The Scottish Indyref, one year on

Devolution in England ignores the key lessons from Scotland’s referendum

Ariana GiovanniniOne year has passed since the Scottish independence referendum took place. Although in the end the people of Scotland voted against self-government, the so-called ‘Indyref’ shook up not only the Scottish but also the wider UK political and social landscape. Hence, on the first anniversary of such a momentous vote, it is worth trying to reflect on the effects it has created across the country.

In the first place, regardless of its outcome, the independence referendum was a significant democratic exercise: it revitalised citizens’ engagement into politics, allowing a wider spectrum of the population to speak. The breadth and depth of this public engagement has been instrumental in stimulating a wider process of democratisation of public life, setting Scotland on a journey of social and political rediscovery that is far from being over. But the referendum also set an important precedent for the other nations and regions of the UK – as reflected in the rise of civil society and voluntary groups as well as regionalist parties advocating a more democratic discussion on devolution, especially in the areas with a stronger sense of identity such as the North of England and Cornwall.

Secondly, and related to this, the Indyref shed light on the inability of Westminster politics to intercept and represent the interests of the Scottish people. The popular enthusiasm engendered by the referendum has gone hand in hand with a surge of support for the SNP, culminated with the extraordinary results it obtained in the 2015 general election. This had (and is still having) implications on the way in which the UK political system conceives its approach to territorial politics and governance not only in Scotland, but also in the rest of the country.

In this sense, the experience of the Indyref has put the UK in a state of constitutional flux, throwing light on how devolution is an unfinished business also beyond Scotland. In particular, the debate prompted by the Scottish case has sparked new political and public interest in the so-called English Question. This is a major change which is having profound consequences for the UK political system.

At an institutional level, the Scottish referendum had the effect of pushing the government to act also in England. After over a decade of its absence from the political agenda, English devolution is now among the top priorities of the Conservatives. In essence, the Tories’ approach consists of two elements: EVEL (so as to address the West Lothian Question); and the Northern Powerhouse agenda, combined with the City Deals supported through the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill (aimed, chiefly, at addressing economic disparities across England).

This could sound promising, but a closer look at the government’s plan shows that there are a number of idiosyncrasies implicit to it. In the first place, neither of the two strategies described above answers the English Question in full. EVEL has the potential to bring in a number of technical and political issues, and could create further frictions within Westminster, and across the UK nations. The Northern Powerhouse and City Deals are ultimately focused more on economic regeneration than on opening a process of real political devolution. In the narrative underpinning the Chancellor’s plans, devolution is portrayed as a sort of gift from the centre that will fix regional economies and create development – a claim that is far from being necessarily true. As argued in a recent blog, with few powers devolved (and more cuts to come) Osborne’s devolution is “more of the same under new management”, as well as a canny attempt at shifting blame for unpopular cutbacks from central government.

Within this frame, local governments seem to believe that they will get more powers and autonomy – but, in practice, they have been led to dance to the government’s tune. They are now competing against each other in the race, cynically set by the centre, for City Deals agreements. On 4th September 38 local areas across England submitted their proposals for devolution deals to be examined by the government. In the end, only a handful of significant deals will be agreed (with big cities like London, Leeds, Sheffield, Liverpool and Birmingham being the main contenders), and perhaps also a number of county deals will be accepted. The other runners will get much less – and certainly nothing on the scale of Devo-Manc. This is likely to spur further rivalries and to widen the gap between ‘deals haves and have nots’, creating de facto a market-type of competition among localities, which may see some rise, but also many others fall. In this sense, Osborne’s devolution project is a textbook example of ‘divide and rule’.

Finally, the debate on City Deals has been an essentially elite-to-elite one. Whilst making occasional reference to how the deals would help improving democracy, the government is simply not interested in listening to what the people really want from devolution (or if they have any appetite for it at all). Not only was the public given no voice in the discussions; but their views, as expressed in the referendums on elected mayors held in 2012, have also been overtly overturned.

All this shows how the Indyref experience may have had the effect of triggering a process of further decentralisation that now involves also England. However, in dealing with the English case, neither central government nor local authorities seem to have learnt much from Scotland. The government has embarked on a project of economic devolution that is set and driven from the centre, at its own terms and conditions and with no real democratic input or scope. This largely ignores the fact that devolution is not only about reviving economies, but is also about revitalising localities from the bottom, engendering participation in the debate about their future, passing down real powers and bringing political decision-making closer to the people. Such myopic and centripetal approach runs the risk of creating a system of governance that is piecemeal, economically unsustainable, and unaccountable. This is likely to affect the political economy of England, bringing in more inequalities and widening rather than bridging gaps between regions, whilst also creating further alienation of the public from politics. In this respect, the Conservatives seem to underestimate a very important point, i.e. that an over-centralised (and slightly patronising) approach to territorial governance, which turns a deaf ear to the people, could backfire – just like it did in Scotland.

But local authorities too have taken little stock of what happened in Scotland, especially concerning the importance of generating demands that are sustained from the bottom. By opting for what they emphatically dub as a ‘pragmatic approach to devolution’, local authorities have sold themselves short, and ended up following blindly the rules of the game imposed on them by the centre. In this way, they have missed the chance to coalesce, build confidence and focus on generating the bottom-up consensus (both across localities that share similar issues and among the public) for a sustainable project of regional devolution that is necessary to put real pressure on central government, and make it listen rather simply dictate.

Note: Ariana Giovannini is currently a Research Assistant for the White Rose Consortium for the North of England.