After 20 years of Devolution, Can the Union Survive? – Tony Blair
The following speech was given by former Prime Minister Tony Blair at a Reform Scotland event on 8th October 2019
20 years ago, opinion was divided over the merits of devolution. Some said it would end the claim for Independence. Others said it would be the slippery slope which led to it. 20 years on, neither side has been proved right. But the referendum of 2014 seemed to bring closure at least for the time being.
Then came Brexit. As we speak, virtually any of the Brexit options is possible from No Deal Brexit to No Brexit. In fact, those most extreme options could be the most possible. If we have this conversation on the 25th anniversary of Devolution, we could be talking in the context of a United Kingdom restored to stability or one in the process of being broken up.
Such is the starkness of the choice before us.
When people say to me why are you putting your back so actively into stopping Brexit, I say because it is a decision not for an election cycle but for a generation or more, and it is decision I believe with every fibre of my political brain and heart is a mistake of profound and historic proportions.
Of course, the fact that former leaders are of one view doesn’t make that view correct. But it would give a rational person pause for thought. However, these are not ‘pause for thought’ times.
Brexit is an existential threat to the United Kingdom. It imposes a strain on the tensile material holding us together. It gives those who would break it, an additional point of weight. I say that as a convinced Unionist, who will remain so, even if Brexit happens.
The proposed Johnson Deal adds to that strain. It envisages Northern Ireland staying within the European trading structure of the Single Market, even as Britain, including Scotland, leaves it, despite the clear will of the Scottish people.
The reasons for the Union between England and Scotland remain powerful. But the separate treatment of Northern Ireland when Scotland too has substantial interests in staying within Europe’s trade zone, will not go unremarked.
Yet the Brexit fanatics in the Conservative and Unionist Party appear indifferent to the effect of it on the Union.
The risk in the present debate is that those opposed to Brexit in England are winning the Parliamentary and legal battles but not moving the battle for public opinion.
We have to re-focus on some fundamentals:
- No Deal Brexit is not No problem. It is an unprecedented step no modern developed nation has taken, wrenching our economy overnight out of all its preferential trade agreements in an utterly irresponsible gamble with our living standards.
- Even a negotiated Hard Brexit is still Hard. It means for both industry and service sectors leaving trading relationships built up over decades with the countries on our doorstep and engaging in a fantasy that we can replace them with those on a different continent.
- Neither No Deal nor Hard Brexit is the end of Brexit. We are not ‘moving on’ in those scenarios but moving to the next phase of the Brexit agony.
- There is nothing undemocratic in these circumstances in giving the British people the final say on any deal or the absence of one. In June 2016 we knew what we were leaving but not where we were going. Now we do. We should be entitled to pronounce on it.
- Now that everyone accepts that if Parliament is in deadlock, we should return the decision to the people, it should be done via a referendum not a General Election. The Cummings briefing this morning in the Spectator makes it absolutely clear what the Tory strategy is: to mix Brexit up in a General Election. This is an elephant trap of width and depth with large neon signs around it, saying ‘Elephant Trap. Elephants of limited awareness please fall in.’ I say to MPs: AVOID IT! Have an election by all means; but not to decide Brexit. If Brexit is the question ask it of the people specifically, not in a General Election.
We are in this perilous situation because British politics has broken down.
We will only escape it, when the centre of politics re-establishes itself as its strong core. This is true of the UK and true also of Scotland. The march to the extremes of both Labour and the Conservative Party – one in the hands of the far left, the other morphing into a Brexit obsessed nationalist Party – has been a disaster for the country. The Government is essentially mimicking the Brexit Party; and instead of being faced with a coherent and unifying Opposition we have one sectarian in its own politics and promising a revolution in the country’s politics.
Populism will exhaust itself in time. But here is the tragic dimension to Britain’s populist insurgence. In other countries, populism has taken the form of the election of leaders and Governments, whose tenure is naturally transient. Britain’s populism has expressed itself in a decision of policy which is permanent.
Politics must renew its core strength. Its centre. A place of reason. A place of maximum agreement and respectful disagreement. The place where radical change is pursued but of the practical and sensible kind, the kind which works.
It is also what Scotland needs. There will be a continuing debate around Independence. But those opposing it need a strategy which celebrates the Union of the UK, sees advantage in nation states being part of a bigger alliance such as the European Union, and understands that changing lives depends less on constitutions than on courageous and forward thinking policy and maps out an agenda for the future. The single most important agenda item will be the technological revolution. That – not Independence or Brexit – should dominate our politics.
It is that revolution which will re-shape everything. Understanding it requires an open mind and networks of connectivity. Such an attitude is not the hallmark of a citizen of nowhere, it is merely the recognition that to be a successful citizen of somewhere, you need to be open to people everywhere.