The Student on devolution: Johnson gets it wrong again

In a virtual conversation with Conservative MPs last week Boris Johnson, the prime minister, outlined how he thought devolution had been a “disaster” in Scotland, suggesting it was “Tony Blair’s biggest mistake”. Obviously, Johnson’s comments have proved incredibly inflammatory with Nicola Sturgeon tweeting in response: “Worth bookmarking these PM comments for the next time Tories say they’re not a threat to the powers of the Scottish Parliament – or, even more incredibly, that they support devolving more powers.”

Johnson latterly tried to clarify his comments, suggesting that he had only “criticised the performance of devolution” under the Scottish National Party and that he “doesn’t oppose devolution as a concept in itself”. The damage, however, had already been done. The rise of Scottish nationalism and the demand for an independent Scotland is certainly not something that begun under Johnson, but if – and surely now, when – Scotland does become an independent country, Johnson will definitely go down as one of the key causes.

Since becoming prime minister Johnson has only sought to govern for England, and even then only for a specific part of England (as anyone from Greater Manchester will attest to). By taking the UK out of the EU on the hardest possible terms, not taking a more conciliatory tone, and not involving devolved governments in the process, Johnson has made no secret of his indifference to the fact that 62% of Scots voted to remain. The general indifference Johnson shows towards the Scottish people and their views has been reflected in opinion polling for independence. Virtually every poll showed a clear lead to remain in the United Kingdom between the 2017 general election and Johnson becoming prime minister, and virtually every poll since Johnson won a majority in the 2019 general election has shown a clear lead for independence.

One of the greatest challenges facing the UK – which Johnson has clearly overlooked – is that the country is far too centralised, with too much power being held in Westminster. Despite devolution, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) suggested in 2019 that the UK is more centralised than any comparable country. However, this should not just be something of interest to politics students and constitutional scholars; this over-centralisation has serious real-world effects, and its failings can be seen starkly in the UK government’s handling of the pandemic.

Countries like Germany have been able to better deal with the novel coronavirus due to the power to test, trace and isolate new cases being devolved to local authorities who, due to their superior local knowledge, are better equipped to do this successfully than the national government who are often hundreds of miles away from the problem. The outsourced, Serco-run track and trace system for England and Wales, on the other hand, has failed horribly and has been central to the UK suffering the worst death toll in Europe. The last Labour government recognised the problems that centralised power brought and sought to modernise the country by devolving power away from the centre.

The most relevant policy area for students involving the devolved administration in Scotland is tuition fees. Where the UK government increased tuition fees to the ludicrously high level of £9000 a year in 2010, the Scottish government, as education policy is devolved, was able to protect and look out for its young people in a way that the UK government did not. The ramifications of this are that Scottish students are able to attend our very own university here in Edinburgh (and all other universities in Scotland) for free. Devolution, then, has certainly not been a “disaster” for them. The disaster, rather, has been for students from the rest of the UK who will be leaving university with debts exceeding £40,000.

As he has done with so many other issues in recent months, Johnson has gotten it completely wrong once again – this time on devolution. The centre in Westminster hasn’t devolved too much power to the regions and nations of the United Kingdom, it hasn’t devolved enough. If Johnson wants to be remembered as anything other than the man who took us out of the EU and then subsequently oversaw the break-up of the three centuries-old United Kingdom, he better learn this lesson rather quickly.

Image: Colin via Wikimedia Commons