Telegraph (my added emphases):
Tony Blair has admitted his government made a “mistake” by failing to do enough to ensure that devolution of powers to Scotland did not undermine the United Kingdom’s national identity.
The former Prime Minister insisted that he still believes he was right to create national assemblies in Edinburgh and Cardiff in 1999, arguing that resisting demands for the devolution of power would have stoked up demand for outright independence.
But, in a new book entitled British Labour Leaders, he acknowledged that he did not understand at the time the importance of maintaining cultural unity between the different parts of the UK…
Mr Blair said: “I did feel that we made a mistake on devolution. We should have understood that, when you change the system of government so that more power is devolved, you need to have ways of culturally keeping England, Scotland and Wales very much in sync with each other.
“We needed to work even stronger for a sense of UK national identity. But I don’t accept the idea that we should never have done devolution. If we had not devolved power, then there would have been a massive demand for separation – as there was back in the 60s and 70s.”
I’m a bit surprised at Blair fretting over British ‘cultural unity’. It wasn’t with devolution that Blair undermined British cultural unity. He did that with the smoking ban, which dealt a shattering blow to cultural unity, dividing society into valued and included non-smokers and reviled and excluded smokers, and turning friends against friends, husbands against wives, sons against fathers.
Cultural divisions are probably the most visible when they are experienced as an earthquake in one geographical location – like Scotland. By contrast, the deep cultural divisions created by smoking bans were experienced equally and everywhere, at more or less the same time, and didn’t show up on the political seismographs. In fact, the UK smoking ban was probably counted as a great success simply because there wasn’t rioting on the streets accompanying its introduction on 1 July 2007.
Also, much of the damage was invisible. Friendships are invisible and intangible bonds between people, and the snapping of ties of friendship entails the fracture of something invisible which have no immediate direct effects comparable to the snapping of a geological fault. And since the smoking ban had been deemed a great success from day one – no riots -, it was easy to find other explanations for the closure of thousands of pubs than the fact that smokers were staying away from them, or the rise of UKIP as millions of smokers shifted their political allegiances.
The political class counts smoking bans among their few successes. There seems to be a conviction that a valuable and irreversible change has been made in British culture. This is probably one reason why the UK government has followed up with further extensions to the smoking ban in the form of tobacco display bans, plain packaging, and car smoking bans. They were all more of the Same Good Thing.
But I think that, despite its apparent success, the smoking ban will one day come to be seen as a catastrophic mistake, compounded by several further mistakes. It was true that there was no immediately visible damage after the ship hit the reef. It did not begin to start to list or settle in the water. Reports from below decks did not seem to indicate any hole in the hull through which water was pouring. The sudden coincidental abandonment of the bars and cafes on the lower levels was put down to a new preference by passengers for the bars on the open decks. And so the captain ordered full speed ahead, and continued on his course to the open ocean. But the impact had left the ship deeply structurally compromised. Invisible beneath layers of paint, thousands of the rivets that held the ship together had fractured. Entire bulkheads and trusses had lost much of their strength. And as the ship proceeded out into the open ocean, the ordinary stresses induced by the deepening swell gradually caused further rivet failures, and lengthening hairline fatigue fractures traced paths from rivet to broken rivet. The ship had become as fragile as an eggshell, and it was steadily getting weaker all the time. The end came quite suddenly, on a sunny day in calm waters, when the captain ordered a sharp turn to starboard – and the ship slowly folded in half, the decks collapsed, water came pouring in everywhere, and it sank within minutes.
The ship, of course, is the ship of civil society, and the rivets that hold it together are the numerous invisible ties between people – family ties, ties of friendship, work ties, ties of many kinds. And when a great many of these ties have been broken, the entire ‘cultural unity’ of society is compromised. And if the damage is progressive, society is held together by fewer and fewer ties, and disintegration gradually becomes inevitable.
I don’t really understand why Scotland now seems set to secede from the Union – some Scot may care to enlighten me -, but I’m quite sure that the social fragmentation wrought by smoking bans has weakened Scottish civil society just as deeply as elsewhere in the (dis)United Kingdom. And having lost in the process many of the rivets that tied Scotland to England, the ship may now be folding in half. And Tony Blair is looking at the wrong piece of legislation as he tries to explain Britain’s mysteriously lost cultural unity.