Saturday 6 September 2014

Scotland and the devolution trap

As the No Campaign scrambles to counter the late surge in support for Scottish independence, Westminster politicians appear to throw a last trump: constitutional reform. For anyone who observed the dithering of UK politicians on this issue for the last decade, this late constitutional twist is ironic to say the least.

For a start, there is the consistent inability (or unwillingness) of Westminster to conduct a radical overhaul of the British constitution. Labour embarked on devolution with great fanfare, only to shelve plans for parliamentary and tax distribution reforms (i.e. the infamous Barnett formula). After 2010, the coalition government strafed the issue with ignorance right from the start.

The paradoxical result of this is that Britain, for all intents and purposes, is a federal country without the necessary institutions. It remains suspended in a constitutional limbo, where Westminster keeps operating as if this was a centralised state, whereas devolved governments in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast are allowed to keep their grudges against 'imposition from London'.

In a way, the Scottish referendum is the child of devolution, and it may just be the reason for devolution's inglorious end. On one hand, devolution allowed parliaments and governments in Edinburgh and Cardiff to be the training ground for potential independence, boosting the confidence and competences of their politicians. On the other hand, however, devolution is still too fresh to even blip on the radar of many Scottish or Welsh voters to recognise that the assemblies in Edinburgh and Cardiff already have powers at their disposal to freely decide on health, education or housing.

Devolution thus is too young and too advanced at the same time. Timely radical constitutional reforms could have strengthened the hand of the opponents of independence, but now, all that's left to them is to clobber together a package that may just sway sufficient votes against an independent Scotland. There can only be one lesson: delaying constitutional reforms leads to freewheeling thinking of headless chickens. Lets hope for the best.

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