DEVOLUTION was always a bad fix for the territorial politics of the United Kingdom. It was necessary and from Scotland’s point of view has been beneficial, but it is a jerry-rigged solution, produced by a political system unable to contemplate real federalism.

As both the proponents and opponents of devolution before 1997 were right to realise, devolution could not be a lasting or stable settlement. It would destabilise the political system, creating imbalances and asymmetries that would, despite attempts to kick the can down the road, sooner or later have to be corrected.

“English votes for English laws” (EVEL) was one such correction. It was touted as a solution to the so-called “West Lothian question” – that a Scottish MP would not be able to vote on devolved matters within his or her own constituency, but would be able to vote on similar matters affecting England. From the point of view of the British state, EVEL had many merits. It was quick, cheap and easy to do.

It was also a mostly futile symbolic gesture that would not disturb the fusion of Anglo-British power. A better solution – an English parliament, or regional parliaments in England – would have stunted that power.

Either real powers would have to be given to places like Yorkshire and East Anglia, or else the British prime minister would have had to share power and prestige with a first minister of England who might well belong to a different party and have a different set of policy perspectives. Either outcome would be entirely unacceptable to the British government with its jealous, power-hoarding instincts.

In a proper federal system like Australia, Canada or India, there are lists of powers allocated to different levels of government, and different institutions responsible for exercising those powers. The Canadian parliament does not do double-duty as the legislature of Ontario. Neither can the Canadian parliament enact legislation for any province on a provincial matter – it would be unconstitutional.

The United Kingdom’s Parliament, under our devolved system, is different on both counts. Firstly, it does do double-duty as the parliament of England, with only an EVEL procedural quirk to stop the “Celtic fringes” from voting. Secondly, although devolution conferred certain powers on the devolved legislatures, it did not strip those powers from Westminster. Westminster retains (as a matter of law, leaving aside for a moment the important moral and political force of the Claim of Right) sovereign authority to legislate for all, or any part of, the United Kingdom.

The only constraint – the so-called “Sewel convention” – is that it should not “normally” legislate on a devolved matter, without the consent of the devolved parliament or assembly concerned.

These two quirks of the British system interact in interesting ways. The British Government, arguing that Brexit is no normal matter, and that the Sewel convention does therefore not apply, rammed the Withdrawal Bill through Westminster without the consent of the Scottish Parliament.

There were suggestions from the SNP that royal assent should, in consequence of such disrespect for devolution, be refused. Such suggestions were acts of symbolic protest, not likely to be taken seriously, but were nevertheless symptomatic of a system whose unwritten rules are no longer universally accepted or obeyed.

Having burst through the “soft guardrails” of mutual respect, restraint and forbearance (as Harvard University political scientists, Levitsky and Ziblatt put it in How Democracies Die) we are playing “constitutional hardball” from now on.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the nature of the Union itself. There used to be an understanding, amongst supporters and opponents of independence alike, that the Union rested on consent. If the people of Scotland wished to end the Union, they could do so – freely, peacefully and democratically.

The British Government, and Unionist sympathisers, might argue against independence – saying it would not be in Scotland’s national interest – but they would not stand in the way of allowing the people of Scotland to achieve it if they so wished.

That principle is now being undermined by the British Government. The old cuddly Unionism-of-consent has given way to a new, brittle Unionism-by-force.

When Johnson said get stuffed to a Section 30 order he showed contempt not only for Scottish democracy, but also for the longstanding – if unwritten – rules and tacit assumptions upon which the British system was built.

This appears to be part of a far-reaching and sinister plan to erode democratic norms, consolidate power, silence dissent, control the media, curtail human rights, and roll back the limited advances of the Blair-Brown years.

Johnson no doubt thinks he is strengthening the British Government’s hand by such measures.

In fact, by exposing the United Kingdom’s brittleness, fragility, and lack of moral authority, he is merely hastening its collapse.

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