The End of the Devolution Tour? What lessons from the Scottish Referendum?

One of the benefits of being one of the only Africanists in South Wales, during my time in at Swansea’s now (very sadly) defunct Centre for Development Studies, was my being wheeled out in front of visiting dignitaries from various African countries. The Welsh Assembly was one of the stops on the ‘Devolution Tour’, as governments under pressure from external funding agencies to decentralise were shown how it had worked in the UK. And in the absence of anyone else to call upon, I would be invited to come down to Cardiff. At one lunch I sat next to Raila Odinga, back when he was Minister for Roads, Public Works and Housing (the Welsh officials, understandably not au fait with Kenyan politics, sadly missed the undercurrent of power dynamics around the table). Another time I was brought in for a meal hosted by Rhodri Morgan for (then Vice-President of Sudan) Salva Kiir .

One diplomatic visitor (this time not from Africa) was clearly taking up the offer of a Devolution Tour to investigate opportunities for a holiday cottage on the Gower: which to be fair was possibly a better use of his time. I can’t believe any of these trips had any meaningful impact, other than boosting Wales’ presence on the international stage; and most of the VIPs shown around the Assembly, before jetting off to the Scottish Parliament, looked rather bemused as to exactly what they were supposed to take away from the experience beyond their goody bag and a decent meal.

The End of the UK

But what of the Scottish Referendum, which takes place tomorrow (Thursday 18th September)? Does this carry any lessons for African debates and processes of decentralisation, devolution and perhaps even the break-up of existing borders?

Attention will be being paid to the campaigns run by both sides for lessons on how to win or lose the argument. It has been clear over the past year or so that the Yes campaign has been the stronger. It has offered a positive model of what an independent Scotland could be, appealing to hearts, certainly, but also making the economic argument (and if there have been some weaknesses in that argument, so too has the No campaign fallen down in some of its arguments). The No campaign has appealed to heads over hearts, but has been largely characterised by a negative campaign of what divorce might mean rather than a positive view of what Union brings. But any aspiring secessionists take note: whilst you may be building on a sense of grievance, make sure you use the language of friendship and cooperation; make a strong case for economic stability, and preferably stability coupled with economic growth; remember that money – the actual hard stuff in your hands – matters, so be explicit about your currency plans.

For those looking for lessons on how to keep your country intact, the main lesson is that polling is much less certain in independence referendums than it is in legislative and executive elections, so don’t assume that any early indication that the No’s have it won’t change. The No campaign didn’t really get start going with any real passion until relatively recently (and perhaps too late?). Offer a positive reason to stay together. And if you have big beasts on your side, put them at the front of the campaign. Gordon Brown may come to rue his tribal instincts, given the dynamism, passion and power with which he has campaigned in recent days. A clash between Salmond and Brown in the televised debates would have been wonderful, and injected a much better sense of drama.

Inevitably, the campaigning has unleashed strong emotions on both sides. Stories of No campaigners being chased down the street by irate 5-year olds shouting ‘yes’, and journalists being intimidated (ITV’s Tom Bradbury perhaps rather unfortunately reflects on his experiences in Scotland compared to Northern Ireland). And of course there have been occasions where debate has turned nasty, and heckling has become intimidation. But a few (widely reported instances) should not detract from the fact that this has been a good and overall positive campaign. The leadership on all sides should be commended for trying to encourage respect and friendship across the independence divide. Secessionists, you might find that calling the media biased works well in mobilising support and the historical sense of neglect by the establishment. But remember you will have to rein in some of the passions unleashed after the referendum, so play these cards very carefully. Where politicians have routinely used violence, and stoked-up identity divisions, to secure victory, the language of campaigns, the allegations made, and the aspersions cast upon rivals, can have devastating consequences.

Another lesson is that the referendum is not actually an either / or process, no matter what it says on the voting slip. Indeed, Secessionist-in-waiting, it may be that you don’t actually want independence, but a lot more powers and resources for your region whilst remaining part of the country. An independence referendum, as Scotland shows, might be just the ticket. Alex Salmond’s charge that promises of greater devolved powers are a panicked response in the last days of the campaign are rather unfair: it has been clear over the past couple of years that should Scotland say No, its parliament is set to receive more powers (the UK government wanted a third option on the ballot, the so-called Devo-Max). It is probably true, however, that the closeness of the race has led to more concrete proposals than might otherwise have emerged. But, like a desperate lover trying to offer a reason, any reason, for the other to stay, presents are likely to be thrown at the party threatening to walk. More tax-raising powers? Of course, here you go. And did I say how lovely the Barnett Formula looks on you? So threaten, and perhaps actually hold, your referendum, but make sure you get more than ‘carry on as usual’ if the result is No.

Of course, for those of you wanting to make sure your country keeps its current borders, Scotland does show some of the dangers of devolution. By giving extensive powers to a region, you create a platform for secessionists to gain presence, power, and a platform for their demands. For one thing you can be sure, no matter how much power you give there will always be demands for more, and the moment you say no is the moment you can be characterised of seeking to dominate, colonise, and undermine regional government. Centralisation can look like an attractive option. Would the Scottish referendum have taken place without devolution in the late 1990s? Possibly not. But on the other hand, refusal to contemplate devolution may have created harder to control grievances, which would have led to a referendum on much worse terms. So in the place between the rock and the hard place, it’s probably best to try and make the best of the compromise. Devolution, when it works, can be good for all (and for all the flaws of the Devolution Tour, is probably where the best lessons can be noted). But make sure the transfer of power is real and substantial.

Whilst I’m not at all sure Scotland’s referendum holds any meaningful lessons for African countries, it does hold some for donors and international organisations who push the decentralisation agenda so heavily upon African (and other) countries. There is precious little evidence that decentralisation processes have made any real difference to economic and human development, democracy and transparency, availability of services and support, or any of the other promised miracles that will occur when decentralisation is put in place. This is partly because decentralisation can mean many things, not all of them leading to the outcomes donors expect, and some (many?) of which can actually concentrate power further at the centre. Malawi’s experience, for example, raises questions as to who the main beneficiaries have been. Where it has worked – and I would argue Scotland is an example here – it is because decentralisation was both real in terms of the power that was transferred (Welsh devolution has been markedly less successful for that reason); and because it was meeting an internal demand rather than the imposition of an externally-driven model (again, demand for devolution was much lower in Wales than in Scotland, although this might be changing). But I’m not sure that this is a lesson that one can only learn from Scotland. Kenya will be a very interesting country to look at, where its own decentralisation reflected long-standing internal debates rather than a donor-driven process. Researchers are already looking to see what difference counties and the established regional governance institutions will make to Kenyan governance and politics overall.

So are there any significant lessons from the referendum? Probably not. And if we’re looking for lessons, how about those for Scotland from similar processes in Africa and elsewhere? I’m sure that campaigners and politicians looked to experiences across the world, including Africa, for ideas for their own process.

What is probably much more important is what happens next, whatever the outcome. If Yes, how will the divorce process be managed? Will the bluster and obfuscation on both sides give way to reasoned negotiation? Will Westminster stop behaving like a spurned lover over the pound (you can’t have it, we had it first, look I’ve written my name on it) and come to a reasonable compromise? Will sharp barriers by set up, or a more relaxed sense of cooperation and collaboration?

If Scotland votes to stay, what changes to the devolution model will emerge, and how might that impact on the rest of the UK? Will my home of the South West be pushing for its own tax-raising powers or legislative assembly? Will English, of Welsh, or Cornish nationalism(s) rise, and will they do so in a positive rather than exclusive and exclusionary way? Will decentralisation be rolled out across the country as a whole?

So if it is lessons you are looking for, come back in six months to a year. But whatever the result, I’m sure we’ll see the continued flow of African government officials to London, Cardiff and Edinburgh. Whether they will be asking how devolution can work for them, or how separation can be made less painful, we’ll have to see.


About Mike Jennings

I am Reader in International Development and Head of the Department of Development Studies at the SOAS, University of London. I research, teach and write on Africa, and the history and politics of international development in sub-Saharan Africa. Research areas include: - The history of development in Africa, from the late nineteenth century to the current day - Politics of East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda) - the role of non-state providers (NGOs, FBOs and self-help groups) in welfare service provision - Social aspects of health, including HIV and AIDS, and malaria
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