When conservative peer David Frost argues for something, you can be pretty sure it’s wrong. But when he claims the current disgraceful state of the SNP and the Scottish government is a reason to roll back devolution, he hits a new jackpot. He’s wrong as a politician, as a democrat and even as a conservative.
Start with the last one. These days we all live in systems of multi-level government, whether it’s local, national or supranational. That’s because different things are best managed at different levels. Some are very obviously local, others – say the environment and climate change – are bigger even than any one country can manage on its own. Despite all the sound and fury, all of our constitutional arguments are really about which level of government should do what. And there is a simple principle to determine that. Things should be decided at the level nearest to the people they affect unless there is a good reason to take them to a bigger level.
In the jargon, this is called subsidiarity. It’s a principle that conservatives, who are nervous about big government, ought to like. Mrs Thatcher was a big fan, as it applied to Europe anyway. It certainly applies in the context of the UK. Keep at the centre things that can only be done there – like managing the currency, guaranteeing common rights, whether civil, political or social, or distributing resources fairly across the country – but devolve the rest. And not just to Scotland, but within Scotland too, as well as across England. This is a well established principle and the present devolution settlement is pretty consistent with it. Nationalists, of whatever nation, hate this rational approach. They just want their nation to have all the power.
What Frost also forgets is that devolution is popular in Scotland, and has a firm democratic mandate, notably from two referendums which have confirmed support for the settlement we now have. People in Scotland wants decisions taken close to them and there is overwhelming support for devolved power. UK Ministers using the powers that have always been there in the settlement to safeguard UK law is one thing, but arbitrarily taking power away from the devolved legislature would be undemocratic. A democrat in London would do better to think hard about what can be devolved in England.
And on top of it all, this is dumb politics. The SNP as a government and a party is in the most extraordinary mess. It’s foolish to give them a straw to cling to – that wicked Westminster is taking power away from Scotland.
So Frost’s argument is politically inept, and is neither conservative nor democratic, just nationalist grabbing at power whenever there’s a chance. We’ve seen enough of that in Scotland, and now can see where it leads. No thanks, as we said to some other nationalists a few years back.