The Scottish Parliament was born in the era of ‘post-politics’ when ideological contestation gave way to an elitist faux-pragmatism and technocracy. But transformations in the British and global economies are undermining the basis for the Scottish Government’s orthodoxy and complacency, argues JS Jones.
Uncommonly among constitutional developments, devolution in the UK is impossible to characterise as a deliberate political strategy. It wasn’t widely demanded; it didn’t result from struggle. Nor was it an attempt to control a constitutional crisis or see-off an obvious threat to the Westminster political order.
Notably devolution came at a point when crises seemed passé: the 1990s saw the onset of a period of unprecedented political and economic stability, ‘the end of history’ having come with the end of the Soviet Union and the conclusion, it seemed, of challenges to liberal democracy as a mode of government in service to capitalist power.
But choices don’t need to be deliberate, they can arise from the need to do something, not out of desperation or in response to an external concern. In these cases, they’re often guided by pattern or aesthetic. In the case of the UK in the 1990s there was no external threat – the only pressing constitutional issue was the need to accommodate a peace process in the North of Ireland which would reaffirm its place in the UK. There was no equivalent pressure in Scotland, or Wales, or anywhere else in the UK, which was more cohesive than it had been in decades.
By the time New Labour won power in 1997 the ‘third way’ of politics – rather, not doing politics at all but simply aligning policy to market and economic interests, also known as post-politics – was internationally dominant. Domestic politics was particularly subdued after the emergence of a liberal economic consensus and the battering of the unions. Attention moved to international affairs: interventions in what had been Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq. Without any uncontainable domestic issues to contend with, the UK was free to pursue influence in the world, reinforcing its image as a global power pursuing ‘humanitarian’ war.
In this context it becomes easier to see why devolution came about. The ‘reserved powers’ model preferred for Scottish devolution could just as easily be read as a list of ‘anything unimportant’ – a slew of domestic policy areas to discuss with its own think tanks, without a significant budget of its own to advance an independent course. Wales didn’t even have the power to legislate initially, only gaining comparable powers to Scotland in 2016. Devolution in the North of Ireland confected a complex arrangement of power sharing both between communitarian parties and Britain, the EU and the Republic of Ireland.
The crisis of Devo post-politics
Between the resignation of Johnson, the death of Elizabeth, and the rise then fall of Truss, UK politics is enjoying a particularly lively moment. There is a theory that we are now living in a period best described as the end of the end of history, marked by the return of ideological contestation and reinvigorated contests over power which had been assumed to be banished for almost three decades. The blithe alignment of domestic politics to market interests and globalised structures of power, often referred to as neoliberalism, is coming under severe pressure.
Except in Scotland, where devolution now looks like a buffer against the returning tide of politics. The spectacle of King Charles III’s visit to the Scottish Parliament shone a light on our current banality. On paper the new King faced an acutely difficult moment, having to justify the continuity of monarchic rule before a parliament, which had never witnessed the succession, whose governing parties are adamant they intend to pursue independence from the country whose throne he had just ascended.
Yet the speeches by parliamentary leaders demonstrated how indistinguishable the Scottish Parliament still is from the UK as a whole. Politicians in other countries where the UK Crown remains head of state were engaged in active debate about the future of the monarchy. In Scotland, the FM described a private audience with the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh as one of the greatest privileges of her life, the leader of the Green Party gestured obliquely to his hope that the new King would also witness transformations in politics. Which ones, and when?
The future of Devo post-politics
The endless spasms of crisis at Westminster and in the British economy are likely to meet the same quietism from devolved institutions. Behind the them looms a global cacophony: supply chain interruptions, the Chinese domestic real estate market facing collapse, the return of inflation across advanced economies challenging decades of monetary policy orthodoxy, a protracted war in Europe and continued energy crisis.
Truss arrived with bombast into this mess and rapidly imploded. The new administration is demanding big cuts across government departments, and that means to Scotland’s block grant. At least according to the government, devolution means we are at the mercy of these developments.
Queen Elizabeth II’s reign was too long and saw too many changes, domestically and internationally, to be easily described as an ‘era’ on its own terms. Her time on the throne spanned British decolonisation in its early years, the onset of globalisation and its attendant domestic hells, the advent of the European Union and Britain’s eventual withdrawal from it. The effects of these changes were managed on Scotland’s behalf, sometimes by the Scotland Office or latterly by the Scottish Parliament, but never without first passing through the Westminster press. The politics we regard as ‘Scotland’s’ have always responded to questions framed by other nations, devolution has not changed this.
Because of this, any analysis of our likely future must look outside of Scotland for its antecedents. This is acknowledged even by the Scottish Government, with its request for a UK Supreme Court ruling on whether the Scotland Act allows for the Scottish Government to legislate for a non-binding referendum. Failing that, part two of the SNP-Green plan is to pursue independence through a UK General Election. The latest date for the next election is December 2024, and the likelihood of one in the next 6 months appears to have receded for now in the early days of the Sunak administration.
It seems likely that we will see the arrival of a Labour administration at Westminster in the next couple of years, supported by Lib Dem gains in key Tory heartlands. Faced with the prospect of a resurgent, plausible anti-Tory movement at Westminster, and with polls showing the Labour vote eating into the SNP, it’s almost impossible to imagine how the pro-independence parties could achieve their stated 50 percent threshold needed to even claim a mandate for a new independence referendum.
The Holyrood SNP – Westminster Tory dynamic has been to the electoral advantage of both parties, theatrical disdain being the tonic during an era of political malaise. The apparent return of politics heralds an end to this era, not at Holyrood but Westminster, where the promise of ‘serious government’ led by a King’s Counsel may recouple the illusory dignity of work with the authority of sound fiscal governance. But nation states need their tools: supreme courts, central banks, international expectations; and Scotland has none.
In these circumstances the centrality of the SNP’s political project during its time in power – to govern Scotland today in furtherance of independence tomorrow – comes under distinct pressure. No UK Prime Minister would grant a request for an independence referendum even if one were forthcoming when there is a credible, national project to be undertaken with the accoutrements of London’s power. The unpleasant reality for many in Scotland is that the UK Labour Party, with its bland acquiescence to conservative social ideologies and dull veneration of Britishness is likely to appeal to a broader cross section of people in Scotland than the only vision of independence developed under two decades of devolution.