Devolution 20 Years On
Twenty years on, devolution, which seemed a historic victory at the time, now seems an event marking a timid and low-aspiration politics. At the time screeds were written about the fact that all MSPs would have email addresses and how the oval debating chamber would breed a new ‘consensual’ politics.
Derided as a ‘pretendy parliament’ by Billy Connolly and a ‘Parish Council’ by Tony Blair it was opposed by the Conservatives, and some within Labour, and delivered by a managerial Blair government with a barely concealed subtext to “shoot the nationalist fox”. The wonderfully unhinged George Robertson declared devolution would “kill the SNP stone dead”.
As Cailean Gallagher, Rory Scothorne and Amy Westwell write in the Roch Winds:
“Most political systems develop over centuries: parties develop to represent interests or ideologies, align with social and economic groups, and vie for control of state power. But the Scottish Parliament was conceived in a lab, and delivered by a Labour Party reluctant to hand Scotland the sort of governing apparatus that might give those who control it the appearance or responsibilities of a national government.”
“In this play-pen parliament, politicians shuffle papers and snipe behind each other’s backs about mismanagement and manipulation of the committee structures like Douglas Adams’ Vogon bureaucrats. They read out turgid speeches in the round consensual space of the chamber, feeding lean political issues into the rhetorical grinder and churning out mince. Then they toddle off to their respective meetings to issue curt opinions and scroll through Twitter, yawn, attend a drinks reception in the parliament lobby, and go home. Its processes may lack Westminster’s archaic rituals, but it is certainly just as stale.”
It’s certainly true that Holyrood’s early days weren’t promising.
The original proposed parliament building was dismissed as a “nationalist shibboleth” and instead the Miralles-Dewar parliament building was commissioned and built with a £10 million to £345 million overspend. If the financial mismanagement was seen as a dire start it is largely forgotten today. The building was deemed to combine “a successful amalgamation of the work of Scotland’s architect-hero, Mackintosh, and Catalonia’s architect-saint-in-the-making, Antoni Gaudi, shot through with the originality and sensitivity of Miralles”.
It’s easy to deride but few buildings evoke poetry and when Kathleen Jamie wrote “an upturned boat / – a watershed” she reflected the sense of a sea-change that was palpable. When Sheena Wellington sang Burns’s 1795 song, “A Man’s a Man for a’ That,” instead of “God Save the Queen” at the parliament’s opening there was ‘not a dry eye in the house’ and further sense of history in the making. When Rosie Kane and others declared her “oath was to the people” when she was sworn in (in 2003) there was further sense of a parliament that could be different. Arguably much of this is / was window-dressing, but it’s not all inconsequential. And whilst its true that Labour’s intentions were managerial and the parliaments powers limited, it was – and is – a fluid state – not an end point. There’s no settled will. To mark devolution simply as a Labour ruse or as a powerless entity is misleading given what has – and may still – flow from it.
As Professor of Scottish History Christopher Whatley writes:
“Within two years, a Scottish parliament was established at Holyrood following the Scotland Act of 1998. It was a pivotal moment in the history of Scotland and the United Kingdom. After nearly three centuries Scotland had begun to recover what had been lost in the Union of 1707 with England. It was the culmination of more than a century of campaigning. National self-confidence grew over that time, as did a belief in the ability – and right – of the Scottish nation to govern itself. Post-war central planning under Labour had gone too far. Scots became increasingly dissatisfied with English insensitivity to Scottish distinctiveness, and Westminster’s inability to respond to Scotland’s particular needs.
Holyrood is now firmly embedded. Further Scotland acts in 2012 and 2016 extended the parliament’s powers significantly beyond those originally envisaged. Members of the Scottish parliament (MSPs) are more accessible and less distant, physically and metaphorically, than Westminster MPs.”
We have gone from a situation where a Scottish Assembly was thought unthinkably ambitious by some 48% of those who voted in 1979, to one where, as Gerry Hassan writes: “The Scottish public now view the Scottish parliament, rather than Westminster, as the most important political institution. Irrespective of formal independence, Scotland already has an informal independence of the mind in how it talks, thinks and acts.”
The important factor here is agency and proof through experience.
Holyrood didn’t come into being as a gift, it came into being after more than a century of campaigning.
It was fought for and won, not given.
It’s successes (such as the smoking ban) stand next to its inability to overcome entrenched internal interests (such as minimum pricing on alcohol). You can argue about the reasons why: lack of effective powers or lack of ambition or incompetence, but it has largely failed to make an impact on structural social matters such as poverty and inequality.
For a full study of devolution’s impact on low-income people and places – see the Joseph Rowntree Foundation reports here.
It’s worth remembering that none of this was supposed to happen. The second question – on tax-varying powers – was added as a spoiler.
It should not be forgotten that the official No campaign, Think Twice, was headed by Brian Monteith, a former employee of the Scottish Conservative MP, Michael Forsyth. Board members included Donald Findlay, a QC, Rector of the University of St Andrews and vice-chairman of Rangers F.C. But opposition to devolution wasn’t confined to the True Blues. Staunch unionists like Brian Wilson MP opposed it and remain unconvinced to this day. The thread of unionism that runs through the Labour Party to this day could be found in the hands of Wilson, Robertson and Dalyell decades ago. The extent to which the forces of unionism feared any form of secession, accountability or devolved power could be seen then as now.
The experience of the past twenty years shows that retaining and enhancing political power is possible but not inevitable.
The same forces that opposed devolution then will try to dilute and dissolve that power now.
The threat of a Brexit “power grab” is very real. As Mike Russell has stated: “There is already a constitutional crisis here. If they push on without consent it will become deeper and much more intense. They would be legislating for both Scotland and Wales without our consents and that would be the first time that has happened in 20 years.”
If the seeds of devolution and the democracy movement were sown in the anti-Poll Tax movement of the late 80s, the resistance movement contesting change, defending privilege and challenging and ridiculing cultural expression could be seen then too.
The lessons are clear: the British State won’t cede power. Central governments cling to and expand power as a reflex. Power is contested and has to be fought for and defended.
Despite the best efforts of the Daily Express (right) and other embedded journalists, the growing ‘belief in the ability – and right – of the Scottish nation to govern itself’ is unlikely to go anywhere. Added to this dynamic, through which people witness the ability – and limitations of devolved government – is a new and more compelling one.
Since 1997 we have witnessed the faltering of British credibility from the dizzy heights of Blair’s landslide, “A new dawn has broken – has it not?” – to the shambling catastrophe of Brexit negotiations. From a sense of hope to a sense of effortless decline. From Robin Cook’s ethical foreign policy to Boris Johnson’s farcical foreign policy. British identity is collapsing and the idea – put forward by Better Together – of Britain as a source of multicultural progressiveness in opposition to Scottish exclusivity and parochial nationalism – lies dead and buried in the wake of the reactionary politics unleashed by Brexit.
In 1997 most people thought that the key to political change was devolution and a Labour government. What’s happened in the intervening period has been an exercise in mass political education. That can’t be undone.
In twenty years time it’s unthinkable that we’ll have less power and almost certain that we’ll have more.
The dynamic between the corruption of British political institutions and the potential of emergent Scottish political institutions make this inevitable.
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