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‘Boris Johnson was right on devolution being a disaster’, says David Cameron’s former advisor

20 Feb 2021 4 minutes Read
Westminster. Picture by Maurice (CC BY 2.0) The Senedd building. Holyrrod by Kim Traynor (CC BY-SA 3.0). Stormont by Robert Paul Young (CC BY 2.0).

Boris Johnson was right when he said devolution was a “disaster”, according to a former advisor to David Cameron.

Camilla Cavendish, who was head of the Downing Street policy unit in the Cameron government, agreed with the current UK Prime Minister that creating the devolved parliaments had been “Tony Blair’s biggest mistake” because it has “inflamed” nationalism.

In a column for the Financial Times, she claimed that the union has functioned “poorly” during the pandemic because the Welsh and Scottish governments have insisted on “tighter lockdown policies”.

Cavendish dismissed suggestions that the UK should move to a more federal model that would “make Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland self-governing countries in a more equal partnership”. She described the idea as “unworkable” because “England had roughly eight in 10 of the people”.

However, the columnist did say that a new “constitutional settlement” where “suitable powers” were devolved, was necessary to avert the breakup of the UK, but that it should “reassert a British identity and keep ultimate sovereignty at Westminster.”

She said: “Prime Minister Boris Johnson stated this week that Scottish devolution has ‘absolutely not overall’ been a disaster.

“He was trying to distance himself from leaked remarks in November when he told English Tory MPs that devolution had been ‘Tony Blair’s biggest mistake’.

“But he was right at the time. Blair’s attempts to defuse nationalism simply inflamed it. Johnson’s contortions show how powerful the nationalists have become.

“As a half-Scot, I have sympathy with the desire to assert distinct identities. Yet I have been dismayed to see how poorly the Union has functioned during the pandemic.

“What should have been a UK-wide effort to combat the virus fell into blaming and squabbling, with the Welsh and Scottish administrations insisting on tighter lockdown policies while relying on financial support from the central government in London.

“With the Scottish Nationalist party pressing for a second referendum on independence if they win Scotland’s May elections, Johnson must decide whether he has the courage to rewrite the constitutional settlement.

“This cannot be fudged: the prospects for ‘global Britain’ are unravelling, just when the UK is vulnerable in the world.”

‘Placate the nationalists’ 

She added: “Some of those who want to preserve the Union are urging Westminster to placate the nationalists with something that looks more federal.

“This would make Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland self-governing countries in a more equal partnership, co-operating on shared matters.

“There is logic in the argument that a big offer is needed, since throwing small bones has not quelled the separatist fervour.

“As former prime minister Gordon Brown has pointed out, the principle of localism is sound: the over-centralisation of power in London hampers local authorities and elected mayors.

“But it would be an unworkable federation in which England had roughly eight in 10 of the people and an even higher percentage of gross domestic product.

“This would necessitate England’s division into regions, something which voters rejected under Blair.

“It would be a recipe for more layers of government and bureaucracy and more hands held out for subsidies — with the added frustration that the model could make Scotland quasi-independent without having to muster its own military, create its own currency or pay its own way.

“Clearly, Brexit has changed the equation by riding roughshod over Scottish desires to remain in the EU and boosting pro-independence sentiment.

“One answer would be to introduce a new Act of Union: a much crisper settlement with clear accountabilities.

“This would define the UK as a unitary state with suitable powers devolved and with due respect for each nation’s identity. But it would also reassert a British identity and keep ultimate sovereignty at Westminster.”

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