The British Way

H.C.G. Matthew on devolution

This, if I understand it, is one of those golden moments of our history; one of those opportunities which may come and may go, but which rarely return, or, if they return, return at long intervals, and under circumstances which no man can forecast.’ Thus Gladstone, unsuccessfully commending to the Commons the first Home Rule Bill, for Ireland, in 1886, a Bill which set the terms of discussion about major constitutional change in the United Kingdom and established categories which remain remarkably unchanged today, as we face up to Scottish and Welsh devolution. Gladstone captured the initiative from the federalists and the out-and-out separatists, by presenting ‘home rule’ as a beguiling autochthonous solution. Federalism was and is systematic and logical, but it lacks a historical or national base. Home Rule recognises the existence of nationalist groupings which can express a demand for devolved power through their elected representatives at Westminster, and does so without the need for a priori constitutional planning or a constitutional convention. Federalism would need a new constitution, Home Rule devolves within the old one.

The proposals of 1886, 1893 and 1912-14 met with a hostility unmatched in British politics since the Napoleonic Wars. This was only partly because of the Ulster question. Home Rule was felt to be a betrayal of all that England had worked to create over the preceding five centuries: a United Kingdom with a clear and simple sovereignty expressed through the statutory and executive powers that the Crown-in-Parliament represented. This equipped the UK to govern its Empire and to fight its wars. Individual rights were to an extent safeguarded by the Common Law, but by the late 19th century this was fast being eroded as an effective balance to statutory power. The UK at its zenith was an engine of exceptional sovereign power. But because power could shift at general elections, it had to be deployed with caution and restraint.

The Conservative Party’s insistence on the purity of this sovereignty and its willingness to use the House of Lords to block Home Rule Bills passed by the Commons were high-risk strategies: if there was no ‘give’ there might, in time, be a great deal of ‘take’. This, indeed, was what happened in Ireland, where the Home Rulers, despite their frustrations, remained Home Rulers from the 1870s until the outbreak of the First World War; but once war began, with the struggle of 1912-14 still having produced no parliament in Dublin, other, quite different forces gained ascendancy and the demand for Home Rule was soon replaced by republican separatism. Too late, the Conservative Party (the majority party in the Lloyd-George coalition) responded with the Government of Ireland Act 1920, which conceded the principle they had for the previous forty years declared wholly unacceptable.

Unionism continued for much of this century to have a powerful appeal in Britain, and not only within the Conservative Party. The new Labour Party, though it was committed from the start to Home Rule-all-round (the movement which also included Scottish and Welsh Home Rule), found the Constitution as it stood highly convenient, even allowing for the House of Lords, which rarely intruded in practice. The nationalisation programme of the 1945-51 Government would have been highly problematic under any other constitution, especially a federal one. The Crown-in-Parliament system allowed the acquisition of property for the nation by statute – railways, coal mines or hospitals – without the possibility of recourse to law by such property-owners as objected. And it enabled national standards to be quickly established in insurance, health and education (the independent schools could have been nationalised without legal difficulty, had Labour been so inclined). Compared with what faced democratic socialist governments elsewhere, the Unionist Constitution was something of a left-wing paradise.

What factors, then, have led to the present remarkable position, in which a Parliament in Edinburgh will be established almost by consensus? Because each Bill responds to a particular nationality and its expression, each Home Rule episode, the present one included, has its own characteristics. But wider and more fundamental changes mean that the Government of Scotland Bill 1998 is a world away, in political terms, from the Government of Ireland Bills 1886-1914, even though their legislative character is quite similar. Two factors are of special interest.

First, the decline of the ‘theory of decline’. The Unionists originally posited a United Kingdom and Empire which was largely an imagined, unhistorical, even anti-historical invention. The supposedly simple and united ‘Empire’ comprised three main parts: the Colonies of European settlement, India, and the post-1815 acquisitions in Africa and the Pacific. In the 19th century the Colonies received what had been denied to the American colonies in the 18th: representative government through the devolution of power from Westminster. Though this had a powerful Whiggish dynamic, the policy was largely bipartisan and two of the main statutes – that of 1867 for Canada and that of 1900 for Australia – were passed by Conservative governments. India was placed under the direct control of the British Government in 1858, but Liberal governments anticipated eventual devolution, and in a sense India already had devolved power, as its government was to some extent independent. Supported by the Royal Titles Act 1876, the Durbar frolickings of Lytton and Curzon, and by an extensive Imperial ideology, Unionists created an expectation of permanence which India’s history did not support; a significant gap grew between expectation and legislative and executive practice. Thus, much of the literature which argues that Britain has ‘declined’ ignores the contemporary acceptance, or even encouragement, of a change which was natural and was not regretted – a point acknowledged by Macmillan and Macleod in that remarkable and under-written episode of 1959-61, when the Unionist Government not only responded to a ‘wind of change’ but actually turned up the speed of the wind machine.

The idea of decline is linked to an assumption of economic ‘failure’ after the 1880s which has also been strongly contested. That Britain lost its remarkable lead in the world league tables was hardly surprising. What was surprising was its ability to maintain a buoyant economy – and to do so while shouldering heavy defence costs. These were initially high because of Imperial responsibilities, but, even after 1945, Britain was slow to reduce its defence capability despite diminishing worldwide commitments. (Other nations were quick to encourage us in this since it saved them money.) The years of Conservative government from 1979 to 1997 were devoted to combating this sense of decline. With their end has come a marked change: the younger generation is not, on the whole, disturbed by ‘decline’ and is amazed to find that other people are. The naturalness of the scaling-down of British power and expectation is now acknowledged, and this is of major importance for Home Rule: a good deal of the baggage of a century has rather suddenly been thrown out of the window.

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