Boris Johnson’s ‘devolution was a mistake’ comments show he has no idea how to save the UK

Boris Johnson. Picture by Cancillería Argentina (CC BY 2.0).

Ifan Morgan Jones

The UK feels doomed at the moment. I base that perception not on the surge in the polls for Scottish independence, or YesCymru doubling its membership in two weeks.

No, what has convinced me that the UK will now almost inevitably come apart is that those in charge of it demonstrate, time and time again, that they have no idea how to keep it together.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s latest intervention, in which he called devolution a “disaster” and “Tony Blair’s biggest mistake” has made this entirely clear.

The UK Government had been very careful in its denials that it was trying to roll back devolution, even if it was obvious to anyone paying attention that the Internal Market Bill did just that.

But there was always some plausible deniability involved, and the sense at least that if devolution was weakened it was a side-effect of Brexit rather than a deliberate ploy.

The Welsh and Scottish Conservatives have also been extremely careful to back devolution, talking about reform rather than full abolishment.

Unfortunately for them, Boris Johnson has waded in now and said the quiet part out loud. For all of No 10’s denials and claims that “devolution is great” it is clear that what the Prime Minister told a group of northern MPs was his honestly held opinion.

His comments are an absolute godsend to the SNP in Scotland and YesCymru in Wales because it allows them to frame the choice facing voters as a binary one:

Either you vote for independence and fully secure the nation as an autonomous unit, or the Tories will drag you kicking and screaming back under full Westminster rule.

And this argument will be effective because all opinion polls suggest that, while they have reservations about independence, the people of Wales and Scotland prefer their own governments to the UK Government.

 

Brink

Most dangerously for the future of the UK, Boris Johnson’s comments also confirm the view that the Conservatives think that the best way to stop independence is to scrap devolution.

This complete misunderstanding of the situation is the engine that has powered the Welsh and Scottish independence movements since their parliaments were set up 20 years ago.

The vicious circle at work here is that Conservatives think that it is devolution breaking the UK apart when it is actually their own threat to devolution that is breaking the UK apart.

Many other nations across the globe, including the US, Australia, India, Germany and many more have survived completely intact with their own autonomous parliaments.

The difference between them and the UK? That there is no ever-present threat that Mississipi, or Bavaria, or even New South Wales, are going to have their powers taken away by the central-state.

Boris Johnson’s second misunderstanding is clear in his claim that devolution was a “mistake” by Tony Blair. This ignores the fact that Blair was no fan of devolution but was simply responding to a demand for devolution.

And that pent up demand was thanks in no part to a sense that Wales and Scotland had been neglected or unfairly targeted during the preceding 18 years of Conservative government.

Devolution is not something Westminster could choose to give and can equally choose to take away, and the suggestion that it is, betrays exactly the same over-centralised thinking that has pushed the UK to the brink.

Sell

Ultimately, there is only one way to save the UK: by giving Wales and Scotland three things – power, security, and attention.

Rather than dictate to the people of Wales and Scotland what they need, ask them what they want.

They give them want they want and draw up a set of cast-iron rules that make it clear that, under no circumstances, will Westminster lay a finger on those powers.

If Scotland were given some measure of devo-max and a constitutional guarantee that those powers would never be taken away, independence would be an extremely hard sell.

If the UK Government were to demonstrate for five minutes that they care what goes on outside the south-east of England, independence would be a hard sell.

But they won’t do either of these things, because they never have, and that’s why we’re in the situation we’re in.

Forget the hard sell – in his complete misreading of the situation, Boris Johnson seems to want to make things very easy for the SNP and YesCymru, not hard.

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