Will geography cause an upset in our Tory leader guessing game? asks Alan Cochrane, the Telegraph's in situ black-hearted Unionist, in a column of last week. Scottish Tories, such as they are, appear to be experiencing one of their regular existential crises on the relationship between their Unionism and their attitudes towards devolution. Creditably, the issue was explicitly addressed in an apparently "packed" fringe meeting, held at the late Tory Spring conference in Perth. "Darth" Murdo Fraser was debating the serpentine former Secretary of State for Scotland, Michael Forsyth. Both were concerned about the Scotland Bill, devolution and Tory strategy. Forsyth contended that any sort of fiscal devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament would be a "timebomb at the heart of the union". Fraser disagreed. I wasn't in attendance for obvious reasons, but I'd imagine that Fraser might argue that constitutional reform represents an opportunity to stabilise and entrench the Union, leaving the settled will of the Scottish people properly settled. By contrast, Forsyth's anti-devolutionary motto seems to be give 'em an inch and they'll take a mile, so don't relinquish one mil of authority. Period. According to Cochrane, the Tories in the room overwhelmingly backed the old villain's devolution skepticism. The issue has prompted a wee flutter of debate in our online agora. In a recent edition of the Scottish Review, David Torrance writes "in defence of the Union", arguing that the Tories should embrace the vision of a federated United Kingdom. He concludes:
"'Things fall apart,' wrote Yeats, 'the centre cannot hold', or, as Lord Acton put it, 'a great democracy must either sacrifice self government to unity or preserve it by federalism'. A Liberal, the late Russell Johnston, put it even better. 'The choice for Scotland is between separating herself from the United Kingdom and working out a federal relationship,' he said in 1976. 'Nothing in between makes sense.' Amen to that."
This morning, Bill Jamieson has a piece on a similar theme in the Scotsman, arguing that the "Scotland Bill's 'consensus' is a sham". Coincidentally enough, I've recently been re-reading the third edition of Tom Nairn's seminal The Break-Up of Britain, published in 2003. You can probably expect a series of snippets and phrases from the work, over the coming weeks. First published in 1977, I'm frequently struck by the continuing contemporary resonances of Nairn's commentary, the recognisable Unionist angsts and coping strategies; the reticent attitude towards the apparently settling prospect of UK federalism; the overarching sense of bemusement and foiled endeavours about how best to sustain Britain's crepuscular Kingdom in the face of Scottish nationalist political demands. Wasn't devolution supposed to "kill Scottish nationalism stone dead" after all? Where is its thistle-strewn corpse? Why isn't that cadaver spent? Where did it all go wrong? All are questions which immediately concern the Unionist trio of Murdo, Forsyth and Torrance. Nairn's first chapter - "The Twilight of the British State" - has much of interest to say in this regard...
"In summary, almost emblematic form, one might say: London government invents habitual class remedies to nationalist ailments. Its instinct is to concede, when sufficiently prodded, then consolidate tradition on the new, slightly different balance of forces that results. Although notoriously effective on the front of class struggle and negotiation, the strategy has no real application to national questions. The philosophy and practice of conservative empiricism presupposes a stable, consensual framework; the new nationalisms challenge that framework itself. British constitutionalism makes an arcane mystique of power, removing it from the arena of normal confrontation and enshrining it as a Grail-live "sovereignty"; by nationalism is about power, in a quite straightforward sense. It is a demand for the Grail, or at least a bit of it (this is of course a demand for the impossible, in English ideological tradition).
This pattern has been followed to the letter in the development of intra-British conflict so far. When Welsh and Scottish nationalism began to advance politically in the 1960s, London government from the outset assumed that these developments would have to be adapted to, and nullified, in the habitual way. It noticed that the demands were different in Wales and Scotland, as were the relative strengths of the nationalist parties. So of course different concessions would be in order for each region. A Royal Commission was appointed to work out how this should be done, in the customary hope that the problem would have solved itself by the time this body's deliberations were finished. When completed, its recommendations were greeted with universal derision and cynicism.
The derision vanished with the new election results of 1974. The new Labour government hastily produced legislation embodying some of the Commission's ideas, which became the "Scotland and Wales Bill" of December 1976. Now that the problems were not going to disappear spontaneously, concessionary tactics would have to be employed. With limited degrees of self-government in domestic matters (extremely limited in the case of Wales), it was believed that the regions would soon relapse into their traditional subordination. Are they not full of basically loyal folk who may have a few grievances but know that Britain is best? Once reasonable note is regally taken of their grudges, surely they will fall into line again, acknowledging their limited yet honoured place in the greater scheme of things?A great deal of fulsome rhetoric of 1960s vintage went into the deal: the legislation was titled "Our Changing Democracy" and sanctified by speeches on bringing government "closer to the people", combating impersonal centralism, etc. When set in the historical perspectives of English élitism, this was indecorous to say the least of it: few have seen it as anything but an ideological façade. Like the Local Government reforms which had preceded devolution, the changes were at heart ways of preserving the old state - minor alterations to conserve the antique essence of English hegemony.
There was no real belief in a new partnership of peoples. And in fact, such a partnership - in other words, genuine "transfer of power" from the old state - was never conceivable without the most radical reform of the centre itself. To give effective power away meant examining, and changing, the basis of power itself: the Constitution, the myth-source of sovereignty, and all that it depends upon. The whole British political system had to be altered. There has been no serious question of doing this, for the sake of the Scots, the Welsh and the Ulstermen. The only political party which advocates it is the one permanently removed from power, the Liberal Party.
Unable to contemplate radical reform of the centre (since its whole modern history has been built on avoiding it) London government has blundered empirically into using the usual tactic of graduated response. One commentary after another has explored the self-contradictory nature of the proposals, their liability to generate conflict and escalation of nationalist sentiment and demands..." Tom Nairn (2003) The Break-Up of Britain, 3rd edn, pp 49 - 52.