2007 - 2020

Is Scottish devolution under Union attack – or was it just a Boris aberration?

You could say the question was answered by Ian Blackford at PMQs this week. I quote – Ian Blackford: “His attack on devolution was not just a slip of the tongue – it was a slip of the Tory mask …”.

Devolution and the creation of the Scottish Parliament was initiated by the new Labour Government after Blair’s landslide historic victory in May 1997 by a  pre-legislative referendum held in Scotland in September 1997 to determine support for the creation of a Scottish Parliament with devolved powers, and following the clear majority for both proposals, the UK Parliament passed the Scotland Act 1998, creating the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Executive.

The intent was clear – to halt the impetus for Scottish independence driven by the SNP and to consolidate Labour’s electoral dominance and that of unionist parties in Scotland by a form of proportional representation – the d’Hondt system – that  it was hoped would ensure that the SNP could never form a government, a hope encapsulated by George Robertson’s 1995 quote “Devolution will kill Nationalism stone dead”.  To make this Union copper-bottomed, The Scotland Act specifically asserted the continued power of the UK Parliament to legislate in respect of Scotland, i.e. power devolved was power retained.
The Tory Party, however, had been resolute in their opposition to devolution, and despite having to face the reality of the popular vote and the Scotland Act, the former Tory Scottish Secretary Michael Forsyth never abandoned his deep distrust of the process, and continues to express his opposition to this day. From the standpoint of the Scottish Tories and Westminster Tories, devolution and the Scottish Parliament have indeed been a disaster in the 21st century, notably from 2007 on.
There simply would have been no way the 2014 Referendum could have been run without a Scottish Parliament. The old received wisdom that all that was needed for Scotland’s independence was the election a majority of Scottish MPs to Westminster was blown out of the water by the 2015 astonishing SNP landslide, 56  out of 59 Scottish MPs, a landslide which Nicola Sturgeon totally failed to capitalise on.
So, as  Iain Macwhirter and other more astute commentators have observed, Boris was right – devolution has been a disaster – for Scottish Unionist parties, and for the Westminster Tory Party and Boris as they watch the disintegration of the Union under the twin pressures of Brexit and Scottish independence polls, compounded by the challenges of the pandemic.

Where does this leave independence parties and the YES Movement in formulating a response to the golden apple that Boris has handed them?
The Tory response, predictable and feeble, was to say that what their hapless Leader had really meant was that SNP government’s misuse of the tools of devolution graciously gifted to mendicant Scot – ever ungrateful for generous handouts from the benevolent Union – was what had constituted the disaster of devolution, reciting a litany of ‘failures’.
The problem for SNP, in their equally predictably response, is that their recent record in devolved government has been less than stellar, and their potential has been stifled by the limitation of devolution, notably the lack of the key financial levers, e.g. borrowing powers, the sad and sordid nature of the whole Salmond/Sturgeon debacle and now the pandemic.
However, their aces in the hole are continued electoral success through three terms of devolved government, a likely fourth term on an explicitly independence mandate in May 2021, consistently favourable YES polls and the starkly evident attack on Holyrood’s powers by the Brexit-related  internal market legislation.
There is of course the slightly embarrassing contradictions that are inherent in devolved government and a presence in Westminster by a independence party that’s committed to rejecting devolution in favour of full independence, but these are easily rebutted by justifying them as necessary to protect the interests of Scotland while it’s still reluctantly in the Union and must offset the inimical aspects of Unionism on the interests of Scots.

So, all things considered, the Boris gaffe was to let Tory mask drop, and like the unmasking of the Phantom of the Opera in the old Lon Chaney silent movie, reveal the real face that the bland mask concealed.
The facts are simple – no Tory has ever been happy about Scottish devolution or the Scottish Parliament, although Scottish Tory MSPs must speculate on what would happen to their comfortable seat should Westminster ever end it. But, unlike the SNP MPs in Westminster -who face a starker redundancy reality after independence – Tory MSPs can take comfort from the fact that they can still hope to hold seats in the first elected Independent Scottish Parliament. Their party vigorously opposed the creation of the devolved Parliament, but nonetheless pragmatically sought seats in it when they lost the argument. And after all, they know these seats can lead to the Lords, as the latest Baroness and others before her have demonstrated.
The immediate threats are still very real – the pernicious nibblings at Scotland’s current limited devolved autonomy will be only the beginning of the process of rendering it impotent in all things that really matter if not stopped. But the ultimate defence lies in a decisive win by a majority of independence-committed MSPs in May 2021 and speedy and decisive action thereafter by what must be an SNP-led independence government to either secure a legal referendum or frontally challenge a refusal by political means, including direct action by the YES Movement.
The AUOB Assembly online was significant way beyond the numbers participating because of the forensic questioning of Ian Blackford by Lesley Riddoch and the powerful speeches of Robin McAlpine, George Kerevan and others, designed to stiffen the backbone of SNP while securing unity of YES Movement purpose.
In that over-arching context, the Boris Gaffe will be seen as an entertaining but helpful Unionist blunder, one of many, on the road to the crucial election and crucial year of 2021.

Comments (9)

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  1. Tom Williamson says:

    First of All I was born in England, live in Norfolk, my wife’s father was in the7th Norfolks who were part of the 51st Highland Division abandoned by Johnson’s hero Churchill in 1940. Since 2016 have I have recognised that only the Scottish Voters can decide their own future. If I was lucky enough to live North of the border, I would vote for the SNP/ Scottish Greens (I am a member of England and Wales Greens) and yes in any subsequent Referendum. However and here is the conspiracy theorist in me, could Spaffer Johnson delay the 2021 elections arguing that the postponed 2020 elections need to be held first, or that the countries that make up his precious Union need time to recover from the Covid 19 pandemic and elections could promote division at this time of healing, hence they will be postponed for two or more years. At least however Gordon Brown will now have to come off the fence re Indy 2, last time I saw him on the TV he accepted that the old ‘union’ is dead and needs replacing but gave no idea of what would replace it. Over to you guys keep up the pressure.

    1. Dougie Harrison says:

      Tom, good to hear support from a fellow Green south of the border. Alas, you’re right; Johnson certainly has the power to simply postpone the 2021 Scots General Election, and as part of his destruction of devolution might just cancel it. I have nae doot that one of his minions is currently researching how to dress that up as somehow ‘improving’ the grand old union in our disunited queendom.

      The Tories are scared shitless about losing access to ‘their’, correctly OUR grouse moors; and mibbe the more pretentiously ‘cultured’ in their ranks would regret being less able to visit the world’s first and greatest Arts Festival (the one in Embra, not Celtic Connections). They’ll have to show their passports at Berwick, Carter Bar, or Gretna!

      But it was THEIR decision to leave the EU, not ours. Had they wished to remain in it, mibbe they wouldnie have to bring their passports to visit ‘their’ Scotland.

  2. Derek Thomson says:

    Oh, it’ll be federalism, more powers than you can shake a stick at, all the usual tripe. I don’t know how a son of the manse has become so brainwashed. He’s an utter irrelevance, but the English press treat him like the repulsive man-frog Farage, all over the bloody airwaves.

  3. Axel P Kulit says:

    One very potent argument against abolishing Holyrood is that the Tories will have nowhere to hide, no scapegoat for their failings. A labour friend of mine pointed out that if Holyrood were abolished Scotland would plump immediately for independence. I suspect there would be such an upwelling of (legal) civil disobedience that Scotland would become ungovernable from Westminster.

    Similarly if Holyrood were neutered all the SNP or whoever takes power need say to the opposition is “We had the power, Westminster took it away, talk to Westminster”

    In short tampering with Holyrood would be stupid if Westminster wanted to preserve the Union without imposing martial law.

    But Brexit shows rationality is no guide to Westminster’s actions, or at leas that Scotland is not as important as they make out.

    I suspect The choice for the Tories, Johnson in particular, is save the union, destroy the party and lose power for a (real not political) generation as Nigel Farage roars back into action, or destroy the union, save the party, dave Brexit and retire to a tax haven.

    The choice that would be best for Boris Johnson would probably be to destroy the UK.

    I am sure he has two essays in a locked drawer somewhere covering each of these possibilities and an even more secret pair analysing how each would affect him personally.

    I expect announcement of the End of the UK, at 3am one morning on BBC two with Scotgov only learning about it from the papers. This was the plan for the opening of the Berlin wall but by “accident” it was broadcast at prime time

    Pardon my cynicism, it was born from watch ing politicians at work and play.

  4. John B Dick says:

    The most important impact is the effect it will have on the Labour No campaign.

    Many Labour members and Trade unions are less enthusiastic about the union than they were in 2014. None of them of them are relaxed about being seen to take a subsidiary place to the Conservatives in the Indref2-No campaign.

    Judging by his demeanor this week, there is nothing that would persuade their Branch Manager to be photographed alongside Boris or whoever leads the Conservative campaign, for fear of setting off a national epedemic of the dry boak.

  5. Guy Dreich says:

    “The intent was clear – to halt the impetus for Scottish independence driven by the SNP and to consolidate Labour’s electoral dominance and that of unionist parties in Scotland by a form of proportional representation – the d’Hondt system – that it was hoped would ensure that the SNP could never form a government…”

    This absurd narrative is so often repeated it reminds me of the “SNP gave us Thatcher” bollocks. How could PR consolidate Labour dominance which was based on FPTP?
    It is a story contradicted by Isobel Lindsay who was at the table. Here is her testimony from an interview in HOLYROOD with Tom Freeman 1/3/2019:

    “There was a huge elephant in the room, that we all knew about, which was PR,” says Lindsay.
    “The position was that Labour’s policy was still against proportional representation, and everyone else was pretty well for it.
    “We knew Labour had to move on this … or the Lib Dems were going to go out the door.
    “There is this myth that has come about, and I hear it quite often mentioned, that the PR scheme was devised and promoted and supported by Labour as a way of stopping the SNP ever being able to get a majority in government for independence. This is rubbish.”
    The additional member system, which would eventually form Labour’s preferred electoral system and the basis for Holyrood, had been SNP policy in the 1970s, she adds.
    But with the party dominating parliamentary representation and local government, Labour was the party with the most to lose from PR.”

  6. MBC says:

    It’s actually not true that the Scottish Parliament has been a disaster for the Tories. Quite the opposite. The Tories, remember, faced extinction in 1997 with not a single MP. It was a wipeout. The Thatcher years saw a whittling down of the Tory presence in Scotland, as Scots reacted to her dismantling of industry and public ownership. By the early 1990s only a handful existed and by 1997 there were no Tories at all left, they were an extinct breed . But the d’Hondt system offered Tories a lifeline. They polled roughly 15% of the vote and got roughly 15% of the seats in the new Scottish Parliament. At first all was well with compliant and helpful Tory figures like Annabelle Goldie and David McLetchie forming a constructive opposition, until the arrival of Ruth Davidson. The Scottish Parliament was actually the means of the Tories regaining a foothold in Scotland, and Davidson obtaining a platform, which she used to spout her bile.

  7. Blair says:

    The Tory’s may be in power but they are no longer in control. Our MP’s don’t have sufficient knowledge and have been reliant on external consultants and special advisers. Our politicians MP’s and MSP’s may be in different boats that are unable to make progress in the common storms. The Tory’s description of a rudderless ship is true.

    The House Lords is no longer fit for purpose.

    The biggest challenge to Tory rule is not from Labour or SNP but from Natural Conservatism. Tory Conservatives only hold power by the way brush people off. They only lose power through their ranks conspiring against them.

    It’s time Scotland showed England a better way. It’s time for the SNP & Nicola Sturgeon to enlighten themselves and start developing a new strategy.

  8. Michael says:

    Please can you provide a link to the AUOB Assembly online presentations?

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