A report suggesting that the £414m Scottish Parliament building could reach the end of its ‘useful life’ by 2060 – after just 45 years – provides the perfect metaphor for the state of devolution in 2017: a parliament that has been noticeably reluctant to use its powers in the last decade slapped with a ‘use by’ date. Irony can be awfully cutesy at times. The Scottish Parliament’s problems don’t begin and end with its building though. A poll by Panelbase gave voters an opportunity to declare themselves scunnered with the whole enterprise of devolution. Asked if, instead of independence or the status quo, they would rather shutter Holyrood tomorrow, 19 per cent of Scots said they are up for a return to direct rule from Westminster. That is, as far as I can tell, the highest level of support for abolition since the Scottish Parliament was established.
Kevin Pringle, former special adviser to Alex Salmond, poses this as a problem for Ruth Davidson, both as the de facto head of Scottish Unionism and because the same poll shows four in ten of her voters want to reverse devolution. Pringle is the best mind the SNP has, and the loss following his move to the private sector has been much in evidence over the last two years. But he is only half right. The Scottish Tories will struggle to convince the voters that they should be in government if they cannot convince themselves that there ought to be a government.
Nevertheless, the Tories are not in power and far from it. It is on the SNP’s watch that devoscepticism has emerged from single-digit obscurity into a position that one in five Scots is willing to endorse. Nicola Sturgeon and her Nationalists must take much of the blame for this development. The SNP aggressively appropriated the icons of nationhood — flag, history, parliament — and just as some Unionists recoil from the Saltire as a symbol since lost to the SNP, others now see the devolved assembly itself as a creature of nationalism.
Devoscepticism is more than partisan reaction or alienation. There is a feeling abroad, extending beyond the 19 per cent of abolitionists, that devolution has been something of a disappointment. The expectations were too high; our idealism too naive (and, dare I say, unBritish). Beware old politicians selling new politics. If Holyrood could be twee and parochial in the early years, it at least did things. It is only in the past few years that the Scottish ennui set in – the aimless drift that gripped non-constitutional politics once the independence referendum was called and which has still to be shaken off. There is a sense that Holyrood can’t do anything.
There are few original ideas in the building and fewer still who are capable of implementing them. But that is not the source of our troubles. The problem lies in how the constitutional question was answered, or rather how it wasn’t. In his concession speech three years ago, Alex Salmond observed that ‘Scotland has by a majority decided not, at this stage, to become an independent country’. At the time it seemed like crumb-seeking by a man whose cake had been well and truly gobbled. But there was truth amid the bitterness. Independence had not been rejected by the 60 per cent long predicted inside the Better Together campaign, but by 55 per cent to 45. It wasn’t a No so much as a Not Yet.
Support for independence has slipped a point here and there in various polls but remains noticeably resilient. Nationalist sentiment has waxed and waned since the 1970s but it was little more than a fantasy. Separatists lacked an infrastructure beyond a single political party and a few celebrities. Even returning a majority of Nationalist MPs to Westminster would have been no guarantee of independence. Devolution changed this by providing nationalists the infrastructure they lacked. Now there was a rival centre of legitimacy, one right on Scots’ doorsteps, not in far-off, foreign Westminster.
The Scottish Parliament gives the SNP and like-minded parties a power base from which to launch future attempts at secession. The UK Parliament has the final say on such matters, you might venture, and constitutionally you’d be more right than wrong. But while Westminster may frustrate the ambitions of the current regime in Edinburgh, it cannot reasonably stand in the way of the popular will. Scotland has not yet had the coincidence of a separatist majority at Holyrood and a sustained separatist majority in the country. It is optimistic indeed to think such an alignment will never come about.
The SNP understands this and so it must remain on the right side of public opinion for as long as possible. The loss of its majority in the Scottish Parliament was a setback and the felling of 21 of its MPs in the General Election a reminder that devolution cuts both ways. Holyrood offers the opportunity to pursue constitutional objectives but carries the responsibility of governing on the day-to-day matters too. That is a delicate balance that the SNP has so far failed to strike. Independence always comes first for them but their mistake was allowing the voters to see this. Nowhere is the result starker than in schools. Once a badge of pride, Scottish education is now a byword for mediocrity, political inertia, and policy dilettantism. The First Minister’s Programme for Government, hailed as a reset, instead confirmed that she has no idea what she wants to do or how to fix the problems that have been allowed to entrench.
Scotland cannot move forward until it decides which direction to move in. Do we want independence? In which case, get on with it, accept there will be consequences, and don’t complain when they come tumbling down around you. Do we want to make a go of devolution? If so, the current crop of SNP politicians will have to accept that theirs is not the generation that will make history. They can hardly scorn devolution scepticism in others when they show little sign of believing in it themselves.