Devolution has stoked brutality and division in our politics

How, as a half-Scot, how do I feel about the resignation of Nicola Sturgeon? I think there’s something admirable about admitting you’ve become an obstacle to the thing you care about most. But I also fear that her exit will do little to quash the relentless quest for division that has become a hallmark of devolution.

I am half Scots, a quarter English, an eighth Welsh and an eighth Cornish (this may sound odd, but it matters to me). I don’t regard anyone with a Scots, Irish or Welsh accent as an enemy. But Sturgeon and the SNP regard me as an English marauder for having an English accent and living in London. So, it seems, do Mark Drakeford and the Welsh Labour party. During the pandemic, the Welsh government closed its borders to the evil English, leaving us unable to visit my Welsh mother-in-law, even if just to stand outside her house and wave.

Sturgeon’s was a dignified exit. Like Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand, she left amid falling poll ratings, and cited the personal toll exacted by politics. Unlike Ardern, who is raising a young child, Sturgeon wisely did not over-emphasise this. Having been a brutal tactician, quelling internal dissent and now leaving her party with no clear successor, her mention of the “brutality” of life as a politician was double-edged. We should all worry that politics is an increasingly thankless game, especially for women. But it does women in public life no favours to claim they’re not up to it: far better to admire Sturgeon for what she has been, a tough and shrewd operator.

Sturgeon was absolutely right that “no one individual should be dominant in any system for too long”. Nor, arguably, should any one party. We see it at Westminster, where the Conservatives, despite having claimed to be “new” under five different prime ministers, are exhausted and divided. But we see it writ large in the devolved administrations of Scotland and Wales.

For 15 years, since the SNP won control of Holyrood in 2007, Scotland has increasingly felt like a one-party state. The party’s relentless focus on independence has conveniently distracted from a lacklustre record in the prosaic matter of governing. A prolonged lack of competition at the ballot box has produced a cult of the leader. I’m told by one MSP that the selection process for Sturgeon’s successor will be “Soviet”, because the machine has been built around her.

There was a flavour of this in Sturgeon’s insistence on pushing a gender reform bill which was badly out of touch with the public: half of Scots even supported those awful southerners in Westminster blocking the bill. So Rishi Sunak can claim his own part in her downfall, though Labour is more likely to reap the electoral benefit.

When one party becomes so dominant it can lead to infighting, rather than a focus on serving the public. There is a flavour of this too in Wales, which has been run by Labour, sometimes with Liberal Democrat or Plaid Cymru support, since the first Welsh assembly elections in 1999. This is a problem, according to the Welsh professor Roger Awan-Scully. His book The End of British Party Politics?, charts the UK’s fraying, as voters are presented with increasingly disconnected political choices. In 2015 and in 2017, four different parties came first in the UK’s four nations.

You would think that having the levers of power so near at hand would enable a focus on improving public services. But that seems not to be the case. Scotland spends 27 per cent more per head on public services than England, and 13 per cent more than Wales (where the population is older, poorer and sicker than in Scotland), according to the IFS. Yet Scotland has one of the lowest life expectancies in western Europe, and the highest proportion of preventable cancers in the UK.

Despite the SNP spending substantially more on schools than England, Scottish secondary pupils do not outperform their English peers on international assessments. And the share of 18-year-olds going to university has grown faster in England, despite Scotland spending much more to underwrite free tuition. Over the past decade, the Welsh NHS had consistently longer waits for A&E and referral to treatment than England, according to the Nuffield Trust. Raise these issues, however, and it’s always someone else’s fault.

Stoking division is perhaps more fun than dealing with dull issues of infrastructure and services. Had Sturgeon stayed, she faced pushback over a bottle-return scheme and a consultation to ban alcohol advertising, which upset the whisky industry.

Sturgeon didn’t invent the independence cause: it was burning bright even when I was growing up. My parents had friends in Scotland who refused to come south of the border (we had to go and see them) and friends in Wales who were the same. But we had so much in common, it seemed sad that politics accentuated our differences.

Gordon Brown and Tony Blair unleashed Scottish devolution in the hope of stalling the momentum towards independence. Instead, inadvertently, they increased it, which amplified divisions within each nation of the UK. Friends in Scotland complain that politics is so toxic it’s not something you want to discuss around the dinner table. Commentators focus on the fact that around half of Scots want independence. But half don’t: the appalling economic legacy of Brexit is a stark reminder of the risks of going solo.

It would be nice to imagine that we might now get a kinder, gentler politics. Of course we won’t. We Unionists will stumble on.

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