Holyrood has given Scotland independence of the mind

Gerry Hassan

The Guardian, September 11th 2017

Twenty years ago today Scotland voted 3:1 for the establishment of a Scottish Parliament. It was clear the old Westminster system of governing Scotland was discredited. Voters recognised it was undemocratic, and produced bad politics and legislation. The case for change had become a consensus – ‘the settled will’ in John Smith’s description – that the referendum merely and validated.

Twenty years later devolution has been a success. There are no serious calls for the Scottish Parliament to be abolished or for a return of direct rule from Westminster. Ruth Davidson and the Tories long ago made their peace. The late Tam Dalyell was the last expression of such a politics.

The Scottish public now views 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.

Many good things have happened: land reform, the smoking ban, and a Scotland more at ease with itself on gender equality, sexual equality, sectarianism and multi-culturalism. But in a politics supposedly about difference, many of these gains have been about making Scotland more cosmopolitan and like most other Western countries.

All of this isn’t quite the brave new politics promised in 1997. Instead, much of Scottish politics looks like politics elsewhere, including Westminster. Political power sits not with the Scottish Parliament, but with the Scottish Government and civil service. There is an adversarial party politics and the remorseless centralisation of public bodies such as the creation of Police Scotland with little obvious gain.  Scottish ministers gather more and more power into their hands with few checks and balances, or obvious benefits: an example of which is the atrophying of local government and near-decade long council tax freeze.

Beyond this there has been little devolution dividend: economically, socially, in public services, or in relation to who and what groups have power and influence in Scotland. This could have embraced a distinct take on public service reform which wasn’t Blairite, widened the life chances of the disadvantaged, or tackled the systematic exclusion of working class children from the opportunities they deserve.

The SNP until now have been able to ride two horses at the same time. They have positioned themselves as the party of the insiders: of getting things done, delivery and competence. At the same time they have posed as the party of change: of social justice, fairness and the champions of social democracy.

This balancing act – of incumbency and insurgency – worked wonders for the SNP in the late, hectic stages of the 2014 indyref and the aftermath of the 2015 UK election. But after ten years in office this has begun to look less and less sustainable and plausible.

Devolution had many midwives – Labour, SNP, Lib Dems, churches, trade unions, NGOs, and wider civil society. Most important was a public consensus. But while the latter wanted change, it wasn’t quite clear what kind of change they wanted. For some devolution was about a rejection of Thatcherism, for others a return to the certainty of the Britain of 1945-75, articulating a Scottish version of the best strands of this age: the NHS, welfare state and BBC.

Large parts of institutional opinion, and Scottish Labour in particular, didn’t want devolution to bring about change, but merely change the shop window while leaving the business behind it unchanged. Devolution was for Scottish Labour about shoring up its northern citadel, and contributing its block to Westminster Labour Governments. It hasn’t quite worked like that.

Labour mini-devolution amounted to an apologetic politics, and was eventually viewed as ineffective by most voters. It was one reason the SNP won in 2007. They seemed to have a story about the Scottish Parliament and a vision for Scotland as well as confidence telling it. Time has shown the limitations in the SNP’s politics that raises questions about where the politics of change will come from, and who can most successfully adopt its mantle.

Change is coming to Scotland. The decline of deference, demographics, Brexit, the squeeze on public spending, and the wider age of disruption. The SNP gave Scotland a distinct voice, but a politics of the future has to embrace autonomy with honesty and hard choices. The outcome of that debate is an open one – and could be shaped by Sturgeon’s SNP, Ruth Davidson’s newly energised Tories, or a Corbynised Scottish Labour. Nothing in the future can be taken for granted.

Happy anniversary, Scottish Parliament. We should celebrate your existence, but not see you as an end in itself, but as a catalyst for further change.