The legacy hunt is the final and fiercest battle of a parliamentary career.
Define yourself or your opponents will, and so years of skullduggery and compromise, near misses and outright disasters must be moulded into a monument to vision and leadership.
In the fading light of power, a valiant attempt is made to rewrite history to defy Enoch Powell’s dictum, and the self-justifications invented in these waning days will form the basis of forthcoming memoirs, with the working title ‘I Was A Good’un, You Fools’. All political lives still end in failure but these days failure comes with a six-figure advance.
The Prime Minister’s failure has been one of epic proportions — she should hold out for seven figures — and she is trying desperately to scrape together a legacy from the wreckage around her. Nothing obvious seems to cohere and so Nicola Sturgeon has stepped in with her assessment: ‘Scotland is heading inexorably towards independence; that will be Theresa May’s legacy.’ A three-year premiership dismissed in a dozen brutal words.
Is it true, though? May is not the author of our present crisis — that is David Cameron — but she merits a mention high up in the acknowledgements. She stepped in to douse a kitchen fire and ended up torching the entire neighbourhood.
But when it comes to Scotland, the story is very different. On what she calls ‘our precious Union’, she has been strong, reliable and consistently impressive. She may be the reason the UK has not exited the European Union but she is also the reason there is still a UK left to do so.
Brexit had every chance of tearing the Union apart and it might yet, but in those panic-soaked hours early on the morning of June 24, 2016, the threat was imminent. The UK had voted narrowly to Leave the EU, but voters north of the Border had overwhelmingly cast a ballot for Remain.
Nicola Sturgeon saw her opportunity, summoning the Press to Bute House to deliver Oscar-worthy intonations about the democratic outrage of Scotland ‘being taken out of the European Union against our will’. A re-run of the 2014 independence referendum was now ‘highly likely’. A fresh opinion poll appeared to vindicate her prophecy: 59 per cent of Scots were suddenly in favour of separation.
What happened next saw that momentum evaporate, and that was Nicola Sturgeon’s doing. What did not happen next was the second referendum the First Minister had demanded, and that was Theresa May’s doing. Bute House ramped up the rhetoric in the months that followed, eager to gin up the SNP base and frighten Westminster into conceding.
A lesser prime minister — a Cameron — would have taken affright and hashed out some deal but May did not flinch, politely but firmly telling Sturgeon ‘now is not the time’. The Nationalists might have unsettled her predecessor but May was made of sterner steel and more confident in her Britishness.
Cameron was remote, in favour of the Union but bloodlessly so, and he feared losing a popularity contest with Alex Salmond. May understood instinctively, unquestioningly, that Scotland and the SNP were not the same thing. She was Scotland’s Prime Minister and she wasn’t about to be ordered around by the convenor of a personality cult who had let it all go to her head.
When May spurned Sturgeon’s Indyref 2 ultimatum, all the clever people — the pundits and the academics and the pundits who pass for academics — predicted calamity. May understood Scots better from Westminster than the hive mind of the Holyrood establishment. They have never forgiven her for it.
In her inaugural speech on the steps of Downing Street, May reminded her party that its full name is the Conservative and Unionist Party.
‘That word Unionist is very important to me,’ she continued. ‘It means that we believe in the Union, the precious, precious bond between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but it means something else that is just as important. It means we believe in a Union, not just between the nations of the United Kingdom, but between all of our citizens, whoever we are, and wherever we’re from.’
On Brexit, she has always sounded like she was speaking someone else’s words; on the Union, it’s all her. Those who treasure the Union should grieve that Brexit got in the way of enshrining May’s Unionism in the political landscape. She wasn’t a great prime minister, or even a good’un, but she kept the country together. That is part of her legacy, too.
Neither man competing to replace her evinces quite the same passion for the Union. They are for it, but it is not central to their political identity. That is something either Boris Johnson or Jeremy Hunt will have to pick up on the job. It’s far from ideal when the Union is under acute threat.
One of May’s final, legacy-seeking decisions was to announce a review into devolution, to be headed by Lord Dunlop of Helensburgh. I am assured by a UK Government source that this is about examining constitutional structures and administrative functions and will not lead to more powers being transferred to Holyrood. ‘It’s about strengthening the Union,’ the text message on my phone reads. We’ve heard that one before.
Whoever succeeds Theresa May must ensure the Dunlop Review sticks to this remit and must not be tempted into believing another massive powers giveaway will solve the independence problem. The devolution juggernaut is more than capable of finding its own fuel without being topped up every few years by anxious Westminster politicians.
Every time they hand a power boost to Holyrood, they give the constitutional ratchet another twist in the direction of independence. Scotland does not need more devolution. Scotland needs a government willing to use devolution as something other than a platform for pursuing independence.
Ruth Davidson saw the necessity of halting the juggernaut before most and during her 2011 campaign to succeed Annabel Goldie as Scottish Tory leader, she pledged ‘a line in the sand’ against further weakening of the UK. In 2013, she abandoned that position and signed up to the cross-party consensus that more powers were needed to keep the UK together.
Whether her U-turn was tactical nous or a flash of fright, her original instincts have been vindicated: extra powers only made the Nationalists hungry for more.
Former Welsh Secretary Ron Davies, in a formulation often misattributed to Donald Dewar, said: ‘Devolution is a process. It is not an event and neither is it a journey with a fixed end-point.’ This has become the company motto of the devolution industry, and no wonder, for it promises them ever-expanding power far beyond anything the public voted for in the referendums. Devolution as slow-moving secession is something they are very relaxed about.
The next prime minister, if he wishes to leave office with the UK still in tact, must reject the creeping independence model and make it clear that the era of devolution is over. Of course, there will be tweaks required here and there but the current Holyrood settlement should not be expanded while it is being used as a battering ram against the United Kingdom.
If anything, Westminster should be looking at ways to curtail the excesses of the Scottish Government. Jeremy Hunt’s realisation that Scottish Ministers are pursuing their own foreign policy is belated but welcome. A First Minister who can jet around the world selling independence but can’t open a children’s hospital on time does not need more powers, she needs some perspective.
The incoming PM should have the confidence to govern as Theresa May did for the entire UK and leave Nicola Sturgeon to mull her own legacy: a health service neglected, education deprioritised, and independence undelivered.
Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at firstname.lastname@example.org.