Can the devolution genie be put back in the bottle?

By Simon Gentry

On a Zoom call with MPs representing seats in the North of England yesterday, the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, is reported to have said that devolution – by which he meant mainly in Scotland – has been a ‘disaster’.  Cue a Twitter meltdown with immense amounts of huffing and puffing from MPs – of all persuasions not least the Scottish Conservatives who are obviously keen to not cause offence six months ahead of important elections.  Elections that will probably pave the way for a decision on whether there is a second independence referendum in Scotland in the next few years.

Whatever one thinks about the short-term politics of the Prime Minister’s remark, he does raise a real question:  Has devolution been a success or a failure?  Has power being exercised closer to the people improved the effectiveness of the governance or not?

Politically devolution in Scotland has led to the virtual destruction of the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats. The Conservatives managed something of a revival at the last Scottish election, but if the polls are to be believed this will disappear next May.  The clear winners are obviously the nationalists who are now embedded not only in the Scottish Parliament but in local government across Scotland too.

Objectively this is rather mystifying because there do appear to have been a series of serious bunders and mis-judged policies that have done real harm to Scotland. The Scottish education system, once the best in the British Isles, has plummeted down the international rankings, the health service is producing worse outcomes and there is a toxic court case relating to Alex Salmond and his behaviour towards women – behaviour that it is impossible to believe others in leadership positions in the SNP did not know about – bubbling along ready to explode at any moment.

So how can the SNPs relentless success be explained?  In short, the party has found a way of firing up a passionate and powerful emotional response that defies the poor policy making, the mismanagement, the negative economic impact and the sheer illogicality of a fully independent Scotland.

Can the case for the Union be won against such a powerful force?  The next six months may well determine that.