In 1707, union with Scotland was the project of the Whigs, and Humza Yousaf’s unlikely fall from power last month is a vindication of their pet theory of history. Whig history: the idea that events are running irresistibly in one direction.

Or at least a kind of Whig history. It — infamously — relied on grand narratives. Here is one. In the Middle Ages, England made a precocious finish to what we might call the story of early modernity. It had a single language; a single legal code; central government; national feeling; no great magnates; no municipal liberties; no regional distinctions that mattered. There was no rigmarole of provincial Diets, as was the style almost everywhere else. There was one organ, Westminster, where people could speak of a national interest that was felt as keenly in Scunthorpe as in London. These were legislators, not petitioners pleading the case of a town, or a guild.

The logical next step for this hot-housed national England was to round out the polity, incorporating the rest of the island to prevent it being used as a “backdoor” by its rivals. The unification of England meant, inescapably, the unification of Great Britain. Everything seemed to be pulling in this direction. The Scottish aristocracy was Norman. The Lowlanders, great bulk of the country’s population, were Anglo-Saxons. The Reformation had given the people of Great Britain a common religion (mostly), and, still more, a common set of enemies.

That decision, in 1707, to take the plunge for full parliamentary union simply made sense. Sure, much of it was down to self-interest. But it was a self-interest that presupposed a common one. The sectarian difference, dowdy and obscure by continental standards even during the time of Oliver Cromwell, was becoming even less important. Scottish merchants declared that the internal customs barriers with England were intolerable — barriers which were still the European norm well into the 19th century. Nationhood had arrived, and required only its formal consummation.

If the unity of the island of Great Britain seemed in some way preordained, it still feels that way. Modern technology means that centralised rule is easier than ever. The confessional divide between England and Scotland has vanished. So too has the economic one: the choice is no longer, as it was in the dog days of Churchill’s chancellorship, between the shipbuilders of the Clyde and the City of London. Scotland and England both are now sustained by high finance; luxury goods; education; tourism. The departure from the European single market has made the British single market more important than ever.

And yet, there has been a concerted effort to throw the tide of history into reverse. Since the Scottish referendum in 2014, it has become common to say that Great Britain is an artifice with no real historical existence. But that rupture — devolution, Scottish and otherwise — is part of a particular idea of authority that has become hegemonic over the past 25 years.

The administration that came to power in 1997 was decentralist and localist in its assumptions. It did not like the idea of a powerful central metropolis in London. It did not like Parliament, with its debates, its majorities, and its ability to make and unmake any law — which threatened new unfalsifiable ideas of human rights. New Labour opposed majorities, executive power, and central government. No tradition of distributed power existed in Britain, so it would invent one. So was born the Supreme Court and the devolved assemblies, both practically free from Parliament’s writ, and which would make endless bartering between claims of right the legerdemain of politics, not popular appeals, or debates.

That idea soon became bipartisan. As a political programme, it preferred the local and familiar to the remote and metropolitan. It wanted politicians to “stop arguing” and come to an agreement. It distrusted Power, and sought to set things up in such a way that no one could exercise it over anyone else — except over the common people. It was, as George Orwell once wrote of Swift, “despising authority while disbelieving in liberty”.

Modern Scottish nationalism is not separable from this programme of decentralism. The two are symbiotic. Devolution created a strange and subsidised layer of local politicians and bureaucrats, who, having no real reason for their existence, could do little else but play to provincial rights and an exaggerated Scottishness as a gambit for funding and jobs. Westminster, won for the cause of sham provincial liberties long ago, always obliged. As national life was purposefully fractured, rule from London began — completely by default — to seem like a foreign imposition.

As the entirely self-created “crisis of Union” began to mount in 2014, Westminster could answer only with yet more decentralisation. Everything about London’s response to the separatist threat presupposed that a Scottish nation already existed, and that a British one did not.

The latest invocation of local rights was that Scotland had recently been getting governments and policies it had not voted for (so had, say, Cambridge). When a set of voters is unhappy, the usual course is to change things around to appease them — as Rishi Sunak is now attempting in the Red Wall. Instead, London’s response was a promise to shield them from the English electorate: “The Vow”. Reform of public services had been the main aim of David Cameron’s premiership, but now these public services were to be devolved entirely. In his heart of hearts, the prime minister did not believe that his mandate from the British people gave him any real right to govern Scotland.

The Vow, and the further devolution that followed, was an avowal that a British body politic did not and should not exist. London conceded every premise of the SNP. But these were its own premises. For its part, while the SNP was not the creature of London, at every turn it consented to play the role marked out for it. In the years that followed the referendum, Nicola Sturgeon became a permanent fixture of national life, and offered a general running commentary on British affairs. She was acting the part cast for her by London: a stern and forthright provincial critic of central excess. Unlike in Catalonia, or Quebec, there was never any serious talk of unilateral secession, even as parliamentary government in London virtually collapsed between 2017-19.

The implicit relationship became clearer during Humza Yousaf’s year in power. One of his first announcements was that no second referendum would be pursued until a “sustained majority” emerged for one. This was, in practice, a way to adjourn the idea forever. In his resignation speech, Yousaf warned of the threat of populism. What? Scottish nationalism’s aim is to break up the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland: a permanent member of the UN security council, a stately member of the international system, and a nuclear power. It is, ostensibly, one of the most populistic causes on the planet. But that is no longer its way. To its leadership, at least, Scottish nationalism is not for Scotland, merely against majoritarian democracy in Britain.

But this dependence on patronage and concession made the SNP’s position too precarious. Having forsworn demagogy, it could now only petition Westminster to carry through its own project by degrees. Up till now, it had always found a receptive audience. But were even the feeblest of unionism ever to emerge in London, it would be out of road.

So it proved. After 2016, London took the bold and daring step of not allowing the SNP to hold another referendum at the time of its choosing and with its own gerrymandered franchise. This threw the party into a crisis from which it never fully recovered. The end, when it came last year, was suitably anticlimactic. Scottish nationalism, as practised, did not survive contact with a unitary British state that was prepared to take even the smallest of steps to preserve itself; and it perished over a trifle. The decision to veto the Gender Recognition (Scotland) Bill in January 2023 was a humdrum affair, entirely normal under any federal or pseudo-federal structure. But it has probably buried the SNP for a generation.

Buried, but dormant. In Westminster, devolution remains the solution to all political problems, and has indeed been given energy anew by recent events. Britain’s governing classes now believe that devolution is the best bar to the populist threat. They could not have been more clear about this: every anti-establishment vote from the British people is interpreted as, really, an inchoate cry against London, and for local autonomy. People in Teesside did not truly want lower immigration, it was said — only an Assembly of the North East, and a Mayor.

Rather than any change of course, Britain’s rulers have answered populism with devolution: to reroute and blunt public anger at the direction of national policy; and, still more, to break up the unified British body politic that had just delivered those results. It is proposed to dismember an ancient constitutional polity and hand over the fragments to a series of local fanatics and workaday crooks, in exchange for the assurance that these people will preserve the country from populism.

“Rather than any change of course, Britain’s rulers have answered populism with devolution”

For their part, the British people have been vaguely bewildered by devolution. For all that is made of a clamour for regional identity and local belonging, the mandates for the new devolved assemblies and metro mayors have been derisory. The recent election for Mayor of the North East had a turnout of 31%; for the Mayor of York and North Yorkshire it was 29.89%. In May of 2022, the people of Bristol voted to abolish their Mayor and return to the old system of council oligarchy. The Liverpool mayoralty has collapsed in scandal. London politics only really exists insofar as there have been attempts to artificially wall it off from the rest of southern England: the battle over Ulez being the case in point.

Devolution, as a means to bar the way to populism, may yet reawaken Scottish nationalism. Gordon Brown’s plan for a new federal constitution, A New Britain, includes such howlers as giving the Scottish Government the ability to conclude its own international treaties. These proposals are already being watered down, and are unlikely to be adopted in full. But they show a clear direction of travel — even as Scottish separatism itself starts to sputter out. The end of the British union, if it comes, will have been entirely self-inflicted.

More than anything else, it will be a tragedy. Great Britain was created as a vehicle to unleash the energies of two almost uniquely talented peoples: people who had much in common anyway, but were being forever side-tracked by a tedious and endless cousins’ war. Union seemed to make everything young again. Union meant that the Scottish and the English could turn outwards. They pounced on the world with a boyish enthusiasm unequalled since the days of Alexander.

Devolution aims to bring this grand enterprise to an end. It offers — demands — a slower pace of life for the island and its people. The United Kingdom was created to do Something. One gets the sense that Decentralised Britain — introverted, particular, ruminating — is by design meant to do nothing.

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