Despite what the SNP says, devolved institutions are British institutions and part of our wider political unity. Yet it is clear that most MPs and MSPs, of all parties, do not properly understand the purpose of "devolution" nor the actual constitutional basis upon which it is founded, and the subsequent relationship between the British Parliament and its devolved arms. This article explains all these things:
1. The Purpose of Devolution
Without making a judgement on whether devolution is a good idea or a bad idea, the intended purpose is to compensate for the minority representation of MPs from Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, in relation to those from England, in the collective British Parliament.
For example, the number of MPs from England is 533 out of 650. SNP-types will complain that all the MPs in England could outvote Scotland (59) Wales (40) and Northern Ireland (18) together, by over 4 and a half times.
However, this never happens because MPs vote on party and ideological lines. They do not vote on national lines.
That is, Parliament votes on Tory v Labour v Lib Dem v SNP v DUP v Plaid v Other lines. Parties can also split as a result of ideological difference, and Tories can vote against Tories, Labour against Labour, and so on.
So, the reality is that Scotland never gets "outvoted" because no countries get outvoted. There is never an "England versus Scotland" split! It is political parties, and ideological tendencies which get outvoted at Westminster.
SNP-types have always been fixated on this mythical "England versus Scotland" voting split which never happens. The reason is because they like to think that the SNP is Scotland, and so when the SNP gets outvoted, they see it as "Scotland" being somehow outvoted!
Unionist-minded people don't think of the British Parliament in this "country versus country" way.
Our ideal is that all the MPs consider, and vote for, the best interests of all the United Kingdom taken together as one.
Nevertheless, to the extent that this became an issue – due to the rise of Scottish nationalism – then devolution was intended to compensate for this imbalance of numbers by giving Scotland control over certain powers which could be exercised at the Scottish level, without it causing problems for the wider United Kingdom.
This is also why England does not have a "devolved English Parliament". Nobody was suggesting it at the time because the whole point of devolution was to compensate for the imbalance in numbers from England in Westminster.
The idea of devolution might have made more sense were it not for the fact that Scotland already had a very vocal separatist movement! At the time of the devolution referendum on 11 September 1997, many of us feared that if a platform was built for the SNP to exploit, then it would only be a matter of time before they came to dominate it, and use it against the centre!
In other words, devolution might work "to strengthen the Union" in the absence of separatist movements, but it can be dangerous to the integrity of the State in the presence of these movements.
OK, now that we understand the intended purpose of devolution, let's look at how it is intended to work in practice.
This requires us first to understand the constitutional basis of the United Kingdom, so we can then understand how the devolved powers relate outwards from this basis.
2. The Constitutional Basis: The UK is a Unitary State
That is, the UK is "a sovereign state governed as a single entity in which the central government is the supreme authority." This is the definition of "Unitary State" on Wikipedia.
The Scottish "government", under the SNPGreen administration, do not want to believe that the UK is a Unitary State. They get their civil servants to write papers which entirely misrepresent the actual constitutional basis and relationship, and which tell us that Scotland is not part of a Unitary State.
See for example, the statement that Scotland is "not a region of a unitary state" on this July 2022 report which was written by civil servants who have been co-opted by the SNP to promote their anti-UK agenda.
By suggesting that the UK does not have the cohesion and constitutional integrity of a Unitary State – but is somehow just a loose association of different nations who are putting up with each other for the time being, and just for as long as it suits their own purposes – then the SNPGreens are deliberately misrepresenting the constitutional relationship as conditional (meaning, dependent upon everyone being happy with the way things are at the time)!
This creates a very weak and fragile constitutional relationship. It suggests that the ties that bind are very frayed! It makes it much easier to break up. Understanding the relationship as conditional makes it easier to promote a divisive, separatist agenda.
On the other hand, understanding the UK as a Unitary State helps contribute to its cohesion and permanence.
By the way, we've written extensively as to why the British Civil Service should not be co-opted on British Taxpayers' money in order to promote policies deliberately intended to destroy the British State itself!
3. The Devolutionary Relationship
Following on from the fact that we are literally a Unitary State, then devolution is best understood as British State Power exercised by Subsidiary Arms of the British Political Body.
Holyrood, Cardiff and Stormont are the Arms of the British Political Body. They are intimately connected with, and they are intended to be for, the overall health and assistance of the British Body.
In this way, Holyrood is properly understood as a British institution in Scotland, which is exercising powers which have flowed down from the central, collective British Parliament at Westminster which itself represents every single person, and all parts, in our UK.
Holyrood is in a vertical not horizontal relationship; in a hierarchical, not level, relationship. It is not on an equivalent plane of political power.
The subsidiary bodies exercise certain powers, but the relationship requires them to defer to the central British Parliament when necessary.
That's the theory at least. That's what devolution is meant to be about. Indeed, we were told that "devolution would strengthen the Union".
That may have been the intention, but once devolution was established, there was little thought given to the practice, and to the danger of such institutions being captured by separatist movements.
There was little done to embed Holyrood intimately with the British Parliament.
Almost from the start, and certainly after the SNP arrived in 2007 to exploit the lack of understanding, there has been a fiction that Holyrood is some kind of pseudo-independent body existing on an equivalent level, and in natural opposition, to the central British State.
Today, the SNP seek to portray Holyrood as an opponent to the British Parliament, on the same plane of political power. They will not accept that it is more properly understood as an arm of the British Parliamentary governing structure in Scotland.
4. Use Proper Terminology: Do not Mislabel, Misrepresent and Confuse the Constitutional Relationship
The correct understanding of the devolutionary relationship was thrown into further confusion when Alex Salmond changed the name of the "Scottish Executive" to "Scottish Government", thereby suggesting that it was a "government" on the same level of political power as Westminster.
He did this because he could! Nobody had thought to write down that he couldn't (see below).
This has led many people to misunderstand the devolved constitutional relationship.
After all, if you presume that the Scottish "government" must be on the same plane of political power as the British government, then of course you are going to wonder why the Scottish "government" is not getting its way all the time!
It will lead you to believe that the only reason the Scottish "government" does not have the powers of the apparently equivalent British government, must be something to do with it being denied its rightful powers!
Hence the reason we have people who imagine that an SNPGreen majority at Holyrood is somehow a "mandate" to have a referendum to break up Britain.
Hence the reason we have people genuinely confused as to why Holyrood cannot hold a referendum to break up Britain without the agreement of the central British Parliament.
Over time, such deliberate constitutional mislabelling and misrepresentation has only succeeded in a confusion which feeds the separatist grievance machine.
A Lesson in How to Describe and Label Properly
As far as the British Parliament is concerned, there has been no consistent effort to explain the correct constitutional relationship. Indeed, the British Government is as guilty as anyone in promoting the confusion.
We see it every day, and it needs to change!
For example, every time the British Government uses the phrase "our two Governments" then they only add to the confusion. How can you have two heads on one body?
Every time a pro-UK MP talks about "the Scottish government" instead of stressing "the devolved Scottish government" then they miss a teaching moment, and they compound the problem.
Every time the Prime Minister criticises "the Scottish Government" for doing something wrong, then he misses an open goal to specifically draw attention to his political opponents by name.
Let's give you a For Instance!
In an article in the Daily Telegraph, the PM Rishi Sunak was quoted as saying:
"What we do now know is that the Scottish Government does not want to support the Scottish energy industry and the 200,000 jobs that it produces."
Simon Johnson "PM accuses Sturgeon of abandoning the North Sea",
The Daily Telegraph (Scottish edition), 12-1-23.
His point is absolutely correct, but problems include:
a) his rhetoric is inaccurately conflating "the Scottish Government" onto a par with the British Government; and
b) by criticising "the Scottish" Government he is subliminally criticising the word "Scottish"; and
c) he is absolutely missing the target which is the SNP and Green coalition, who are also his political rivals.
People in Scotland want to hear him strongly calling out "Sturgeon, the SNP and the Greens". The phrase "Scottish Government" is far too abstract and removed from our daily experience to hit home.
So let's rephrase it for him:
"What we do now know is that the SNP and Green coalition led by Nicola Sturgeon and Patrick Harvie do not want to support the Scottish energy industry and the 200,000 jobs that it produces."
Hear how much better that sounds! Hear how much more meaningful that sounds. Hear how much more accurate and incisive that sounds! It is far more politically effective, while at the same time avoiding the problems associated with the phrase "Scottish Government".
We also examine this issue here.
5. Holyrood is a British Institution: Let's Start Making that Clear
For devolution to work – rather than to be a slippery slope to separation – the devolved institutions need to be understood and described as British institutions; institutions which are part of a wider political unity, symbolised by the British Parliament.
Ideally, the devolved institutions should be working together with the British Parliament, for the greater good of the entire United Kingdom, rather than at each other's throats to the detriment of national stability.
There needs to be more effort to understand, describe and label the devolved institutions firmly within this wider British political context.
Finally, you will have heard the term "the devolution settlement". This is a phrase which also has the deliberate effect of wrongly suggesting that discussion on this matter is "settled". But what exactly does it mean?
6. We Need to Change "the Devolution Settlement"
The phrase "devolution settlement" means the particular Model of devolution used for Holyrood.
When it was established, the British Government produced the worst kind of devolution Model – a Reserved Powers Model. That means: Everything is devolved to the administrative unit (Holyrood) except that which is specifically written down as reserved to the central British Parliament.
The reserved stuff is written down specifically, and absolutely everything else is considered devolved. The presumption is that everything is devolved unless stated in writing otherwise!
This includes the devolution of things which have been forgotten about, things not known about yet, and things which the SNP decides to do because it's not been written down as reserved. An example of the latter is the Travel Ban to Manchester. The SNP just did it, and waited for the British Government to challenge them (which it never did).
It is an unstable Model because the extent of the devolved power has not been limited to that which is specifically written down and known. It has been left wide open and free to expand by itself, even into areas not even thought about, or known about, when the devolved legislation was drafted.
It's like an unstable gas, constantly trying to expand and embrace new areas of power, to the detriment of the centre.
The Reserved Powers Model is "the wrong way round". It is this wrong-way-round "Devolution Settlement" which is the primary means by which the SNP continually expands its power and influence into areas in which it has no business, to the detriment of the Union.
The Right Way Round – the Conferred Powers Model
The proper Model, the only sensible and stable Model for devolution – if a central Unitary State is genuinely intent on maintaining its authority – is to use a "Conferred Powers" (sometimes called "Devolved Powers") Model.
A Conferred Powers Model means: Everything is reserved to the central British Parliament except that which is specifically written down as devolved (conferred) to the administrative unit (Holyrood).
The devolved stuff is written down specifically, and absolutely everything else is considered reserved. The presumption is that everything is reserved unless stated in writing otherwise!
That means the reserved stuff includes things which have been forgotten about, things which are not yet known about, and things which the devolved administration might want to make up.
This is the only Model which accurately reflects the true nature of a Unitary State; that is, a State which has one central, collective, national Parliament in which all powers are vested and from which all powers flow.
We need to reverse the current convention where matters not explicitly reserved are considered to be devolved. We need to establish a new convention where matters not explicitly devolved are considered to be reserved.
This is a crucial way for a Unitary State, such as the UK, to protect its integrity. We must change the "Settlement" from a Reserved Powers Model to a Conferred Powers Model.
We pointed out that devolution is not meant to be a Trojan Horse to be used against the Union, and it's not meant to be a Battering Ram either, on our weekly show "Good Evening Britain", 18-1-23:
We speak about these issues in our 40-page Special Policy Issue of Union Heart called "Do More Together" and in our Wee Book for the Union. Together, they are an education in authentic Unionism. You can buy them both for a discount here or separately from links on that page.
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