If Devolution is a Process then Powers should Flow Back as well as Forth

The British Lion Asks What You are Doing for the Union

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If devolution is intended to strengthen the Union then it must be a two-way process not a one-way journey out the UK says Alistair McConnachie.
Posted 29 August 2013.

The advocates of devolution claimed that it would "strengthen the Union".

In the presence of a separatist movement, however, devolved powers will always risk being captured and exploited by it. Unionists must tread very carefully when distributing powers which may be captured by opposition forces.

Safeguards must be put in place if the Union is to continue to be maintained and strengthened. We suggest some safeguards in this article…

We also hear unionists, as well as nationalists, say that devolution is a "process" or a "journey".

"Processes" and "journeys" can go back and forth, or can be circular.

So if devolution is "a process", it should not be a one-way process, or a one-way journey which takes Scotland further and further away from the rest of the UK.

It can be, and should be, a two-way process or journey - which means that powers can and should be retained by our UK Government, and returned to it where and when appropriate, in order to maintain and strengthen our Union.

There should be nothing controversial about accepting that state of affairs. There should be nothing threatening, or disturbing, about certain powers being retained by, or returned to, our own British Government at Westminster.

Why should there by an unspoken assumption that devolved powers cannot be returned?

The only people who are likely to feel threatened or disturbed by that suggestion will be the separatists.

Indeed, the extent to which we have entirely accepted without question the notion that devolution is a one-way process, or a one-way journey – where powers can only leave Westminster and must be hoarded by Holyrood forever hereafter – is a good example of the extent to which we appear to have entirely accepted the nationalist way of looking at the matter.

That is, even though we are unionists, many of us have entirely accepted the nationalist frame!

This article intends to break up that frame, and suggests ways to re-envision it.

Below, we offer some policy suggestions upon this line of thinking. They are intended to help others to start thinking in this "two-way street" manner.

Let us first establish the moral principle upon which we stand.

The Moral Basis for our Position
Devolution has led to the ascendency of a "What is best for Scotland?" outlook among all the political parties.

That, however, is entirely a nationalist frame.

The true unionist frame is "What is best for Scotland within the UK?"

The difference between the latter and the former is that unionists are prepared to give, as well as take. Unionists consider the best interests of everyone within the Union first.

The nationalist position has no regard for the wider picture of the Union, or for Britain, or for its overall political, social and cultural cohesion. The nationalist position would readily adopt what was "best" for Scotland even when it was bad for the rest of the UK.

The cry for "more powers" emanates from that selfish nationalist place, even when it is the "unionist" parties which are echoing it.

The best analogy is the physical or business relationship.

For unionists, it is simply not good enough for Scotland to behave as if it only cares for itself. What kind of marriage can last which sees one spouse behave selfishly, with no regard for the other? What kind of business relationship can last where one company director demands all the power for him or herself?

If a relationship is to work then there has to be a constant ability and desire to give and take. If one person continues to demand more and more, without any regard for the other, then the relationship will ultimately collapse.

This is what nationalists do. They demand more and more. It is in their nature to do so.

They demand "more powers" and when they get "more powers" they demand "more powers" still. They don't stop. Stopping is not in their nature. There is absolutely nothing to be gained by unionists if we try to appease the tiger, by feeding it still more.

Further asymmetrical devolution (that is, more devolution for Scotland alone) would continue to damage the internal logic and cohesion of the UK relationship and Scotland would risk demonstrating contempt for its other partners, with whom it is bound intimately.

A Morally Illegitimate Debate
Indeed, for unionists, "more powers" for Scotland, outside of a consideration of the rest of the UK, is an illegitimate debate.

It is not a legitimate topic of discussion. It is no more legitimate than being in a relationship and spending the entire time demanding more powers for oneself without regard to the effect on your partner. It is morally reprehensible. It is a selfish, greedy, eating one's cake and still having it attitude which is bound to end disastrously for the Union.

"But polls indicate most Scots want more devolution"
We do not accept this is really the case because we do not believe that this debate has ever properly occurred. Nor have most of us been fully exposed to the moral reality of such a desire, as above.

In this regard, we had the following letter published in The Scotsman on Thursday 1st August 2013:

Why should Gavin McCrone (Perspective, 31 July) presume that the pro-UK parties who "oppose independence" need to offer something "in its stead"?

The pro-UK parties are offering the United Kingdom instead. The anti-UK parties are offering its break-up. That is what this debate is about. That is what we will be voting on.

To try to change the debate to whether to leave the UK, or have more powers for Scotland, is a trick of the separatists who want to hedge their bets and win either way.

People who want "more powers" should vote for independence.

As a unionist, I can urge them to do so with confidence because I know that there is virtually nobody sitting about obsessing about the minutiae of tax policy, and concluding that what Scotland needs, in Mr McCrone's words is to have "three-quarters rather than the whole of income tax devolved", or "some parts of welfare spending, amounting to about 25 per cent of the Department of Work and Pensions' expenditure...transferred to Scotland", or "57 per cent" of Scottish government expenditure "financed directly by taxes paid by people in Scotland".

Outside of policy wonks, the remunerated Scottish political sector, and those who report upon it, the "more devolution" debate is simply not happening.

The "support" which is allegedly "shown" in surveys indicates nothing more than that some people have an opinion if asked.

That does not mean it is an informed or demanded or passionate opinion, or that it would not change if considered within a wider context.

As we say, there are 3 kinds of people who are interested in the "more powers" or "devo max" or "devo plus" debate: Those who work in the remunerated Scottish political sector, those who study it, and those who report upon it. They are interested in it because they have something to gain by extending Holyrood's power. Beyond them, the debate is not happening.

Devolution Legislation Poorly Framed
Even though Labour always told us that the Scottish Parliament would "strengthen the Union", it failed to write anything into its Scotland Act 1998 - which set up the Parliament - which would maintain oversight on devolved legislation to ensure none of it had corrupting and weakening influences upon the Union relationship.

It failed to introduce any meaningful pro-Union safeguards.

As we are emphasising in this article, if Holyrood really is intended to "strengthen the Union", then powers should flow back to, not just away from, Westminster - when that is appropriate, in order to maintain a United Kingdom, and keep it "strengthened".

How to ensure that?

We spoke on the 18 June 2013 in London, and our speech was entitled Ever Closer Union: Over 50 Suggestions to Promote the Social Union and the Cultural Value of the United Kingdom. We raised the following suggestions.

They are intended to help unionists to start framing devolution as a two-way street, where power can travel back to our British centre, and not only from it.

Let us stop thinking about devolution as only being about powers leaving Westminster and going to Holyrood. Let's start thinking and accepting that powers can also flow back appropriately in order to strengthen our Union.

Here are our ideas.


Just as the EU frames its laws to encourage "ever closer union" within the EU, it should be a principle and an aim of the British government at all times, and the Scottish administration - when it is under unionist control - to ensure "ever closer union" within the UK.

Right now, too many people are stuck into the nationalist idea that the Union is destined to break up. They see things through the nationalist frame where the only alternative is "more devolution" heading on an ever slippery slope downwards to separation in all but name.

Once we introduce the driving force of "ever closer union" then we realise the Union can just as easily be destined to move closer, and that realisation gives us a whole new set of possibilities to work with.

1. Establish a UK Constitutional Veto: Safeguard against Future Rogue Laws by additional Paragraph in Scotland Act
In order to safeguard against future rogue laws which damage the Union, a further paragraph "c" should be added to Section 35 (1) of the Scotland Act 1998 (Power to intervene in certain cases) which should state something along the lines of:

"If a Bill contains provisions which the Secretary of State has reasonable grounds to believe would be incompatible with the principle of ever closer union for the United Kingdom, or contrary to the principle that devolution must strengthen the Union, or incompatible with the principle of equality of opportunity throughout the United Kingdom, he may make an order prohibiting the Presiding Officer from submitting the Bill for Royal Assent."

2. Accept that a Devolved Competence can be Rescinded
If we accept that the Union relationship must be maintained, and that the Scottish Parliament is intended to "strengthen the Union", and if we believe in the principle of "ever closer union" for the UK, then there should be no reluctance - at least in principle - to rescind a particular devolved competence if that competence is being used in a way which is damaging to our Union relationship.

Of course, that would be politically problematic and it is most likely to apply only where there is a separatist administration in power, but it should not be something that is considered impossible. It should be accepted in principle! There should be a presumption that it is possible. There should be nothing controversial about that presumption.

3. UK Government to Legislate to Rescind, or Override, a Particular Rogue Law
Perhaps more politically feasible would be a piece of UK government legislation, which, rather than targeting the entire devolved matter (ie Education) simply rescinds the particular rogue law whose consequences are damaging the Union relationship, or overrides it with a new, more "strengthening" law.

4. A Ministry of State for the Union
To bring this all together, we need Whitehall to set up a specific Ministry, and maybe even Holyrood too.

We need a Union Office - a Ministry for the Union - and a Minister for the Union.

This would be an official government body tasked to promote the social and cultural value of the Union of the United Kingdom, and which is able to spot and prevent, and defeat threats to the Union.

To conclude: If we believe, as we were told, that devolution is intended to strengthen the Union then powers must go back, as well as forth, as appropriate, in order to keep the Union together and strengthened.

If we believe devolution is a process then – unless we are talking about a one-way process, or a one-way journey – powers must be retained by our UK Government and returned to our UK Government, when and where necessary.

There should be no controversy about this! It is a basic unionist principle and point of view.

The only people who can be expected to disagree with this basic principle are the nationalists who have attempted to get us to see things only through their "one-way process" frame of devolution.

It is time to clean up that grubby frame, and to see things clearly now through our bright "Union Frame".

Postscript 3-9-13: Gordon Brown, the former Prime Minister, was quoted in The Sunday Mail (1-9-13, pp.14-15 at 15) saying "We should legislate to make the Scottish Parliament permanent and irreversible so no one can dissolve, suspend or override it."

As above, to establish the Scottish Parliament as a law unto itself is contrary both to the Union principle (it is not appropriate, and is immoral, for a partner in a union to become a law unto itself) and to the devolution principle (powers can flow back to our centre where appropriate and necessary).

A true Unionist position accepts that powers can and should flow back to our centre; and that each partner must cooperate with each other, if we are to remain in a moral relationship. Unfortunately, he gave a speech in Glasgow the next day where he reiterated this error.

Postscript 5-9-13: We had the following letter published in The Scotsman on 5-9-13.

Gordon Brown is wrong to advocate that the Scottish Parliament should never be over-ruled by the British Parliament (your report, 3 September).

It is illiterate unionism. It contradicts fundamental unionist principles.

The first principle is that within a union, it is not appropriate for one partner to become a law unto itself. That would be an immoral act in a union relationship.

Imagine a business company where one partner thought he could do what he wanted.

The second principle is that for devolution to "strengthen the Union" then powers should be able to flow back to the centre, where appropriate and necessary. This means, at the very least, being able to rescind competencies or over-ride bad law.

For example, it may be that the Scottish Parliament will make a decision in the future which is against the best interests of the rest of the UK.

It would be entirely proper for such a decision to be over-ruled by our common British Parliament which is intended to look out for us all.

There is nothing controversial about these basic unionist principles, unless you are a separatist, or part of Devo Plus, the separatist-wolf-in-sheep's-clothing organisation, from which Mr Brown lifted this dangerous nationalist policy.

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You can find out more about Alistair at the About Alistair McConnachie page. And here is a link to Alistair McConnachie's Google Profile.

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