The Scottish media cannot see that Tony Blair is selling devolution to the Englishby / May 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
Published in May 1997 issue of Prospect Magazine
The muting of the London tabloids has been one of the remarkable features of an unremarkable election campaign. They have professed an exaggerated contempt for John Major for too long to be able to turn into his choir now. Besides, New Labour has built an appeal to England on a mixture of identifying and soothing core concerns-education, crime, tax-and on promising essential continuity with Conservative economic, social and foreign policies, all of which have had overwhelming media support.
In Scotland, the media has been more vehemently opposed to a Tory party with only 25 per cent of the vote and with a policy of opposition to devolution, the issue which more than any other has had the attention of the media and political classes.
Scotland provided Labour with its last leader; and it seems the Scots media will not forgive Tony Blair for succeeding John Smith. Smith’s belief that the Tory-voting English were a less moral people than the Scots played subliminally to the amour propre of a nation which has in the past decades turned the view of Scotland taken by the leading figures of the Scots enlightenment on its head. The enlightenment men believed union with England would civilise the smaller, poorer country. The first issue of the Edinburgh Review in 1755, half a century after the Union, said “North Britain may be considered in a state of early youth, guided by the more mature strength of her kindred country.”
Smith’s belief, shared by many of his countrymen, was that Scotland had the “more mature strength” of a tradition of social democracy which has retained its hold on all classes. A letter in the Scotsman of 4th April from Councillor Douglas Briggs of Strathpeffer in Ross-shire gave a conventional sigh of despair over falling standards in public life, and claimed that “in Scotland there is still a strong ethos of political integrity and social responsibility towards the less fortunate.”
These feelings underlie much of the reaction to Blair, and to the interview he gave to John Penman, of the Scotsman, in the first week of the campaign. Blair made two statements. First, to the question of where sovereignty would lie, he responded that “the sovereignty rests with me as an English MP and that’s the way it will stay.” Second, to a question on the tax-raising powers of the Scots assembly, Blair responded-“of course, a Scottish parliament, once the power is given it’s like a… the smallest English parish council, it’s got the right to exercise it.”
These answers required some exegesis from Labour’s media handlers, but it is clear enough what they mean. In saying sovereignty rests “with me as an English MP” Blair meant that, if he became prime minister, he would head a system in which sovereignty rests in the British parliament. In the second answer, it is clear that the parish council is being likened to the Scots assembly only in one respect, in its right to use devolved power. The reply was to suggest that bodies from as high as the Scots assembly to as low as an English parish council had at least one thing in common-the ability to use powers. The English parish councils had more of a case against Blair than the Scots assembly.
Only ill will could turn these answers into scandal, and there is plenty of that. Last year, Blair had been overheard describing the Scots press as “unreconstructed wankers” during the period when they were inflamed by Labour’s insistence that there be two referendums, on the existence of the Scottish assembly and on its right to be given tax-raising powers. In his view, they remain so.
For New Labour the problem, in the words of Iain MacWhirter, of Scotland on Sunday, “lies where it always has-in Scotland itself. The more Labour seeks to consolidate in the south, the more it antagonises the north.” Andrew Marr, the Scots editor of the Independent, commented that Blair “implies that the Scottish parliament is a loaned, local affair, not to be taken too seriously.”
But the Scots commentators are more sinning than sinned against. Blair said nothing which has not been said before. His devolution plan is explicitly one where sovereignty is retained by Westminster. To say-as Marr does-that it does not live up to the “Claim of Right for Scotland” which Labour MPs, with Liberal Democrats, signed in 1989 asserting the “sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of government best suited to their needs” is irrelevant: they signed in a fit of rhetorical excess and have now reneged by adopting a policy which leaves sovereignty where it always was.
It is a curious thing. The Scots media has, alone among the nations and regions of the UK, kept a critical mass of people of real ability working in it own cities in preference to being leeched away to London. They have developed a sharp vision which can be different in tone from that of the London media corps -not always, as the Scots like to think, less establishment minded, but certainly less beholden to power.
But they mistake their target. New Labour has many lacunae, evasions and hypocrisies: but its proposals for Scotland are less rich in these than in most other policy areas. In seeking to make a major constitutional change palatable to the major part of the UK-the English-Blair is performing a necessary task for the Scots. He is learning how thankless the task, and how ungrateful the Scots are to him for doing it.