a national level, Labour’s lawyerly approach to the crisis hasn’t helped it either. If your job is on the line – as quite a few are in my community – Starmer’s “Goldilocks Politics” of “too much/too little, too fast/too slow” with lashings of hindsight-driven drivel isn’t winning you over.

No-one wants to know that, like any good barrister, you can argue the counter argument. They want to know you get the economic reality of what’s going on and are instructing your local councillors where they’re in place to do something about it.

From those snatched chats over coffee or a pint in the pubs of North West Durham, it’s clear to me that without showing a desire to really challenge the basic economic arguments of the far-Left, Labour have still further to fall. This is Starmer’s real challenge: he’s dumped Corbyn, but can he – does he even want to – dump Corbynomics?

Within three months of taking office following the death of John Smith, Blair had told the Labour Party Conference he was going to change Clause 4 and within a matter of months at a special conference in April 1995 he did just that.

Aside from managing to knife his opponent for the job and boot her out of the Shadow Cabinet, Starmer’s first four months in office have been barely a tremor on the political Richter scale.

If I were Starmer at this moment I’d be recognising that I have one shot at this and boldly lay down the policy tracks in order to concentrate on next year’s elections in Scotland, Wales, London, The Midlands and the English counties.

From the attempted coup in 2017 and brutality of the internal wars currently taking place, it’s clear that Labour is up for knifing its leaders if they look like an electoral liability.

Starmer needs to show that Labour can win big in its remaining heartlands of London and Wales and show that he’s there, challenging the SNP in Scotland and winning over county councils across England – creating a real base for the future.

For us Conservatives the challenge is different. We can’t control what Starmer will or won’t do – any more than we can really predict or determine when we’ll finally be rid of the damned Coronavirus.

It’s about proving that we not only culturally understand the “Blue Wall”, but grasp their economic needs and aspirations too. The massive support that taxpayers have provided via the Government has not gone unnoticed by the man and woman in The Green at Billy Row and has cut through to constituents.

For the future it’s a mixture of delivering on policies both big – like the commitments on levelling-up – but also smaller policies, like ensuring that community services are maintained and lives, where possible, made a little easier, and cheaper.

Often that’s through ensuring fairness where the market fails or is skewed. From getting housing built on brown field sites that have been squabbled over for decades, to the cash machine on the green at Billy Row.

It might take some ingenuity at times, but we’ll need to keep highlighting to people that we’re on their side in their community economically, as well as culturally, to keep the trajectory away from Labour and to the Conservatives on course as we build the Blue Wall.

Henry Hill: If Gove and Johnson want to save Britain, they’re going to have to use the word ‘Britain’

30 Jul

Gove digs out Better Together’s greatest hits as Davidson heads to the Lords

Michael Gove has been in Scotland this week, fronting a new push by the Cabinet to raise the Government’s profile north of the border ahead of next year’s Holyrood vote – with a particular focus on the under-35s.

Following polls which suggest that independence is not a priority for the Scottish electorate, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has said that he will not be ‘distracted’ by those showing majority support for breaking up Britain.

He has also adopted an identifiable style – perhaps informed by Downing Street polling – which appears to be setting the tone for the pro-UK effort. It includes repeatedly stressing that devolution is not only ‘working’ but, in a phrase dredged up from 2014, offers “the best of both worlds”.

As I wrote for the Daily Telegraph this week, this is a tactical position with huge strategic dangers. The insistence that ‘devolution is working‘ makes it difficult to attack the SNP’s many failures, or to answer the separatists when they pose the simple question of why, if Holyrood is using all these powers so well, should it not have even more?

Worse still, Gove’s article for the Times makes repeated references to the “four nations” and “different nations” of the UK, but doesn’t mention ‘Britain’ or ‘British’ once. It bodes ill for any effort to build an ’emotional case’ for the Union if Cabinet ministers dare not speak the nation’s name.

Ruth Davidson, however, has struck a different note to this softly-softly approach, suggesting that Unionists should have been more combative and “put the boot in” to the SNP in the aftermath of the 2014 vote. This comes as the Press & Journal reports SNP fears that she is being elevated to the Lords to launch high-profile attacks on them (surely a reasonable assumption).

With the Government preparing to face down the Scottish Government over control of the British internal market, and another row brewing over the proposed ‘Shared Prosperity Fund’, the best that can be hoped is that Gove is speaking softly so as not to draw attention to a big, big stick. Or boot.

New parties shaking up the unionist and separatist camps in Scotland

With the possibility of a second independence referendum possibly riding on the results of next year’s Scottish Parliament elections (although it shouldn’t), the stakes are extremely high – and have tempted new entrants into the ring.

In the nationalist corner is the new Alliance for Independence. This has been set up with the express intention of gaming Holyrood’s electoral system by contesting only the list vote, attracting vast numbers of SNP second preferences, and delivering a separatist supermajority next year.

However it has already become a locus for deeper tensions within the independence movement, with Nationalist figures dissatisfied with Nicola Sturgeon’s safety-first strategy rallying to its defence. There are also concerns that it could become a vehicle for Alex Salmond to stage his next comeback.

(On a related note, the Daily Record reports that the Scottish Government is set to miss an important deadline for turning over documents to the inquiry into the debacle with the former First Minister.)

On the pro-UK side, meanwhile, is George Galloway’s Alliance 4 Unity. This is an explicitly ecumenical effort, distinct from his Workers Party GB: he has openly stated that he will work with Tories in the name of defeating the SNP, and attracted candidates from a range of backgrounds to stand under the A4U banner.

Despite that, Galloway’s big opening might be on the left, exploiting the gap in the market created by the moribund Scottish Labour Party (more below) and wooing Lab-Nat switchers tempted by the radical promises of independence supporters.

Crack in DUP unity as Foster spurs rebellion over Stormont changes

A major crack in the discipline of the Democratic Unionist Party appeared this week, when Arlene Foster found herself facing the largest Stormont rebellion in the Party’s history.

The revolt was staged over a controversial bill intended to give increased powers to individual ministers in Northern Ireland’s power-sharing executive, the News Letter reports. The move has been pushed through by the DUP and Sinn Fein, whilst being opposed by the Ulster Unionists.

Senior DUP figures have accused the First Minister of trading away important safeguards secured for Unionism at previous negotiations. Outside observers have also suggested that it will increase the exposure of Executive decisions to legal challenge.

If this comes to pass, it will join the St Andrews Agreement in the line of Stormont fouling itself up with self-directed reform.

BBC urged to drop Sturgeon’s ‘political broadcasts’

The BBC has been urged to stop broadcasting Nicola Sturgeon’s coronavirus press briefings on the basis that she is using them for party political purposes.

According to the HeraldScottish Labour have demanded a meeting with the head of BBC Scotland and claim that the broadcasts are “in breach of the Charter of the BBC”. The Tories have made the same claim – in their case slightly awkwardly, as the Prime Minister is in the process of trying to set up a similar press briefing at Westminster.

Sturgeon has been accused of misrepresenting Scotland’s Covid-19 statistics, and downplaying the scandal in Scottish care homes revealed by the BBC.

Labour veteran calls on Leonard to step down ‘for the Party’

Lord Foulkes has called on Richard Leonard, the leader of the Scottish Labour Party, to step aside ahead of next year’s Scottish Parliament electons, the Daily Record reports.

The peer, a former MP and MSP, suggests that Jackie Baillie, the punchy and relatively right-wing deputy leader, could take over on an interim basis for the 2021 campaign.

Leonard is a left-winger who was a close ally of Jeremy Corbyn. His leadership has seen a fresh waning in the Party’s fortunes, losing all but one of its MPs (again) at the 2019 election and fifth place at the final European elections. Labour are currently bumping along at 15 per cent in the Holyrood polls.

Henry Hill: If Gove and Johnson want to save Britain, they’re going to have to use the word ‘Britain’

30 Jul

Gove digs out Better Together’s greatest hits as Davidson heads to the Lords

Michael Gove has been in Scotland this week, fronting a new push by the Cabinet to raise the Government’s profile north of the border ahead of next year’s Holyrood vote – with a particular focus on the under-35s.

Following polls which suggest that independence is not a priority for the Scottish electorate, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has said that he will not be ‘distracted’ by those showing majority support for breaking up Britain.

He has also adopted an identifiable style – perhaps informed by Downing Street polling – which appears to be setting the tone for the pro-UK effort. It includes repeatedly stressing that devolution is not only ‘working’ but, in a phrase dredged up from 2014, offers “the best of both worlds”.

As I wrote for the Daily Telegraph this week, this is a tactical position with huge strategic dangers. The insistence that ‘devolution is working‘ makes it difficult to attack the SNP’s many failures, or to answer the separatists when they pose the simple question of why, if Holyrood is using all these powers so well, should it not have even more?

Worse still, Gove’s article for the Times makes repeated references to the “four nations” and “different nations” of the UK, but doesn’t mention ‘Britain’ or ‘British’ once. It bodes ill for any effort to build an ’emotional case’ for the Union if Cabinet ministers dare not speak the nation’s name.

Ruth Davidson, however, has struck a different note to this softly-softly approach, suggesting that Unionists should have been more combative and “put the boot in” to the SNP in the aftermath of the 2014 vote. This comes as the Press & Journal reports SNP fears that she is being elevated to the Lords to launch high-profile attacks on them (surely a reasonable assumption).

With the Government preparing to face down the Scottish Government over control of the British internal market, and another row brewing over the proposed ‘Shared Prosperity Fund’, the best that can be hoped is that Gove is speaking softly so as not to draw attention to a big, big stick. Or boot.

New parties shaking up the unionist and separatist camps in Scotland

With the possibility of a second independence referendum possibly riding on the results of next year’s Scottish Parliament elections (although it shouldn’t), the stakes are extremely high – and have tempted new entrants into the ring.

In the nationalist corner is the new Alliance for Independence. This has been set up with the express intention of gaming Holyrood’s electoral system by contesting only the list vote, attracting vast numbers of SNP second preferences, and delivering a separatist supermajority next year.

However it has already become a locus for deeper tensions within the independence movement, with Nationalist figures dissatisfied with Nicola Sturgeon’s safety-first strategy rallying to its defence. There are also concerns that it could become a vehicle for Alex Salmond to stage his next comeback.

(On a related note, the Daily Record reports that the Scottish Government is set to miss an important deadline for turning over documents to the inquiry into the debacle with the former First Minister.)

On the pro-UK side, meanwhile, is George Galloway’s Alliance 4 Unity. This is an explicitly ecumenical effort, distinct from his Workers Party GB: he has openly stated that he will work with Tories in the name of defeating the SNP, and attracted candidates from a range of backgrounds to stand under the A4U banner.

Despite that, Galloway’s big opening might be on the left, exploiting the gap in the market created by the moribund Scottish Labour Party (more below) and wooing Lab-Nat switchers tempted by the radical promises of independence supporters.

Crack in DUP unity as Foster spurs rebellion over Stormont changes

A major crack in the discipline of the Democratic Unionist Party appeared this week, when Arlene Foster found herself facing the largest Stormont rebellion in the Party’s history.

The revolt was staged over a controversial bill intended to give increased powers to individual ministers in Northern Ireland’s power-sharing executive, the News Letter reports. The move has been pushed through by the DUP and Sinn Fein, whilst being opposed by the Ulster Unionists.

Senior DUP figures have accused the First Minister of trading away important safeguards secured for Unionism at previous negotiations. Outside observers have also suggested that it will increase the exposure of Executive decisions to legal challenge.

If this comes to pass, it will join the St Andrews Agreement in the line of Stormont fouling itself up with self-directed reform.

BBC urged to drop Sturgeon’s ‘political broadcasts’

The BBC has been urged to stop broadcasting Nicola Sturgeon’s coronavirus press briefings on the basis that she is using them for party political purposes.

According to the HeraldScottish Labour have demanded a meeting with the head of BBC Scotland and claim that the broadcasts are “in breach of the Charter of the BBC”. The Tories have made the same claim – in their case slightly awkwardly, as the Prime Minister is in the process of trying to set up a similar press briefing at Westminster.

Sturgeon has been accused of misrepresenting Scotland’s Covid-19 statistics, and downplaying the scandal in Scottish care homes revealed by the BBC.

Labour veteran calls on Leonard to step down ‘for the Party’

Lord Foulkes has called on Richard Leonard, the leader of the Scottish Labour Party, to step aside ahead of next year’s Scottish Parliament electons, the Daily Record reports.

The peer, a former MP and MSP, suggests that Jackie Baillie, the punchy and relatively right-wing deputy leader, could take over on an interim basis for the 2021 campaign.

Leonard is a left-winger who was a close ally of Jeremy Corbyn. His leadership has seen a fresh waning in the Party’s fortunes, losing all but one of its MPs (again) at the 2019 election and fifth place at the final European elections. Labour are currently bumping along at 15 per cent in the Holyrood polls.

Remainers cannot re-write history: it is Covid-19, not Brexit, that challenges the Union

24 Jul

During the EU referendum campaign, it was an article of faith amongst Remainers that a vote to stay in the EU was a vote to protect the Union.

Brexiteer unionists, including those of us who wrote on the subject for this site, were accused of allowing our preoccupation with Europe to put at risk the very existence of the United Kingdom.

There are few excuses for continuing to indulge this myth in 2020. But such is its extraordinary staying power that Lewis Goodall, of Newsnight, has accrued thousands of likes for a short Twitter thread extolling this decayed orthodoxy.

This is undoubtedly a challenging period for the UK. But trying to stretch the fallout from Covid-19 to retrospectively validate the Remain position on the Union is re-writing history. So let’s set the record straight, again.

First, one can only assume that when Goodall writes that “few answers were/are forthcoming” from Brexiteer unionists about the potential impact of leaving the EU, he is not an assiduous reader of this site. We set out detailed cases for why voters should be sceptical about the doom-laden predictions of the Remain campaign in relation both to Scotland and to Wales.

Our central point was that EU membership actually made it much easier to break up the Union, both by providing a high ceiling for ongoing relations and legal harmonisation post-divorce and by laundering British cash (as a net contributor) back into Scotland and Wales as ‘EU funds’.

Disagree with this if you wish – people did – but it is therefore simply inaccurate to claim that there wasn’t a perfectly serviceable unionist justification for Brexit.

Moreover, in the years since this was borne out by events. Nicola Sturgeon came out hard for a second referendum the morning after the referendum but soon found herself beached, marooned by the failure of Scottish public opinion to follow her cue.

In fact (and again, as we covered at the time) the SNP went on to become a committed partner in the ‘Stop Brexit’ coalition precisely because they recognised how difficult Britain’s departure from the EU would make their project. The key quotation again:

“Labour could well find an ally in the Scottish Nationalists. A senior SNP figure told me this week that Scottish independence all but depends on Brexit being cancelled: without the economic safety net of the single market, Scots won’t risk a leap out of the UK. Only a second EU vote could provide that reassurance.”

The fact that more recent circumstances, specifically the massive pandemic, have revived the SNP’s fortunes should not mean that Remainers get to throw the above down the memory hole and re-write 2016-19 to bolster their original, threadbare thesis.

Henry Hill: Davies touts ‘devolution revolution’ as the Welsh Tories try to shield their unionist flank

23 Jul

Davies says Wales needs a ‘devolution revolution’

The leader of the Welsh Conservatives has pledged a ‘devolution revolution’ and to give Cardiff Bay a ‘dose of Dom’ in his latest bid to avoid being outflanked by organised devoscepticism.

ITV Wales reports that Paul Davies made the remarks in a ‘virtual speech’ – available on YouTube – to Conservative activists ahead of next year’s elections to the Welsh Parliament.

Other sources report that the Welsh Tories’ new election strategy aims at tackling the long-standing problem this column has covered previously: mobilising Conservative voters who only vote at Westminster and in local elections to turn out for the Senedd. As I wrote two years ago:

“Secondly, both candidates would do well to address the severe disadvantage their Party suffers because hundreds of thousands of its voters do not vote in devolved elections. In 2016 the Tories polled just 215,000 votes, compared to over 400,000 in 2015 and almost 530,000 in 2017.”

Tory strategists have now set themselves the target of mobilising 75 per cent of their general election vote (557,234 in 2019) for the devolved contest, which if successful would almost double their 2016 vote to just under 418,000. For comparison, Labour’s majority-winning Senedd vote in 2016 was just under 354,000.

All this is the latest evidence that the advent of organised opposition to the Welsh Parliament is already shifting the balance of power inside the Conservative Party. The leadership remains firmly in the hands of the ‘devophiles’, but their new slogan – ‘Abolish Labour, not devolution’ – suggests they fear they’re on borrowed time.

Johnson funds research for the ‘Boris Bridge’ as he steps up campaigning in Scotland

News that the Prime Minister intends to embark on a tour of Scotland has probably not brought unconfined joy to unionists north of the border, but it remains infinitely preferable that he fights the good fight than not.

Following a week in which the Government squared up to the devolved administrations over the future of post-Brexit market regulations (with very good reason, and as we covered last week), this morning’s papers carry several stories on Boris Johnson’s pro-UK fightback, with the role of the Treasury in supporting the Scottish economy through the pandemic front and centre.

He has also apparently approved funds for a feasibility study into his proposal for the ‘Boris Bridge’ between Scotland and Northern Ireland. It still seems extremely unlikely it will be built, however, especially once the Government has to start making cuts to pay for all the Covid-19 spending.

MPs set up new ‘Union Research Group’

More evidence that the Tories are marshalling their forces in the Times this week, which covered the emergence of the new Conservative Union Research Group.

This new body is chaired by Robin Millar, the MP for Aberconwy, and aims to bring together backbench MPs to help support the Government as it prepares to take on Nicola Sturgeon and the devocrats. It reportedly already has the backing of around 40 backbenchers.

Although modelled on the European Research Group’s template, which has the virtue of being approved by IPSA, CURG sources emphasise that it is not intended to be a ‘party within a party’ or agitate against the Government. Defending the Union was in the Conservative manifesto in 2019, so it expects to be working with the grain of the leadership.

It isn’t yet clear whether or not the group will have any relationships with other parties – ERG membership is open to the Democratic Unionists – or how precisely it will operate. Watch this space.

Trouble at Stormont as ruling parties try to push through changes

There has been a new fight in Northern Ireland over proposed changes to the Assembly being pushed by Sinn Fein and the DUP, according to the News Letter.

On Tuesday the Assembly took just ten minutes to vote through the crucial stage of legislation which will increase the powers of ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive. Arlene Foster, the First Minister and DUP leader, has been accused of making a “massive error” based on a mistaken understanding of the law in question by a senior adviser who has now left the party.

Experts also warn that the changes are likely to lead to more legal challenges against Stormont decisions, contrary to the assertions of both Foster and Michelle O’Neill, her Sinn Fein counterpart.

Meanwhile, Ulster and the Republic have also revived joint ministerial talks, the FT reports, as the new Taoiseach tries to build bridges following the departure of Leo Varadkar.

Henry Hill: Reserving control of ‘level playing field’ provisions to Westminster should be just the first step

16 Jul

Government’s fight over post-Brexit powers is late, but welcome

The big constitutional story this week is the news that the Government is squaring up to the devolved administrations over control of vital ex-EU powers.

According to the Financial Times, Boris Johnson intends to retain control over ‘level playing field’ provisions and state aid at Westminster, in order to prevent different parts of the United Kingdom undermining each other. This has revived specious claims by Edinburgh and Cardiff that London is engaged in a ‘power grab’, seizing powers which are rightfully theirs.

The Scottish Conservatives have come out fighting for the pro-UK position: Ruth Davidson has penned an op-ed in the Evening Standard supporting the move. Douglas Ross, who recently resigned from the Scottish Office, challenged the SNP on this basis:

“If it is a power grab there most be powers currently held by the Scottish Parliament, enacted by the Scottish Government on behalf of the people of Scotland that we the UK Government are taking away.”

Luke Graham, the former MP for Ochil and South Perthshire and now head of Downing Street’s Union Unit, has taken the same line: that these powers have never been devolved (indeed Holyrood was only established after many were already vested in Brussels), so there is no attack on devolution.

This is a welcome shift in position. During the pivotal clash over the misnamed “post-Brexit devolved powers” in 2017 and 2018, several leading Scottish Tories were at the forefront of the campaign to force the Government to scrap the part of the Withdrawal Bill safeguarding ex-EU powers in Westminster. Indeed, senior MSPs lent credence to the ‘power grab’ claim.

Defenders of Section 11 of the Withdrawal Bill, as-was, advanced detailed arguments about the dangers posed by ceding powers necessary to harmonise a common market below the highest level of political authority in that market, and were met with little more than airy rhetoric about the “spirit of devolution”.

Whilst some, such as the Institute for Government, believe the new, more centralised approach is “not a sustainable long-term strategy”, in fact the reverse is true.

It is not sustainable to continue trying to deliver pan-UK rules whilst bending over backwards to avoid our pan-UK institutions setting and enforcing them. It should be taken as read that any devolved administration committed to breaking up Britain will exploit any opportunity to foul up the proper functioning of the UK common market, whether that be through setting different standards or exploiting new consultation and dispute-resolution mechanisms as platforms for grievance.

Any power previously exercised at the EU level should, by default, be executed at the UK level. They were, after all, passed upwards for a reason. Ministers should re-acquaint themselves with the arguments over Section 11, and consider casting their powers net much wider yet.

Separatists attempt to game Holyrood elections with new party

An ex-SNP MSP has set up a new pro-independence party, with the aim of hugely inflating the number of separatist MSPs returned at the next Holyrood elections.

STV reports that the Alliance for Independence anticipates that it might win up to 24 MSPs by running exclusively for the Scottish Parliament’s ‘list’ constituencies.

Under the Scottish electoral system, voters cast two ballots: one for their geographical first-part-the-post constituency, and another for a regional list. When the parties contest both, the list vote is used to ‘top up’ those parties which under-performed under FPTP and ensure something resembling a proportional outcome.

But if the Alliance for Independence only contest list seats, and SNP voters lend it their support en masse, it could result in the ‘official Nationalists’ winning most of the constituencies and the ‘unofficial nationalists’ a huge share of the list, resulting in a chamber in which the unionist parties were seriously under-represented compared to their vote.

Some commentators, such as Kenny Farquharson, have argued that this would undermine the legitimacy of the resulting parliament – a possible boon to the Government if it truly intends to resist calls for a second referendum (as it should). Rory Scothorne, writing on a pro-independence site, sums up the approach as ‘magical thinking’.

There may also be more to the AfI than gerry-mandering. The SNP civil war, which David Leask profiled a couple of months ago, rages on. A new separatist party could provide a rallying point for Nicola Sturgeon’s internal opponents and provide a vehicle for Alex Salmond’s latest re-entry into politics.

On the other side of the argument, George Galloway is carving himself a space in unionist politics with the launch of his new ‘Alliance for Unity’. Based on the Scottish branch of his new Workers Party of Britain, it will provide a vehicle for his particular brand of energetic, left-wing unionism.

Galloway’s decision to return to Scotland and contest elections there might be bad news for Scottish Labour, the ailing giant of the left-unionist quadrant of Scottish politics. But who knows, perhaps the WPB will confine itself to the lists…

Brexit Party shift to anti-Senedd stance

There is now a three-way battle for the votes of Wales’ sizeable devosceptic minority. Mark Reckless, the leader of the Brexit Party’s MS group, has made it his party’s policy to scrap the Senedd.

Whilst differing in detail from the position of rival groups – Reckless’ plan is to hand the Welsh Parliament’s powers to Welsh MPs, rather than wholesale reintegration – this puts him in contention both with the rump of UKIP, led by Neil Hamilton, and the new Abolish the Welsh Assembly Party.

Dividing this vote, which is already reluctant to even turn out for devolved contests, may provide a short-term boost to the Conservatives. But should one of the three emerge triumphant it could pose a serious threat on the Tories’ right-unionist flank.

Op-eds:

  • Sunak was right to bypass the SNP with UK-wide splurge – Alan Cochrane, Daily Telegraph
  • Devolution is dragging the UK’s economic recovery down – Matt Smith, CapX
  • Six things the Conservatives need to do now – Andrew Waddell, The Majority
  • The Union is in graver danger than ever – James Forsyth, The Spectator
  • Stand up for the Union or lose it – Stephen Daisley, Website
  • Sturgeon’s quarantine threat is an anti-English dog whistle – Henry Hill, Daily Telegraph

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.