When the Act of Union was signed in 1707 – it was opposed (according to the spy and author of Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe) by one hundred Scots for every one that wanted it; which would make sense – very few people had the franchise. As the final speech was delivered in the last Scottish Parliament to meet for nearly three centuries, The Earl of Seafield was heard to remark: “well, there’s an end to an auld sang”.
Yesterday saw the twentieth anniversary of the opening lines of a new song that begun when Scotland voted for devolution by a big margin in 1997. Twenty months later, the parliament reconvened. Yesterday, in the sort of wry irony that politics occasionally throws up, Scotland commemorated a reconvened parliament that had not long since found its feet on the same day that events put that parliament’s very existence in jeopardy.
To find out why this has come about we must firstly consider why the Scottish Parliament was reconvened in the first place. And it wasn’t for the benefit of Scotland. As George (now Lord) Robertson famously said, devolution was there to kill the independence movement “stone dead”.
Labour, back then the dominant party in Scotland (my choice of words is deliberate, as they have never been a Scottish party. No unionist party has ever cared for Scotland) had suffered greatly under a Tory hegemony, and was out of power for around twenty years despite winning fifty of the seventy-two Scottish seats in 1979. It would have made, you would have thought, a compelling case for declaring a Unilateral Declaration of Independence, as the late Robin Cook argued in 1983, but Labour is nothing if not Unionist and saw devolution as an opportunity to secure a permanent power base in Edinburgh. And, just to make doubly sure, they (with the Libdems) helped bring in the d’Hondt voting system which would ensure that no party would ever secure an overall majority. Particularly a party or parties that advocated independence.
So that went well, eh?
As the former MSP and presiding officer Alex Fergusson noted this week, there is no-one in Scotland under the age of twenty-five who remembers a time when Scotland didn’t have a parliament. Yet there are many older, Unionist Scots who dislike the devolution settlement because, despite (because of?) all its achievements, it hasn’t killed the desire for self-determination. Indeed, despite the loss of twenty-one Westminster seats in the recent snap election, support for independence sits at a very healthy 45%, as it did in 2014. In 1997, incidentally, it was 19%. Rather than killing it stone dead, devolution brought self-determination into the mainstream.
And yet it wasn’t supposed to. The original framers even managed to remove the proposed powers to set-up a national Scottish broadcaster, and even powers over tax were predicated on the block grant being cut by an equivalent amount. And thus we ended up with a parliament, that is, for all it’s successes, driving with the brakes on, which spends much of its time and a lot of its energy mitigating things its people didn’t vote for, rather than creating the Scotland we need. The Scottish Government is forever being criticised, but it always balances the books (as is its legal requirement) and brings about policies that are roughly in tune with the needs of the country. No government is perfect but then no person is perfect.
The recent Programme for Government presents a problem for the Tories, because there happens to be no mention of independence, and standing against a second plebiscite was the entire basis of their last three campaigns. With independence temporarily off the agenda, what are the Scottish Tories actually for? And the real elephant in the room is that, by any sensible benchmark, the SNP minority Government in Edinburgh is doing better that the Tory majority government in London. Which doesn’t sit well with the “too wee, too poor, too stupid” narrative, particularly when you’ve just built a muckle big bridge across the Forth and the Scottish economy continues to outstrip the rest of the UK.
I don’t often spend a lot of time thinking about the late Enoch Powell, but on this anniversary one of his quotes rings in my head. “Power devolved is power retained”.
That’s what devolution means. It’s about lending power, not gifting it. It can be granted, but it may be taken away. And it’s about to be.
There’s nothing much if anything good about Brexit, particularly when, as Frankie Boyle says, David Davis strikes you as the sort of negotiator who’d go into a DFS Sofa clearance sale and end up paying full whack for a three piece suite.
But, if there is anything good here, we now know where we stand. The imperfect and incomplete devolution settlement can muddle along when times are normal. But these are different days. Brexit, and the caretaker Prime Minister’s desire to bypass due parliamentary process over the triggering of Article 50 and the leaving of the EU, led to the heroic Gina Miller’s legal challenge in the Supreme Court. And an unintended consequence of her successful appeal was the judges’ ruling that the devolved administrations need not be consulted over Brexit (or anything else). You’ll have had your family of nations, and you’ll have had your legislative consent. This is the nature of devolution – it is never really our parliament. It never was. It never will be. Unless, of course…
And that largely explains why Pro-Brexit MPs, with the help of thirteen Tory MPs based in Scotland and whose constituencies voted to remain, passed the Great Reform Bill by a healthy majority last night. Devolution is now, officially and legally, irrelevant. A constitutional settlement that many of them hated can now be rolled back to the point where a Scottish Parliament can be dissolved – which is the Hard-Brexit endgame.
Regular readers will know the farming arguments by now. The “Barnettisation” of funding, or its complete removal. The fact that Brexit affects rural areas like Orkney and Stranraer disproportionately. That Scotland absolutely depends on skilled migrant labour for its fruit, vegetable and dairy sectors; as well as for growing our economy and helping to pay for our pensions.
But what troubles me is this. We now have a political class that isn’t giving a second thought to rolling back a constitutional settlement that, imperfect as it is, took years of hard work to achieve and which has helped the Scottish people to progress. Not quite to the point where we’re a nation again – the cringe is still there, and we still say “Ah kent his faither” – but to a point where we’re a happier, more confident people because of a Scottish Parliament that allows its people to better articulate a future without reference to Westminster. It’s been, in short, a good thing.
So here’s something to consider on this birthday of mixed emotions. If they’re happy to rip up all of this, how much thought do you imagine they’d give to a farmer in Orkney or a boy from Stranraer? Have they even heard of us?
The sooner we disabuse ourselves of the notion that they give a damn, the sooner we finish what devolution started – the road to a modern, grown-up, better country.
The choice is therefore clear. We can meekly surrender to a return to direct rule from London. Or we can take a different, better road. We’ll enjoy the birthday celebrations, but when the hangover clears we need to make that choice. Our future depends on our choosing to regain our independence. And, when the time comes, that is what I shall do.
If we don’t, the old song is over and may never be heard again.
Alec Ross is a regular columnist with The Orkney News