It was twenty years ago: Scotland, our Parliament and the limits of Devolution

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, November 14th 2018

Twenty years ago Scotland began the devolution era when the Scotland Act 1998, which established the framework for the Scottish Parliament, achieved Royal Assent on 19 November 1998 – the final parliamentary debate having taken place two days before in the House of Lords.

Much has happened in the intervening twenty years. The Scottish Parliament was set up with a Scottish Executive, which morphed into the Scottish Government. Donald Dewar became the first of five First Ministers, and died tragically in October 2000. Labour-Lib Dem coalition administrations gave way to minority, then majority, then minority SNP rule.

A Parliament set up in George Robertson’s words to ‘kill nationalism stone dead’ has ended – by next year – with twelve years of continuous SNP administration following on from the first eight years of Labour-Lib Dem rule.

There was the rise and fall of the Scottish Socialists; the role of the Greens; the falloff of the Lib Dems; and rather implausibly for some, the return of the Scottish Tories from the shadows under the leadership of Ruth Davidson.

There have been numerous political waves – of which the indyref has been the most powerful and disruptive. There has been lots of political comment and controversy, along with numerous political scandals – Tommy Sheridan, David McLetchie, Wendy Alexander and others – all becoming engulfed in controversy which ended their political careers. There have been significant amounts of legislation, passed on nearly every aspect of domestic life – from education and health to local government, law and order, land reform, the environment and climate change.

All of this leads to the question: what change has this brought to Scotland and whether it is change for the better? For a start, we have to ask questions seldom asked – What is this thing called ‘devolution’? Who created it, who owns it and what does it mean? The word entered the everyday political lexicon in the late 1960s and early 1970s, replacing the earlier term ‘home rule’ which had been associated with Scottish self-government, Keir Hardie, James Maxton and the ILP.

The word originally denoted a number of compromises – not just about remaining in the UK, and having an elected Scottish body, but as an intermediate level of government between local government and UK national government. Devolution was devised not to rearrange the political dynamics and power within the UK, but to legitimise them. This has meant that devolution has evolved in Scotland, as well as Wales and the stalled example of Northern Ireland, as opt-outs from the political centre and Whitehall mindset. They have forgotten about us, but as Brexit has painfully shown, there has been no grown-up way the centre has to listen to the devolved administrations, while the British government and state has not exactly reformed and democratised itself.

Labour never had a fully-fledged idea of what devolution was for – either in Scotland or across the UK – seeing it here as a half-way house and a compromise. The Tories saw the idea as a negative until it happened and then tried to make peace with it – which at first convinced few people. The SNP were sceptical of devolution before the Parliament was set up, only coming onboard in the 1997 referendum, but then, when they came to office and noting Labour’s lack of ambition, embracing it as the best means to secure independence. As the years have passed, the SNP have come to tell the story of devolution as their own, displacing Labour and placing themselves centrestage – an account which requires quite a selective remaking of the past, and which some Nationalists worry has become the main ambition of the Nicola Sturgeon-led party.

Twenty years on devolution can be seen in many respects as a success. No one talks about abolishing the Parliament. It is now the focal point of public life. And in the last two decades when people have been asked which political institution they see as the most important in the country, more and more have said the Scottish Parliament, and less and less Westminster.

But there is another level on which the Parliament must be assessed – namely, that of ideas, imagination, innovation, and pluralism. In these areas the picture is a much more mixed one.

Too much commentary on the Parliament fails to differentiate between the idea of the institution and the reality of what it actually does and how it operates. The Scottish Parliament as an idea has become uncontested – its creation righting a historic wrong, filling a void at the centre of public life, and providing an elected voice.

But as a working institution its record is more complex. Where has the Scottish Parliament proven itself as the central political authority of public life? Where has it supplied vision, purpose, direction, taken on vested interests, and shown courage and boldness? Where has the Scottish Parliament – a body of 129 elected representatives – shown its mettle and held the Scottish Executive/Government to account when it had to? On all of these questions, the answer is: on not enough occasions. Take the last point. The first and second SNP minority governments have had to bargain and compromise with the Parliament to get several of their Annual Budgets through, but this is the exception, not the rule.

Where have been the defining debates and decisions which have shaped contemporary Scotland? People used to cite the Iraq war debate as one such instance, filled with moral sentiment and exchange, but that was a debate over a subject the Parliament had no power over, and lest we forget, it voted to endorse the ill-fated Iraq military expedition. Perhaps the Clause 28 debate in 2000 was one – the first ever public conversation about homosexuality in modern Scotland – and a genuine moment of maturing, taking on difficult opinions, and a nation coming of age, but that was eighteen years ago.

Too often devolution has been associated with the official story of progressive Scotland and the belief that we are inexorably becoming a fairer, more equal society. A reality check is needed here for Scotland, despite all our good intentions and warm rhetoric, is making little progress on becoming more equal.

Research commissioned by the ESRC ‘Understanding Inequalities’ programme by Gwilym Pryce of Sheffield University shows that over the years 1998-2016 Scotland, as measured by the Gini co-efficient, made no progress at all in becoming more equal. We have broadly remained in the same place, more equal than the rest of the UK – with a large part of the difference explained by the scale of inequality in London.

The same is true looking at a basket of wider measurements which track the lived experience of inequality – from air pollution to quality of housing and access to employment. Scotland, on this more human and tangible set of indicators, is not making any substantive progress in becoming more equal.

To some all of this can be reduced to the need for more powers to the Scottish Parliament and Westminster ‘power grabs’. Yet, this is just too easy a dismissal. Two decades of a Scottish Parliament with substantial power and the legitimacy to lead and shape, and most of our politicians of every persuasion have failed to talk about the trade-offs, difficult choices and need to redistribute income, wealth and power which are fundamental to addressing inequality.

Take local government finance. Not only do we have the council tax, but years of a council tax freeze which cushioned the better-off. We cannot even sum up the political leadership to have a revaluation of property values which are based on 1991 levels. That is before we get into such no-go areas as a better way to finance local government, local government structures and the need for smaller councils as well as a strategic Greater Glasgow, and the onward march of centralisation across public life. Holyrood like Westminster does not always know best, but is always the last to realise this.

Allowing for this Scotland has dramatically changed in these last twenty years. Some of this is directly connected to the establishment of the Parliament and its very existence acting as an enabler for wider change. Take the afore-mentioned Clause 28, sex education in schools, LGBT equality, human rights, the smoking ban, and minimum pricing on alcohol.

What has been missing has been a fully-formed vision of what kind of future Scotland we want? One that has imagination, daring, idealism, but also realism, and an awareness of the harsh economic times we live in and cold climate blowing across the globe. One version of the last twenty years has seen too much focus on public spending and its allocation to interest groups who know how to lobby and are embedded in the system: education and health particularly; devolution was never inside Scotland a radical project, but instead about those who already had influence maintaining it.

It is also salutary to note that over the long campaign of the indyref there were endless debates in pubs, clubs and town halls over the Scotland of the future, and whether we could be a bit more Nordic or a better social democracy, and yet very little of this seems to have left a legacy which has percolated into conventional politics. Maybe it will over time, but it almost feels as if the SNP is presiding after a referendum they initiated, over a return to business as usual politics.

Today across the political spectrum – SNP, Tories, Labour, Lib Dems, even the Scottish Greens, there is too much silence where there should be vision, energy and ideas about our future. How can this strange state of affairs be explained? The Parliament came about with enormous public support and goodwill, but little time was spent on what it should actually do.

Devolution in the dominant story of the Parliament has been, and was, a political class set of processes. The SNP version of independence, for all the 2014 rhetoric, has been about normalising Scotland and ‘the full powers of a Parliament’ – a narrow political class notion of change.

What has been absent has been the idea of seeing and using the Parliament as a catalyst for wider societal and cultural change, facilitating others and aiding the democratisation and empowerment of others, whether individuals, communities or society. Such a bold vision would require that politicians and the political centre has the courage to let go, experiment, encourage risks and even allow for occasional failure.

That is the vision Scotland should be looking to post-devolution, post-Brexit, irrespective of whether we end up formally independent: a country which embraces and practices self-government not just in the hands of its politicians, but in its people. That would require not just moving past the current idea of ‘devolution’ but the SNP’s idea of ‘independence’.