“There will be a Scottish Parliament” (Donald Dewar)
“Power devolved is power retained” (Enoch Powell)
The day after the Scottish Independence Referendum, I was standing in the queue in my local newsagents and my eye caught the front page of the Daily Record. “Scotland Votes for Change” it announced. And I thought – really? Hadn’t we just voted for precisely the opposite of that by becoming the first country in the history of the world to vote against itself?
But then, of course, the headline made sense when seen in the context of the last few days of the campaign: the purdah-breaking “vow” by the unionist leaders, the wheeling out of Gordon Brown to tell us that No would deliver “faster, safer change” and “near-federalism”, and an establishment media reporting that this halfway house was in fact a third option – despite it appearing absolutely nowhere on the ballot paper and despite it being in fact illegal under the rules of the electoral commission. But the establishment was behind in the polls and in a tight spot. The gloves were off.
Nearly four years on, we may reflect that the Daily Record was right. Scotland did vote for change – but not in the sense it believed. The No vote set in motion a series of events led us directly to a situation where the Scottish Parliament – and Scottish democracy itself – is looking into the abyss. Far from delivering greater devolution, virtual home-rule or “faster, safer change”, we lost the energy subsidies and the HMRC jobs that a No vote was going to protect. We got EVEL. We got more austerity. We got Brexit. We got a snap election, thirteen Tories who voted against the right of the Scottish people to decide its constitutional affairs and who opposed an amendment that would have preserved the 1998 devolution settlement. We got three Tories – including my own MP, Alister Jack – who demanded the kind of cliff-edge Brexit that would disproportionately damage the rural economies they pretend to represent. We got a bung with the DUP and the beginning of the end of Barnett. We got a Scottish Parliament full of people who don’t recognise the sovereignty of the chamber in which they sit.
I feared at the time that the 2014 No vote would not be seen as a gesture of trust but as a betrayal of weakness. The Brexit vote and everything that has followed has provided the motive, the opportunity and, following the Supreme Court ruling and the dismissal of the Sewel convention, the legal prerogative for Westminster and the British Establishment to rapaciously undermine a devolution settlement that they always hated and to return Scotland to its rightful place as a region under the yoke of direct London rule.
Normally, people who say “Enoch Powell was right” are talking about his infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech. But when I use the phrase, I’m referring to his description of devolution. “Power devolved is power retained”, he said. That has never rung truer than in this past week.
I think of devolution as one of those extendable dog leads you see in city parks. The dog roams, with a sense of freedom. But when its owner decides it’s time for home, the leash becomes short again. Devolved powers are that leash. The leash could be a hundred miles long, but a leash is still a leash. This week, Scotland felt that leash being tightened.
So here’s a question. What if the dog likes the freedom? What if it doesn’t want to come home? What if the dog thought – “actually, now is not the time”? But, as I’ve argued before, there is some good news. The Orwellian permashambles provides clarity. No may have won the war but they’ve utterly botched the peace. And it is now clearer than ever that it is not possible to achieve a lasting devolution settlement for Scotland within the current constitutional arrangement. It is now time to forget it, and move on to Independence by whatever means possible. If we don’t do it now it may never happen. To not do so is to consent to permanent abuse. Indeed, what kind of a partnership of equals is it when we are taken to court over the Holyrood continuity bill? What kind of democracy is this?
All of this – the Daily Record headline, the vow, the broken promises, Brexit, the power grab – went through my mind when standing in the newsagents queue earlier this week. Reporting on the First Minister’s refusal to “do a Wales” and give hard-won powers back to Westminster for seven years, after which we’d get them back (aye, right enough), The Daily Express headline screeched: “Sturgeon puts Party before Country”. Like the Record headline of 2014, that’s quite a stretch. For one thing, it’s a revealing sentiment. It means that, for the Express and for its readers, Scotland is not a country. Scotland doesn’t count. Britain is its country and therefore “Sturgeon” (never afforded “Ms Sturgeon”, far less “First Minister”) is a traitor, a Brexit saboteur, an enemy of the people obsessed with independence.
Well, I’ve been spending a lot of time in Northern Ireland recently and I’ve learned a pithy response to this type of bampottery. “Ach, get over yourself”, they’d say. So, for the rest of the article, let’s try and provide some sober perspective.
Cast your mind back to 1997. Scotland’s first First Minister, Donald Dewar, fought tooth and nail for the principle that everything was devolved unless – like immigration, defence or foreign policy – it was specifically reserved. It was also understood that all Brussels powers that fell into devolved areas would automatically come back to Holyrood in the event of the UK leaving the European Union. Brexit – and the Orwellian Westminster motion that says, effectively, that non-consent from Holyrood will be taken from London as consent – seeks to blow that out of the water. Power devolved is power retained.
Donald Dewar must be birlin’ in his grave. He believed that Scottish devolution would be better and more permanent than this, and for most of the twenty one years since its reconvening he’s been proved right. Today’s introduction of the alcohol minimum pricing bill follows in a proud tradition of progressive legislation – the smoking ban, fracking moratoriums, gay marriage, section 28 – and not just from the party that has been in power for the past eleven years. That simply would not have been possible without a Scottish Parliament that has made us a more confident people but which is now being threatened by a hard-right establishment elite that we didn’t vote for and whom we must have nothing to do with.
It used to puzzle me, this dogged reluctance of the unionist parties to support the permanence of Sewel and of the devolution settlement – the settled will, as Dewar called it. And yet they failed to support the Labour amendment over Article 50 that would have protected devolution. They want twenty-four powers for seven years – which almost certainly means forever. Preserving a strongly devolved Scottish Parliament – paradoxically – strengthens the very union that the First Minister quite rightly wants to leave.
Not much unites some Scottish nationalists and unionists, but devolution most certainly does. For unionists, it betrays the principle that Westminster’s rule is absolute. To some in the independence camp, devolution traps us forever in the yoke of Westminster.
So what’s going on?
We live in a post-truth age, but far as the First Minister is concerned, sometimes things are exactly as they appear. It seems to me that Nicola Sturgeon is doing precisely the opposite of putting party before country. She is putting the country of which she leads – Scotland – above her party. Essentially, she is keeping alive the ideals of Donald Dewar. There will be a Scottish Parliament. I’ll be honest with you. I really admire Nicola Sturgeon for putting Scotland first and party second, but by praising a leader for fulfilling what ought to be a minimum requirement shows how far we’ve lowered the bar, and how many miles we must go before we sleep.
To the question as to why unionists don’t support devolution, I suggest this. They never did. They opposed every amendment during the Smith Commission process. And every devolution-protecting amendment over Brexit. And they oppose article 30. And the continuity bill. One wonders why they are still here. And what, pray, they are for. And this is what I think.
One way or another an increasingly likely hard-Brexit must be delivered and paid for. That means trade deals with China and Australia and America and a relaxation of food standards and hormone treated beef and chlorinated chicken and “whiskey” from Nebraska. It means the loss of the brand, the Orkney cheese, the Stornaway black pudding, the Arbroath smokie. Jobs, money, livelihoods sacrificed on the hard-Brexit altar. And it is not possible to deliver this neoliberal utopia as long as there is devolution. It’s hard to sell off the NHS when it’s a devolved competency. It’s difficult to sell off farming when it’s controlled by Holyrood. Brexit demands the end of devolution or Brexit is not affordable.
You can have devolution or you can have Brexit. But you cannot have both.
Well, I like democracy and I like my Scottish Parliament. The day we cede one inch of our democracy to the Brexit project we wish no part of is the day we cease to be a country. Nicola Sturgeon’s stance over the Withdrawal Bill and the power grab asks some age-old questions: Stands Scotland where it did? And who speaks for Scotland?
I’m at the stage where I honestly think that the Scottish Government should simply declare Scotland independent and then hold a confirmatory plebiscite afterwards. This isn’t politics anymore. It is self-preservation.
The late Tony Benn used to say that politicians fell into two camps – signposts and weathervanes. Those – like May and Ruth Davidson and Boris – who follow. And those, like Nicola, who lead. She is the last of the Mohicans, a conviction politician. Anyone who believes in Scottish democracy- and many in Holyrood don’t- will be observing events closely.
Is Scotland a country? The constitutional wrangle may provide an answer. If we fight to keep our parliament and our powers then we are one. If we don’t, we are a parish council. Or Wales. If we don’t stand up for ourselves then we deserve everything that comes our way. I’m sorry, but there it is.
Staying within this framework immediately puts a limit on what we can achieve. Which is why we should leave at the earliest opportunity.