Our political class refuses to admit it, but Scottish, Welsh and London devolution have failed disastrously. In a classic case of New Labour constitutional vandalism, a project purportedly designed to shift political power closer to the people and to buttress national and civic identities within the UK has backfired catastrophically.
Far from promoting proud self-reliance in Edinburgh, Cardiff and City Hall, it has enshrined dependency, resentment and a begging-bowl culture. Instead of a race to excellence, it has encouraged mediocrity, over-promoting non-entities too useless to make it in national politics and empowering an army of little tyrants who want to tell us what a woman is, how and when to travel, and what we are allowed to think. Rather than saving the UK, it has fractured it. Instead of generating competition, driving taxes down and the quality of services up, it has encouraged pork-barrel politics.
You won’t find anybody in Westminster with the temerity to state this, but Scotland and Wales would be richer, better educated and healthier today had they been governed directly from Westminster by Labour, coalition and Tory governments since 1997. London probably would be little different. Labour weakened Westminster in three ways, handing powers to Brussels, judges and devolved assemblies, and the winners were technocrats, not ordinary voters.
None of this should be read as a reactionary paean against devolution per se: I’m all for genuine localism and true people power. I backed Brexit to bring power downwards. Extreme centralisation (in London, or Brussels, or Washington) isn’t the answer, and other countries, not least Switzerland and America, have developed models that we must learn from. The UK would benefit immensely were nations, counties, cities, towns and villages incentivised to compete for business and residents. Local referenda would prevent ideologues from imposing their dystopian social engineering.
But the dirty secret of devolution is that Holyrood or the Senedd don’t want the real deal: they are terrified of having to pay for their spending. They don’t want to risk going bust, as states and cities can do in America. They don’t want real UK federalism. They prefer bureaucratic rule, subsidised by others, and are being indulged by Labour and Tories alike. In the latter’s case, this is partly out of fear of a UK break-up, and, more recently, out of a bizarre belief that handing power to Left-wing municipal politicians is tantamount to levelling up.
We are thus stuck in the worst of all worlds: after 25 years, what more evidence do we need that Britain’s brand of devolution is broken? Scotland has been ruined by Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond, and before that by Scottish Labour, despite immense subsidies from English taxpayers. Its once world-class schools have been wrecked. Its budget deficit in 2021-22, at 12.3 per cent of GDP, was more than twice as bad as the UK’s. Sturgeon’s embrace of a radical woke ideology and a socialist, anti-prosperity agenda will further cripple Scotland.
The IFS calculates that someone on £50,000 will pay £1,550 more annual tax in Scotland than in the rest of the UK; those on £150,000 will pay £3,900 more; the top income tax rates will be 42 per cent and 47 per cent. Why bother being successful, if you cannot send your children to university as Scotland now discriminates against those who aren’t poor? The SNP call themselves nationalists, but they are destroying the nation of Adam Smith, and, infected by wokery, are no longer proud of their history or of great philosophers like David Hume.
Sturgeon is also increasing welfare, introducing new benefits that will boost the incomes of several important categories of recipients by a fifth. Such kind-sounding policies often have unintended consequences, trapping people on welfare, a state of affairs which, over time, hurts them and their children more than it helps them. Tragic doesn’t even begin to describe them.
Wales mirrors Scotland’s decline. It is controlled by an even lower calibre of power-crazed bureaucrats, as epitomised by their absurdly strict lockdown which saw the erection of a border with England and clothing and toys sections of supermarkets cordoned off. Wales’s NHS is even worse than England’s: Welsh patients have been more likely than those in England to wait four hours in A&E in every single month since 2012, according to figures from the Nuffield Trust last year. Wales’s median waiting time for referral to treatment is also much higher.
As to the capital, Sadiq Khan’s latest idiocy is the roll-out of the Ulez tax on older vehicles, hitting the poor and pensioners hardest. The mayor’s failure on crime and the Met is unforgivable. Proponents of devolution point to the improvements in public transport since 1997 as the principal benefit of the mayoralty, but Khan’s management of the loss-making Transport for London has been abysmal. He has refused to take on the unions.
Unlike Scotland and Wales, London craves real devolution, but will never get it: it is too big to fail, a prosperous city-state tacked onto a middle-income country that desperately needs its cash. A hard-Left London mayor with full tax powers would take down not just London’s economy but that of the whole country. Businesses would flee to Frankfurt or New York, not Birmingham or Manchester. The reason? Our idiotic planning system, which means there is no capacity for people or firms to move to Cambridge or elsewhere which could rival London.
Another reason for the failure of our sham devolution is that nations or cities have become rotten boroughs. People vote on identitarian grounds, backing Labour in urban areas or the SNP in Scotland regardless of results. They might hate anti-car low-traffic neighbourhoods, but can’t find it in themselves to vote Tory. There is no punishment for failure.
It’s time for the Tories to call the provincial potentates’ bluff, and to stop sucking up to them. Rishi Sunak’s decision to veto Sturgeon’s appalling Gender Recognition Reform Bill was a masterstroke, and has sent her support and that for Scottish independence plummeting. He should now intervene in London, and block Ulez expansion. The Tories need to rethink devolution from first principles. In the meantime, they have much to gain in going to war with Sturgeon and Khan.