Illustrations by Hannah Robinson
For better or worse, our family of nations remains united. We squabble. We bicker. And we would probably describe ourselves as dysfunctional. But what has so far prevented the country from drifting apart? And how strong are the bonds holding our United Kingdom together?
As Tony Blair himself commented twenty years after the beginning of devolution, the move in 1999 was “necessary politically”. Indeed, to some extent, it was just a reactionary move to placate the nippy nationalists, who had been biting at his heels for more power. It was to “ward off the bigger threat of secession”.
And then like some over-bearing mother hen resentfully doling out her portions, Westminster began the process of seceding powers.
I think it is incredibly unhelpful and largely inaccurate to describe devolution as some temporary fix; as some ungrateful toddler getting their way. This is especially true as we find ourselves in a state of national crisis. Now is not the time to reignite disputes; the finger-pointing and political argy-bargy that comes with the devolution settlement.
Indeed, whether you believe in a highly centralised government or feel that devolution does not go far enough, perhaps the middle ground can offer the best of both worlds.
Facing the imposing threat of the COVID-19 pandemic and seeing the rising death toll, the UK government imposed a nationwide lockdown. But we are now in a position where we find ourselves facing different lockdown rules for different parts of the country.
Boris Johnson’s address to the nation, as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, saw the dropping of the “stay at home” message in favour of the “stay alert” message. Plans were made to begin lifting the lockdown.
By contrast, the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all continue to project the “stay at home” message. In her daily press briefing Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said: “I don’t know what stay alert means”.
Tensions are indeed rising. Mr Johnson refuses to admit his advice only applies to England and Sturgeon, has called his decision “potentially catastrophic”. As of Thursday, the First Minister announced a four-phase “route map”, outlining a cautious easing of the lockdown which is to be rolled out over the coming weeks. It is clear that the Scottish administration is, understandably, set on dealing with the pandemic in the way that best benefits Scotland.
Yet, surely regional flexibility is a key strength of devolution and indeed our Union?
Take for example Gateshead Council, situated within the North-East, which is currently the worst affected area in England, according to the notorious “R” number that refers to the infection rate. At present, this number is also higher in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The Leader of Gateshead Council’s is urging people in the North-East to disregard the new UK Government advice. A council spokesperson himself commented that they would run things differently than the rest of England as a whole if they had the same powers as the devolved legislatures.
Whilst a coordinated, united response is preferred, surely it is a good thing that differently affected regions can have flexibility in how they tackle the crisis.
Central government should stop undermining devolution and the powers of local councils, by refusing to recognise that their advice concerning social distancing only extends as far as England. Certainly, the Conservatives are typically viewed as the party of the Union. Reducing friction with devolved legislatures by respecting their rulings and seeking clarity is surely far more beneficial in terms of strengthening our Union. It is also, of course, not right for this issue to be politicised for the benefit of secessionist movements.
So why can’t this be a story of the best of both worlds? Scotland remains part of a powerful union of countries which provides economic prosperity and national security. Consider especially where most of Scotland’s trade exports go. Our nation also has a Parliament which can respond to regionalised issues. From free personal care for the elderly to the abolition of tuition fees, the Scottish Parliament reflects Scottish needs.
As such, devolution is an asset of our Union. We have a strong Scottish Parliament as part of a strong United Kingdom. A proud individual in an (albeit squabbling) family of equals.