Twenty years on maybe it is time to move on from devolution

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, September 13th 2017

Twenty years ago this week Scotland held a referendum and voted decisively for a Scottish Parliament and for it to have tax-raising powers. This anniversary provides an opportunity to look back and assess what the last twenty years has meant – measuring it against expectations, and the state of the nation.

It has also provided an excuse for some elements in the mainstream media to dust down the insults and attempt to trash the reputation of the Scottish Parliament and the devolution years.

The ‘Scottish Daily Express’ front page declared emphatically ‘Devolution ‘a waste of time’: Life no better for Scots, says poll’. If that wasn’t black and white enough for you, the ‘Scottish Daily Mail’ offered ‘Devolution ‘a failure’’. For the record, neither paper contained the afore-mentioned quotes in the pieces which followed. Jonathan Brocklebank in the ‘Mail’ called the Parliament: ‘The Mother of All White Elephants’, while Jason Allardyce in the ‘Sunday Times Scotland’ stated ‘Devolution has been a dud, say most Scots.’

The source for this hand wringing was a Panelbase poll in the ‘Sunday Times’ which painted a much more positive picture, admittedly one with significant ambiguity. Thus, only 35% of respondents though schools had got better under devolution and 32% worse; 44% that the health service got better and 20% worse; and 37% that the economy had got stronger and 26% weaker. When asked if devolution had given Scots more say in how the country is governed 49% said it had, 13% that it hadn’t, with 38% saying there had been little change.

What is it about devolution which invites some of the above over the top media responses and even misrepresentations of public opinion? There has been a long right-wing war of undermining the Scottish Parliament ever since it was muted and then established. But there is also the ease in the age of cynicism of waging war on politicians who often never make it that simple to make the case for them.

There is a problem with the idea and word ‘devolution’. It is an ugly word, an insider and elite word. It is a limiting idea and one which was created as a negative, owned and loved by no one. Who has ever taken to the streets to demand ‘more devolution’ or to ‘defend devolution’?

The term was invented by the British political classes fifty years ago coming into modern usage between the late 1960s and early 1970s, taking the place of the earlier term ‘home rule’. This was the long-standing policy of Keir Hardie, the ILP and Gladstonian Liberals, and was a term more evocative, romantic and radical than devolution. It even had an attempt at a British answer to this: ‘Home Rule All Round’, whereas devolution has been for the most part silent on a British-wide solution.

Devolution also invited the famous Enoch Powell retort: ‘power devolved is power retained.’ The architects of devolution have always seen it in these terms, even if events have not always followed this script. Oxford academic Iain McLean defined devolution as: ‘The granting of powers to a lower tier of government, while preserving sovereignty to the granting tier.’

Devolution arose as an attempt to assuage public opinion and in the words of Tam Dalyell was ‘an unworkable and unrealistic half-way measure’. Dalyell himself was unrealistic, in that he posed like Thatcher and Major a world of two poles: the unreformed, undemocratic status quo of Westminster rule and independence, but he had a point on devolution. This was a politics of negatives and stopping things for many in Labour: the SNP in the 1970s, Thatcherism in the 1980s.

There is always a problem understanding history as it is happening and in its immediate aftermath. Hence we can only really understand why the Scottish Parliament came about and achieved widespread support in the 1997 referendum and before, by observing the long arc of British politics over the course of the 20th century. This is about more than Thatcherism or the post-war consensus, and includes the expansion of public spending and the state over the century, and the desire for the public to have a wider say and democratic control.

The 1997 vote is often viewed only in relation to recent events in the 1980s and 1990s and the experience of Tory rule. This can on occasions misjudge the depth of support and goodwill which built up for a Parliament and was expressed in the referendum. A recent case in point of this was Kenny Farquharson in ‘The Times’ wondering whether the death of Diana could have derailed devolution, in a piece entitled ‘Devolution project could have come to grief’. As Scotland was preparing to vote twenty years ago in the shadow of Diana’s death, Farquharson spoke to a nervous Tony Blair, with Blair asking him: ‘So, Kenny, are we going to win this vote?’ and his response reflected his own inner doubts, writing that: ‘My answer was not an encouraging one for the Prime Minister.’

Blair might have been nervous then, while first First Minister-to-be Donald Dewar was a naturally cautious politician, but the scale of change in Scotland was much more secure than they thought. The old system was widely discredited. And people wanted change. I know this because I had access to Peter Kellner’s focus groups commissioned pre-1997 election which showed the desire for a Scottish Parliament, and which I wrote the ‘Yes, Yes’ message development strategy from for the campaign. And yet, all these years later, some still choose to remember the nerves and worries, rather than the hopes and expectations.

The Scottish Parliament has been a success. But that needs to be qualified. The idea of the Parliament was always powerful and inspiring, but that is different from the actions and behaviours of the real institution. For too much commentary, people focus on the idea and the abstract, and ignore the shortcomings of the real body; the lack of accountability and scrutiny, the poor legislative processes, or the way the committee system doesn’t work as effectively as it should.

Examples abound on the difference between the idea and reality. Where is the participation, empowerment and experimentation that was part of the promise of the Parliament? The ghost of ‘civic Scotland’ has been laid, but what comes after it? What kind of Scotland is being invoked and what ways do we want to embolden the people?

There is a generational divide in this. To those fortysomething and over who remember Scotland before the Parliament, its existence feels important, even symbolically so. To those aged 25 and under, who have only experienced the Parliament and cannot recall the earlier age, it doesn’t seem revolutionary or transformative to have such a body. Instead, it is seen as a normal state of affairs, and to some, dare I say it, as a bit boring and unimaginative.

The official story of the Parliament is one which errs towards patting ourselves on the back, complacency and self-congratulation. This is the view articulated by the SNP’s independence White Paper, ‘Scotland’s Future’ when it states about the role and power of Holyrood: ‘The Scottish Parliament has set an example within the UK on how a modern legislature should operate’, one based on ‘its founding principles of power sharing, accountability, access and participation, and equal opportunity.’ This is the insider class view of devolution and independence presented as an extension of it.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon now wants us to believe that the powers of the Scottish Parliament are under threat as a result of Brexit. The fear is that, instead of powers returning to Scotland when the UK leaves the EU, many areas of responsibility will be repatriated from Europe to the UK and Westminster, and added to by a power grab from Scotland.

This may be an understandable worry, but it reveals the psychological anxieties in Scottish nationalism. These have become more pronounced as the SNP has reached its popular peak and after, not seemingly demonstrating generosity and open-mindedness. Instead, there is an apparent thread that sees threats everywhere, almost drawing up bridges, which doesn’t help anyone in this time of unsureness and instability.

Twenty years on from Scotland’s historic vote it is perhaps an appropriate time not just to take stock, but to also stop punishing ourselves, either with over the top, ridiculous headlines, or trying to find phantom threats everywhere (and particularly, when there are enough real ones in the world).

It could also be the point when we call time on the word and idea of ‘devolution’ and all the half-baked, ill-defined, defensive politics associated with it. Maybe we could reclaim the radicalism and reach of ‘home rule’ for those of a British-wide mindset, and ‘self-government’ and ‘self-determination’ for those pro-independence. Devolution as an idea never really had many true believers and supporters, and twenty years on is maybe the appropriate time to bury it and move on to a more imaginative, out-going, and bread and butter politics.