Boris Johnson, devolution, and where power really lies

September 14th, 2014

With the imminent Scottish referendum, you would be forgiven for thinking that the real debate is about how devolved should power be. Gordon Brown’s increasingly prominent role for the Better Together campaign shows a shift to a focus on Devo max versus independence. The growing consensus appears to be that people should be empowered to make decisions in their own lives but it is the degree of self governance that is up for grabs.

Against this background, Boris Johnson has been selected as the Tory candidate for Uxbridge and South Ruislip. He is one of the few people not to have declared any secret Scottish attachments recently (in a very crowded field) but his decision is relevant for Scotland. Boris Johnson is one of the few people who can be said to be more self aggrandising and power hungry than Alex Salmond. If the tales are true, then one of Boris Johnson’s first political decisions was whether to pursue his political ambitions in the UK or the US, the latter being a path open to him by virtue of his having been born in America.

So how is the example of Boris Johnson relevant to the decision those living in Scotland will make this week? It should not be forgotten that as Mayor of London, Boris Johnson has had front line experience of the devolution project started under New Labour. The creation of the role of Mayor of London was part of Labour’s drive to concentrate political power outside of the Westminster hub. It is perhaps one of the most powerful political roles outside of the Cabinet with budgetary responsibility for £14.6 billion including overseeing the Metropolitan police, a vast public transport system and London’s housing (http://www.londonelects.org.uk/im-voter/what-mayor-london-and-london-assembly-do)

Despite the mayoral position representing what could be the apex of Boris Johnson’s career he has been determined to return to the House of Commons. Leaving aside his running two jobs concurrently and his broken promise to not to stand as an MP while mayor, it is a striking decision. If the power and influence is increasingly being concentrated outside of Westminster than why seek to return there. Certainly, Johnson’s early shadow ministerial career under Michael Howard was neither long lived or glamorous.

What I believe it tells us is that in an increasingly global world there is a greater need for decisions on certain issues like the economy and security to be made at a national and trans national level. With the continued rise of powers like India and China as well as international threats like the Islamic State, prosperous and secure states will be those that resist the forces that threaten to fragment them. These are not fights that we can bow out of and nor should we attempt to. Decreasing our military capacity, against a background of escalating violence in Syria, Iraq and Ukraine to name a few, is naive at best.

Corny as it may sound, we really are better together. The ability of the United Kingdom to punch above its weight on the international stage is because of its unique and historical combination of Northern Ireland, Wales, England and Scotland. Not all decisions can be or should be devolved to local level. We have to be clear about why certain decisions are made at a national level and why that benefits all of us. That is the real positive case for the continuation of the union. We are stronger, more stable and more prosperous as a union.

If local power really packed the punch that Alex Salmond says it will, then why is Boris Johnson rolling the dice to return to Westminster? It is because Boris Johnson knows that devolved power is a ballast to a strong union and not a replacement.