Tories renege on devolution promise – the left must champion democracy and social justice

By Tom O’Donnell

The question of devolution for Scotland has not been resolved by the outcome of the referendum. All three leading Westminster parties made a pledge just days before the vote, vowing fundamental reform of Scotland’s governance and a strict timetable for its implementation.

The Tories have already reneged on the initial steps in that process. In a thoroughly reactionary move towards purely English nationalism, the Tory leadership has twisted its pledge so that it has become a discussion about greater rights for English MPs in Westminster, not the fundamental democratic rights of the people of Scotland.

The concern for a comprehensive constitutional settlement is entirely fake, a farcical repeat of the Tory pledge for greater powers to head off devolution in the 1979 referendum. That pledge was not made good until after Labour came to office in 1998. A recent piece by former Prime Minister Major in The Times makes clear that among the various Tory Party currents, the view is that even this devolution was a ‘mistake’ and should be opposed.

This highlights the fundamental forces at work and the strength of opposition to any democratic reform of the British state. Britain is one of the most centralist and undemocratic states in the world, with barely any local democracy, and devolved administrations which have fewer powers than most European mayors.

The relative decline of British imperialism and the domestic living standards it supported has taken place over the long-term. So too with the decline in its primary political instrument in the Tory Party. In the current period, these factors have fused to fuel the strength of opposition to Westminster rule in Scotland, where the population faces austerity measures implemented by parties who command only minority support.

The same is true increasingly true in Wales, in the north and in the big cities in England. The Tories (and Liberal Democrats) are minority forces, sometimes fringe parties in these key areas. They have long disappeared from the British colonial enclave in Ireland, and continue to block all democratic reforms there which would ultimately lead towards Irish self-determination.

The Tory response to the Scottish referendum is to embrace English nationalism, attempting to stem the tide of their own retreat towards their birthplace in the shires of southern England. The effort to block promised devolution, and greater democracy across Britain, is a flagrantly anti-democratic manoeuvre. They will attempt to unite all the reactionary forces in British society around this platform, including UKIP supporters as well as the fascist right. It should be completely opposed by all socialists and all democrats.

Instead, progressive forces should support a programme of democratic reform and social justice across Britain. In the case of Scotland, this means pressing for the greatest possible devolution of powers in the timetable that was promised. It also means all progressive forces supporting the democratic right of the Scottish people to determine their own future in a future referendum if that is demanded.

The demands for social justice predominated among Yes voters in Scotland, who were mainly workers and the poor, urban voters and the young. A deeply unpopular government risks the break-up of the state because it is so undemocratic. In the next period the struggle for social justice can only be waged across Britain, by fighting austerity, the fall in living standards, the dismantling of the NHS and so on. Yes supporters will need to unite with all those fighting for the same demands in England and Wales.

The oldest ruling class trick in the book is divide and rule. The desperate Tories are adding Scots to the long list of enemies within, after Muslims, black people, ‘scroungers’, working women, the poor, trade unionists, and so on. All democrats, the left and socialists should oppose their reactionary manoeuvres. We can unite around the demands for greater democracy and for greater social justice.