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Mark Steyn

Topical Take

The Varispeed UK: All Exceptions and No Rule

It has taken a mere 17 years for Tony Blair's devolution proposals to bring Scotland to the brink of secession. Here's what I wrote at the time in The Sunday Telegraph on July 27th 1997:

The new devolved Parliament would have complete budgetary and administrative control over health, education, social services and the law. External affairs, international trade and defence would remain with the Government of the entire Kingdom.

As you'll have guessed, I'm referring to the Prince Regent's Sporazum of 1939 outlining a new division of responsibilities between the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and Croatia. True, it is not entirely identical to Labour's proposals for Scottish devolution - for example, the Sporazum, in terms far more generous than the Hungarian-Croat Nagodba of 1868, established an enlarged banovina with an executive Ban accountable to the Sabor. But it is the closest model, and doubtless it will prove as successful for the Scots and the Union as it has for the Croats and the Yugoslav union.

In one sense, the comparison is unfair: Prince Paul was far more cautious than Tony Blair. The Yugoslav Regent was proposing to confer customised privileges on only one of his provinces; Mr Blair wants to confer them on three. If he succeeds, then for the first time in its history the four constituent parts of the United Kingdom - which are (at the time of going to press) England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland - will have four quite separate forms of representative government. Progressive thinkers in Labour and the Liberal Democrats, aghast at the thought of a "multi-speed" Europe, are apparently quite happy to conjure into existence a multi-speed UK. The difference, of course, is that in Europe the constituent parts are either speeding or dawdling towards an ever closer union, whereas in the UK they'll be either speeding or dawdling away from it. It's important not to be left behind when the European train leaves the station, but when the new-look UK Hoppa leaves the bus depot, three of its four passengers will be hanging off the back ready to jump.

In fact I am not against devolution. After all, I live in New Hampshire, the most decentralised state in a decentralised Union: even after the Blair revolution, my small town of a few hundred Yankee highlanders will still have more control over, say, education (spending, tax-raising, curriculum requirements) than Westminster is prepared to allow the whole of Wales. But there's a reason why the United States is the most stable federation in the world: all its members have equal status. It seems it's possible to devise a division of powers that works for both California (with close to 35 million people) and Wyoming (with under half-a-million), but not for England and Scotland. The framers of the US Constitution would be bemused to find their yellowing document's ground rules now apply all the way from the South Pacific (Hawaii) to the Arctic Circle (Alaska), while Westminster can't even bridge the gap between the bogs of Fermanagh and the caravan parks of Llandudno.

In other words, the trouble with Mr Blair's modernised UK is this: it's all exceptions and no rule. The fact that all three Celtic quasi-nations will be on variable degrees of loosened leash is bound to be destabilising: it is not difficult to foresee, a few years down the road, a frustrated Welsh Assembly demanding the primary legislative powers of the Scottish Parliament; or Scotland seeking the same right to enter into agreements with sovereign states as has been proposed for Northern Ireland vis-a-vis the south. Inevitably, each Celtic model will wind up setting precedents and providing incentives for the others.

As the original example of UK devolution illustrates all too well, constitutional change tends to have a ratchet effect. The wilier Irish nationalists agreed to the limited Free State of 1922 - with its denial of a Republic, its Oath of Allegiance to the Crown, Dominion status within the Empire, Governor-General, Treaty ports and affiliation with Britain in external affairs - not because they were in favour of any of these things but because they understood that the Free State would be a useful staging-post to getting rid of them, swiftly and unobtrusively.

None of this will happen in Scotland or Wales tomorrow. But one day an unpopular Government in London will provoke the election of a hostile legislature in Cardiff or Edinburgh, determined to exercise its powers to the limit and shrewd enough to use its toytown parliament as a launchpad towards the real thing.

In my native Canada, Quebec City is home to a provincial legislature, but it is known as the National Assembly; they refuse to let the Lieutenant-Governor, the Queen's representative, read the speech at the Opening of the Assembly. It's not hard to imagine similar slights from a Scottish Parliament: most of those elected will be openly contemptuous or at best boorishly indifferent to their Sovereign. If you provide structures that enable a region to pretend to be a nation state, eventually it starts to become one. Thus, Quebec now has its own immigration policy: if you are a British subject and you wish to emigrate to Montreal, the Federal Government in Ottawa will have no say in the matter.

Fifty years ago, when Pakistan became independent, it divided its dignified and efficient roles between a ceremonial Governor-General and an executive Prime Minister. The British were surprised when Jinnah opted to become Governor-General, pointing out that the office had no real power. "If I am Governor-General," he said, "then that is where the real power will be." Likewise, if ambitious, charismatic, mischievous, talented Scots and Welsh politicians choose Edinburgh and Cardiff, then that is where the real power will come to lie. The only powers Westminster will be exercising throughout the realm are precisely those most coveted by the EU (defence and foreign affairs). Otherwise, given the disproportionate per capita spending on the Celts, Westminster will mostly (as Ottawa does with Quebec) be subsidising its own eclipse.

The novelty junkies like to cite Burke - "a state that cannot reform itself cannot conserve itself" - but this Government's constitutional car-boot sale - everything must go! unbelievable deals! - demonstrates a contempt for proprieties far sleazier than anything the Tories could cook up. The main reason Britain's Continental neighbours are so keen on the EU is that they have been colossal failures as nation states, perhaps because of their habit of rewriting their constitutions every generation. Germany's and Italy's date from the late Forties; France's from the late Fifties; those of Greece, Spain and Portugal from the Seventies; and Belgium's from circa a week ago last Tuesday, effectively dividing it into two separate countries that happen to share the same king.

And now Britain has joined them: truly Europeanised at last.

~from The Sunday Telegraph, July 27th 1997

from Topical Take, September 15, 2014

 

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