So much for the great Prime Ministerial reset.
Just days after the climax to an extraordinary internal power struggle in No 10, which prompted the departure of his two key advisers, Boris Johnson has blundered into another crisis — once again thanks to his ill-disciplined mouth.
With the Union under increasing strain, the Prime Minister told a meeting of Tory MPs on Monday night that devolution has been ‘a disaster north of the border’ and ‘Tony Blair’s biggest mistake’.
Following the departure of his two key advisers, Boris Johnson (pictured) has blundered into another crisis
His statement has some truth to it. But it is more the product of verbal incontinence than political strategy and will cause real damage to the case for both Unionism and Conservatism in Scotland, given that scepticism towards devolution is on a par with climate change denial in Scottish civil society.
Yet, though Mr Johnson’s outburst is likely to be an act of political folly, it has a refreshing honesty to it.
Disaster might be too strong a term. But devolution has been a huge disappointment since it was enacted more than two decades ago. Most of the grand hopes invested in it have been dashed. Far from dampening the flames of separatism, Scottish home rule has added fuel to them.
Rather than promoting enterprise, economic renewal and a vibrant political system, the creation of a new power base in Edinburgh has built something close to a one-party state, complete with a well-feathered nomenclatura and a compliant media.
Scottish officialdom and the political class have done extremely well out of devolution. The rest of Scotland, not so much.
Just days after his two key advisers left including Dominic Cummings (pictured), Boris Johnson has blundered into another crisis
The Tories have been accused of cronyism – similar to describe everything that was corrupt about Tony Blair’s (pictured) government
The losers have been a huge number ordinary Scots, for whom educational standards, financial prosperity and social mobility have all stagnated or even declined.
Privately, Tony Blair might admit that Mr Johnson was right. I don’t think his heart was ever in this process, but he was pressured into accepting it because devolution was seen by the Labour Party as the legacy of his late predecessor John Smith, who died from a heart attack in 1994, and at the insistence of Gordon Brown.
Mr Blair’s willingness to go along with the idea was reinforced by Labour’s belief that they would always be in power north of the border, having long had a stranglehold on Scotland’s politics, even when they didn’t control Westminster. But that arrogance was badly misplaced.
Devolution turned out to be the wrecking ball that was ruthlessly used by the Nationalists to demolish Labour’s Scottish citadels. In 1997 the senior Labour Shadow Cabinet Minister George Robertson famously predicted that the establishment of a Scottish Parliament ‘would kill nationalism stone dead’.
Just the opposite happened. Devolution created a taxpayer-funded command centre for the Nationalist cause in the heart of Edinburgh, churning out separatist propaganda, whipping up grievances against England, seizing control of the entire machinery of government and exploiting patronage to ensure its creed prevailed across the vital institutions of Scottish public life.
Throughout academia, the top of the public services, the voluntary sector, the civil service and the artistic/cultural elite, there is now a lucrative dependency culture, where jobs and grants are the rewards for sympathy to the cause.
The influence of the Nationalist machine has been further enhanced not just by the continuing transfer of powers from London to Edinburgh, but also through centralisation by the Scottish Government of local government autonomy.
In their own expensive fiefdom, the Nationalists do not practise devolution — they prefer to grab powers from town halls and local bodies. The recent replacement of local police forces with one national constabulary is a classic example of this.
It has hardly been a success. As a result of this remorseless expansion by the state, Scotland is now one of the most over-governed, bureaucratised countries in the Western world.
But sprawling officialdom and political obedience do not equate with effective rule. At the highest level, the calibre of Members of the Scottish Parliament is poor.
I reckon 70 per cent of them would not stand a chance of earning the same in the real world (unlike MPs in the Commons, where a majority could earn more not being MPs).
SNP governance has disappointed in many respects but perhaps most of all in education, for which Scotland used to be world famous.
For a long time, Scotland had a proud tradition of social mobility, where high standards and expectations in schools helped to ensure that bright but poor kids could overcome the disadvantages of their backgrounds.
The belief in excellence not only meant that Scotland proportionately sent more school-leavers to university than England, but also instilled them with the skills to succeed in any field.
It is no coincidence that in Britain’s industrial heyday, Scotland was at the forefront of engineering, invention, exploration, scientific advance and the running of the Empire.
I was the beneficiary of this high-quality approach. Although I was brought up in a council house in Paisley, I received an education at my local primary and then at Paisley Grammar school which would have matched that of any private, fee-paying institution in the South-East of England.
From there, I won a place at the University of Glasgow, one of the oldest universities in the world, where there were plenty of other working-class students. But under the SNP, this emphasis on achievement and mobility has degraded.
As standards fall, new barriers to progress have been erected, while the previous superiority over the English system has disappeared. One study in 2018 found that 20 per cent of school leavers in the most deprived areas of England still managed to get to university.
For Scotland the figure was just 13 per cent.
Similarly, in 2019 the number of students achieving passes in core higher subjects dropped significantly, just as international comparisons showed Scotland falling behind other countries in attainment.
According to Lindsay Paterson, Professor of Education Policy at Edinburgh University, Scotland’s system is ‘stagnating in mediocrity’.
It is the same story of failure elsewhere. The Nationalists may have built a large nomenclatura dependent on state spending, but there is no sign of a new entrepreneurial class or a dynamic new commercial sector, as exists in London or Manchester.
Most of the big earners in Scotland are not those who take risks and generate real wealth, but those who rely on the largesse of the state, like senior doctors, civil servants, quangocrats, judges, consultants and managers.
The Scots once built the British Empire. Now they build bureaucratic empires.
Nor has devolution created any inspirational new infrastructure that could symbolise a new spirit of national self-confidence, like a high-speed rail link between Edinburgh and Glasgow, which could have regenerated both cities and forged an impressive new urban conurbation of
global significance. While progress has stagnated on so many fronts the Nationalists have wallowed in the politics of perpetual victimhood, where the Westminster Government is constantly painted as the source of all Scotland’s problems.
Perhaps that explains why Scotland’s current rulers have done so little to combat embedded deprivation or poor health. Amazingly, male life expectancy in the East End of Glasgow is just 64.4 years, a threshold that is lower than in Djibouti in East Africa, Mongolia or Pakistan.
This means that Glaswegian men from the East End are on average likely to die before they can claim their state pension, an incredible indictment of Scotland’s political elite. In fact, the life expectancy gap between the UK and the poorest parts of Glasgow has worsened over the past 15 years. This is not simply because of ‘lack of resources’ as Nationalist myth-making suggests. In reality, spending in Scotland is almost £2,000 higher per head than the UK average.
The Edinburgh government is hardly short of resources, thanks to a multi-billion pound transfer of money from London, which would count as the highest budget deficit in Europe if Scotland was independent.
The Nationalists are cavalier about their dismal record in office. All that really matters to them is their ultimate goal of independence. All their actions are viewed through the ideology of independence rather than any impulse to improve the lives of their citizens.
Tragically, Boris Johnson’s ill-chosen words, like devolution itself, have only served to boost their crusade.
Boris Johnson has called Scottish devolution a disaster. Nicola Sturgeon (pictured) announced 11 local authority areas are being moved into the toughest coronavirus level from Friday