It’s a birthday today. It’s my birthday, and I’m trying to forget that I’m an even older and more cynical git than I was this time last year. More importantly however, it’s also the birthday of Scottish devolution. It was 20 years ago today that the Scottish people taught the devolution band to play. 20 years ago, 11 September 1997, Scotland held a referendum that produced a massive and definitive majority in favour of restoring a parliament to Edinburgh.
That decision changed Scotland forever. This is no longer the same country that it was back then, a country which was firmly under the boot of a Westminster Parliament that had the unchecked and unchallenged ability to law down the Scots law. Scotland is still in thrall to the Westminster Parliament. Scotland is still subject to decisions and policies that the people of this country rejected at the ballot box. The crucial difference however is that there is now an alternative power base to Westminster, and that power base is situated within Scotland where it is answerable to the voters of Scotland. Challenges to Westminster rule may all too often be unsuccessful, but they can at least now be made. Scotland possesses a voice it didn’t have all the way through the Thatcher regime. Scotland can protest. Scotland can articulate a vision of a better future. Scotland can define itself without reference to the Westminster Parliament or the British state. No wonder so many British nationalists hate devolution.
It’s only the frothier end of British nationalism in Scotland that would like to see the abolition of the Scottish Parliament. They’re a small but noisy faction who have as much chance of seeing their submissive fantasies becoming reality as there is of Donald Trump going down in history as one of America’s greatest statesmen. However there is a much larger contingent of British nationalists who are unhappy with how devolution has worked out. The truth is, they’ve only got their British nationalist parties to blame for that.
Devolution hasn’t achieved what some British nationalists wanted it to achieve. They saw devolution as a means of “killing Scottish nationalism stone dead”, in the infamous words of George Robertson. For the Labour party, setting up a Scottish Parliament wasn’t really about fulfilling the democratic aspirations of the people of Scotland, it was about out-manoeuvering the SNP. Labour had previously been lukewarm at best about proposals for devolution. It took that party’s exclusion from power for the best part of 20 years for it to come around to the idea, and then – with some honourable exceptions – its leading lights did so only grudgingly, reluctantly, and with bad faith.
Labour in particular was bruised and bitter by the experience of the Thatcher era when it was shut out of power for almost two decades. Scotland was near despair. It didn’t matter how Scotland voted, we got a Tory government anyway. Labour saw devolution primarily as a means of ensuring that there would be a Labour power base in Scotland even during periods of Conservative rule in Westminster. That’s why Labour and the Lib Dems had a cosy wee conversation about the voting system to be used in the new Scottish Parliament, and came up with the D’Hondt method. It was the voting method most likely to produce the outcome desired by Labour and the Lib Dems, a Scottish Parliament that was permanently ruled by a coalition between those two parties. So how’s that working out for you boys and girls?
When devolution was being debated in the 1990s, the proposals envisaged a much more powerful Scottish Parliament than the one that we ended up with. Scotland was supposed to have control over broadcasting and the ability to set up a Scottish public service broadcaster. That amongst other powers was included on the list of powers to be retained for Westminster at the insistence of powerful figures within the Labour party. There was so much opposition from within the Labour government that Tony Blair was reduced to claiming that the new Scottish Parliament would have little more power than a parish council.
The new Parliament wasn’t given powers to raise its own revenue, it was an is to be dependent on a block grant from Westminster. Its only significant tax raising power was a half-baked ability to raise income tax across all bands simultaneously, yet doing so would have seen the Scottish block grant reduced by the equivalent amount. It was a power which was designed to be unusable and designed never to be used. Its purpose was as mere window dressing, to give the illusion that the Scottish Parliament was more powerful than it really was, and to act as a stick which the opposition parties could use to attack the Scottish government of the day.
More seriously devolution was never extended to England. Westminster saw, and sees, the establishment of an English Parliament as an unacceptable challenge to its own power. Besides, the idea that Westminster is the English Parliament is deeply entrenched. The result was asymmetric devolution, and the rise of issues like the West Lothian Question. Scottish MPs could vote on matters in England which were devolved in Scotland, meaning that English and Welsh MPs couldn’t wield an equivalent vote. This only produced animosity and resentment from English politicians and an English public. It has created a flood of Scottophobia in the British press, a tide of racism which is still all too often dismissed as “banter”. It has created English Votes for English Laws, so that Scottish MPs in Westminster now have fewer rights and less power than their English counterparts. Scotland’s Westminster MPs are second class MPs because Westminster granted Scotland a second class parliament in Edinburgh. Devolution was never about fulfilling the legitimate claim of the Scottish people to popular sovereignty as set out in the Scottish Claim of Right, it was always about preserving the power of the Westminster Parliament. That is what will be its downfall.
The entire concept of “devolution” arises from Westminster’s notion that it is the sole source of sovereignty in the UK. All power rests with Westminster, it merely “devolves” some of that power to Edinburgh or Cardiff, like a homeowner giving a loan of their lawnmower. It can take that power back whenever it wants. We discovered recently that the provision in the Scotland Act 2016 that Westminster will not “normally” enact legislation which impacts on devolved competencies without the consent of the Scottish Parliament is a fiction without any legal basis. Devolution has no answer to questions like Brexit. Devolution cannot protect Scotland from the consequences of Westminster decisions which were and are damaging to Scottish interests.
The devolution that Scotland ended up with was a short term solution to the short term political need of the Labour party. It was a means to an end for Labour, it was asymmetric and unstable. Devolution can never fulfil the legitimate demand of the people of Scotland for popular sovereignty, only independence can do that. Twenty years ago today the people of Scotland embarked upon a road that will only end with Scotland becoming once again an independent state. The inherent instability and dishonesty of a devolution settlement imposed by the Westminster parties for their own short-term gain ensure that. Twenty years on, Scotland is more confident, more self-assured, more at ease with itself. The Cringe lingers on, but it’s no longer unchallenged. No wonder British nationalists are unhappy with devolution, but they’ve only got themselves to blame.
The Wee Ginger Dug has got a new domain name, thanks to Indy Poster Boy, Colin Dunn @Zarkwan. http://www.indyposterboy.scot/ You can now access this blog simply by typing www.weegingerdug.scot into the address bar of your browser, the old address continues to function, the new one redirects to the blog. The advantage of the new address is that it’s a lot easier to remember if you want to include a link to the blog in leaflets, posters, or simply to tell a friend about it. Many thanks to Colin.
Wee Ginger Fundraiser
I’m doing a fundraiser this year to keep this blog going for another twelve month and to allow the dug and me to continue visiting local groups all across Scotland. You can donate via my crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo –
Or you can donate by making a payment directly into a special bank account I’ve set up for the purposes of this fundraiser, or by sending a cheque or postal order. If you’d like to donate by one of these methods, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will send the necessary information. Please also use this email address if you would like the dug and me to come along to your local group for a talk.