A familiar claim after the 1979 debacle was that a resurgent Scottish literature helped carry the fire for self-determination. In his introduction to the anthology Dream State (1994) Donny O’Rourke argued that it was the poets and writers more than the politicians who set about dreaming of a new Scotland.
The Catalan architect Enrico Miralles, one of Europe’s leading contemporary architects, was chosen unanimously from a worldwide list of 70 applicants to create the building. His outline designs for the £50M complex were intended to resemble a cluster of upturned Scottish fishing boats. Kathleen Jamie described it in a two-line aphorism “an upturned boat / a watershed”.
Devolution has been a useful stepping stone, a measurement of power and an exercise in partial democracy. We have two legislatures now, one we don’t elect and one we do, one that issues in destructive or dysfunctional legislation that the other one tries to mitigate. Its an extraordinary and unsustainable dynamic to be in.
But aside from the constitutional question, and within the limits of power it operates, devolution works.
Many good pieces of legislation have been enacted: land reform, the smoking ban, Tommy Sheridan’s (Scotland) Act 2000 and the Abolition of Poindings and Warrant Sales Act 2001, minimum pricing on alcohol, the ending of tuition fees, same sex marriage, and this weeks announcement of a deposit return scheme for bottles cans and plastic. It’s ironic that amongst the constitutional maelstrom these acts are seen as common sense practical and are generally accepted. They are just what a functioning democracy would do.
Holyrood has proved the case that people should make decisions about their own place, their own country, their own people. This has become unremarkable and almost un-political when once it was thought – remarkably – to be a terrifying and alien idea.
If devolution is a measurement of self-government it has strength and limitations.
Almost incredibly it has been good for the Conservatives who bitterly opposed it – and terrible for Labour, the party who claim to have created it.
If we want to measure decline you can witness the transfer of political leadership from Donald Dewar to Henry McLeish, to Cathy Jamieson to Jack McConnell to Wendy Alexander to Iain Gray to Johann Lamont to Jim Murphy to Kezia Dugdale to Richard Leonard, as the slow collapse of a once hegemonic power base and the disintegration of networks of patronage throughout central Scotland.
This shattering of power networks, which still holds some sway in the media and trade unions, is perhaps the greatest single achievement of devolution, but it has still to be replaced by a thriving dynamic and diverse assembly. Labour power has been replaced by SNP power, and smaller parties have been unable to make major breakthroughs, despite the smattering of independents and the under-achieving Greens.
Given the expectancy of twenty years ago, Holyrood, as a debating chamber is an uninspiring place. The public petitions committee is moribund, the calibre of public debate is often woeful, the set-piece debates are tribal and lacking in drama or rhetoric. Some of this has to be about the lack of the powers we actually require to run our own country, and some of this is about the continued draw of Westminster, which still draws some of the best Scottish politicians and operators to its fire.
Paradox is everywhere. The SNP are drawn to good governance (the famous “Day Job”) and the better they govern the more people feel comfortable with devolution. Managerialism and assimilation flourish. The Labour Party is in terminal decline and can’t seem to do anything other than regurgitate vague notions of Federalism on a six month rota, whilst the Conservatives mouth “No” at every opportunity but seem incapable of articulating anything else.
But we’d be wrong to think of devolution as either the “settled will” or a fixed constitutional state.
Into this weird stasis last week stepped Michael Gove, with extraordinary statements to a fringe meeting at the Tory conference in Aberdeen.
Speaking during a question-and-answer session with Stirling MP Stephen Kerr, Mr Gove hinted UK ministers could start spending in devolved areas.
“The department of education deals primarily with schools in England, but actually the strength of our knowledge base across the United Kingdom matters. “There are English students in Scottish Universities and there are Scottish academics in English Universities – we need to make sure that the money that we spend and the initiatives that we carry out here are badged as UK Government.”
“The Scottish Government is very good at using money that it gets form Westminster to claim it is delivering them – actually it is the UK Government that is providing this and leading the way on budgets.”
What is seen as the protected status of home rule is not it seems sacrosanct at all.
Gove gave the game away saying: “The whole idea that you say you are the Scottish Government and therefore you are the only legitimate voice that speaks for Scotland is wrong.”
The idea that the elected government of Scotland – whatever shape that takes – isn’t representative of Scotland is a fairly major insight into the mindset of the Scottish Conservative. It’s a profoundly undemocratic concept. But if the problems that persist twenty years on in Conservative thinking are obvious, so too is the underlying worldview from Scottish Labour. In an extraordinary interview with Novar Media, Labour’s Glasgow North East MP Paul Sweeney stated that: “London essentially generates the wealth, and it’s redistributed to other regions of the UK …”.
As an explanation of how the British economy works, and as an example of the Scottish cringe it’s a worldview that would have been at home in the minds of a Tory opponent to Home Rule twenty five years ago.
It’s a view that sees Scotland as a mendicant nation, impoverished and unproductive, on the receiving end of handouts from London and England. Everything flows from this. It is the basis for understanding how Scotland could not possibly manage its own affairs. It’s not only economically illiterate and ignorant, its also historically inept. If this is the case, how has this come about? How after so many years of “precious Union” could such a beggar nation be in such a state? Are we poor in material terms or natural resources or are we useless as a people? There must be some explanation?
Twenty years on we should reject this outlook that diminishes us and retrieve some of the ambition and inspiration that fuelled the movement for devolution for the logical next step in democracy. But we should also have a cold hard look at how Holyrood functions and take root and branch reforms to make it an inspirational place, a showcase for innovation, openess and ambition.
If the writers of the eighties and nineties helped create the landscape where we could “imagine” Scotland, maybe we need them again. Writing about the life and work of Edwin Morgan Donny O’Rourke wrote:
“Appalled by the rigged referendum of 1979 which in closing the door to home rule, opened the gates to Thatcher, Morgan insisted on Scotland’s imaginative viability, as a place being transformed by artists whose cultural exertions would in time produce a politics worthy of their talent and tenacity.”
Certainly the novel has plated a vital role in creating a world we can inhabit. Scotland as a road movie beyond kailyard or kitsch becomes a place where we exist. It’s a long way from Ivanhoe (1820) to Porno (2002) but “imaginative viability” is maybe what we need now more than ever.
Maybe we need to enter a Dream State again.