Devolution for Scotland will mean the end of a politics distorted by the national question. Peter Jones, of The Economist, says issues will soon have to be discussed on their merits. This might come as a shock to the Scottish establishmentby Peter Jones / April 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
Published in April 1997 issue of Prospect Magazine
In a recent television interview, Gerald Kaufman had some wise advice for the average MP representing an English constituency. Do not comment on Scottish politics, he counselled: “It is more difficult than Bosnia or Chechnya.” He was speaking after Stephen Dorrell, the health secretary, had been sacked by John Major as a party spokesman on constitutional affairs for getting-as Kaufman once did-his devolution wires terribly crossed.
Scottish culture is full of the same mantraps. What would a commentator, equipped with the knowledge that the Scots resent the English, make of the fact that at a Glasgow Rangers football game, the fans will sing “Rule Britannia” in praise of a team which contains two Englishmen, not to mention two Danes, a German, a Swede, a Serb, a Chilean and an Australian? Or that should the opposition be Hibernian, an Edinburgh team of evident if distant Irish origin, its supporters will retaliate by singing “Flower of Scotland”?
And what should be made of the fact that the fans of Glasgow Rangers who flock in from the surrounding Govan district to wave Union Jacks and sing their praises of Britannia, have twice, in 1973 and 1988, elected a Scottish National party MP at a by-election?
What Dorrell and Kaufman unwittingly caught their feet in was the hidden sub-strata of Scottish society. These underground layers are much more fissured than is suggested by the rolling surface undulations of a country seemingly united by a desire for a political means of self-expression. Assuming the desire is satisfied after the election the fissures will soon become more visible.
Scotland: less united than it seems
The Highlander and the Lowlander, while they might agree that they are both Scottish, would find it more difficult to agree on what bonds them in their Scottishness than the Cornishman and the Cockney would concur on the essence of their shared Englishness.
Yet it seems clear that the Scots are moving towards self-government. Opinion polls, although an uncertain barometer of mood, nevertheless indicate a steady wish for some form of home rule. For a decade, the mercury has shown a constant 25-30 per cent of voters favouring independence, 45-50 per cent wanting self-government within the UK, and only 15-20 per cent supporting the constitutional status quo.
This points to one crucial difference between politics north and south of the border. South of it, sovereignty is something under threat. North of the border, sovereignty is a prize yet to be gained. But, should this sovereignty be attained through the election of a Labour government which then sets up its long promised Scottish parliament, this will not be an end to the matter. It will merely be another twist in a long road which curls around the debris of previous “solutions” to the Scottish problem.
The problem began in 1707 with the Act of Union which ended the independence of the Scottish parliament and integrated Scotland politically with England. By the early 19th century, attempts to expunge the notion of Scotland from popular consciousness and replace it with the idea of North Britain were in full swing. But by the late 19th century the pendulum was swinging the other way. Scotland gained its own department of government, the Scottish Office, and its own government ministers, whose power has grown steadily during the 20th century.
The limits to this solution-the administrative devolution of education, health, local government, the still distinctive legal system, industrial development, the arts, aid to farmers, police and prisons, which occupies 12,000 civil servants spending ?14.3 billion a year-have now been reached. The devolution of political power over this administrative empire is the next, logical step. It is only a step, not an end. The interesting question at this stage in the process is not the West Lothian one, but the dynamics of political and cultural change that will occur within Scotland after devolution and the opening up of public debate.
Seen from a British perspective, Scottish politics are as democratic as anywhere else. Viewed from within Scotland, however, they are profoundly undemocratic. The Scottish Office machinery of government has been controlled for the past 18 years by a party for which only a quarter of Scots have voted and whose ideology is comprehensively rejected. This has warped public debate in Scotland. Political issues such as privatisation, the constraints on local government and education reform are analysed not so much according to their merits, but according to their relationship to Scottish values, whether they are an external imposition or a response to a demand within Scotland. The Scottish Tories, because they have been perceived to be essentially an English party, have suffered accordingly.
Scottish culture, on the other hand, seems to have flourished vigorously. This seems to owe something to the indecisive vote (one third said “yes,” one third “no,” and one third stayed at home) in the 1979 referendum. Devolution is, after all, an obsession of the chattering classes, and writers and artists are innate chatterers. The paintings of Ken Currie writhe with the muscular power of shipwrights and boilermakers, a power that is useless against the relentless tides of market forces. The books of James Kelman boil with the same frustration. Works such as these speak with an inchoate nationalism, expressed more clearly still by pop groups which proliferated in the 1980s, such as Hue and Cry, The Proclaimers and Deacon Blue. The titles of their albums were clear political slogans: Remote, When the World Knows Your Name and so on.
This subliminal nationalism also pervades Scottish political debate far beyond the press releases of the SNP. For example, the Scottish media’s coverage of last year’s decision by the Labour party leadership that there should be a referendum on devolution before the legislation is introduced into Westminster, was not conducted in terms of whether this was a good idea which would assist the process of devolution. Instead the media speculated endlessly on just how much this was a diktat by Tony Blair, and how offensive it was to Scottish opinion. The real explanation for the referendum idea-that it was devised in a shadow cabinet subcommittee composed mostly of Scots who thought it was the best way to ensure that the legislation was passed and would endure-was not sought out.
This is alibi politics. If the Scots do not like something, then the English make a convenient scapegoat. Scottish hands remain clean. It will not do after devolution.
scotland’s parliament: no more alibis
Responsibility for all the work done by the Scottish Office will pass from five government ministers (and two law officers) appointed by the prime minister to an elected 129-seat Scottish parliament. The buck-for closed hospital wards, delapidated schools, or cuts in council cash-will stop with them. True, while the parliament can decide how to spend taxpayer’s money, it will have to rely on Westminster to keep sending a cheque to Edinburgh. If it is not able to reopen hospital wards, mend the schools and restore money to councils, it may choose to blame the meanies in London.
But this would be an unwise tactic for Labour and Liberal Democrat members of the Scottish parliament. They would be taunted from both sides. The nationalists would say that here was proof that they had been right all along; that this much vaunted parliament was no more than the powerless talking shop they had always said it would be. The Tories would also claim to be vindicated-that the parliament was indeed the cancer that they had predicted would destroy the Union. And should the parliament be granted the power to raise taxes, the politics of complaint would have even less meaning. This power, to levy up to 3p on the basic rate of income tax, may raise at most ?450m, a mere 3 per cent of the budget which would be granted by Westminster, but it would be enough for Scottish voters to see the lie in any claim that Scotland’s problems cannot be cured except through greater generosity by English taxpayers.
A new Scottish politics will emerge after the election. Some of its new fault lines can already be detected within the Scottish Labour party. Labour in Scotland is not the left-wing leviathan sometimes portrayed. It has produced Gordon Brown and Donald Dewar, men as essential to new Labour modernisation as Peter Mandelson. It voted as overwhelmingly for Tony Blair to be leader as the rest of the Labour party. Even in its Red Clydeside heartlands, in the very tenements which nurtured the radicalism of Keir Hardie and James Maxton, it voted to abandon clause four.
But it is still different. It has factions. The trade unions, mainly because the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) has been politically cleverer than the TUC, are a stronger force and still believe in the virtues of tax-and-spend. Last year, the STUC produced a document showing how many jobs could be created in construction and related industries if the Scottish parliament decided to raise its own revenue and spend it on housing projects. The other side of the equation-how many jobs might be lost through a levy on income tax applicable only to Scottish residents-was not calculated.
Because more of them have been in Labour hands for longer than in England, the local authorities have a big say in the party. And councillors, frustrated by years of having their powers and finance curtailed by the Tories, are desperate to get some back. At meetings of Labour-controlled councils the air is thick with half-veiled attacks on Gordon Brown for pledging to maintain the Tories’ straitjacket on council finances and public sector workers’ pay for another two years.
And Scottish Labour has a nationalist wing, which thinks that the parliament will have to accumulate more power than Blair will permit; and that the Labour party in Scotland will have to become more autonomous and separate from Labour south of the border. Dennis Canavan, MP for Falkirk West, is not alone in thinking that the 3p income tax supplement is a puny power, and that the Scottish parliament would be better to gather all taxes levied in Scotland and pay a portion to Westminster to cover the cost of shared services such as defence.
Against all these tendencies are ranged Blair’s supporters. They see devolution not so much as the restoration of the pre-1707 landscape, but as a modern exercise in the decentralisation of British politics, bringing those parts of the political system which are Scottish closer to those it is supposed to serve, while maintaining the integrity of those aspects which are and need to remain British. Such politics, to adopt European jargon, is all about subsidiarity.
This suggests that Scottish Labour, post-devolution, could be an unruly mob. Indeed the elections to the party’s Scottish power base, the Scottish executive committee, at the recent party conference in Inverness would have been a bloody affair but for the impending general election.
Although these divisions will become more obvious after the election, there are also constraints which will prevent Scottish Labour from exploding in fissiparous disarray. The Scottish parliament is to be elected by proportional representation: 73 of the seats will be elected by first-past-the-post within the existing Westminster constituencies (Orkney & Shetland is to be divided), and 56 seats will be filled by members from party lists according to the party’s share of the popular vote.
Under this additional member system, Labour is most unlikely to win an outright majority. In the past two decades, it has never had more than 42 per cent of the vote. According to John Curtice, of Strathclyde University, the voting pattern at the 1992 general election would have given Labour 54 seats, the Tories 30, the SNP 28 and the Liberal Democrats 17. If Scottish Labour spends its time between the general election and the first Scottish parliamentary elections fighting itself, then even 54 seats, 11 short of an overall majority, would be impossible to achieve.
Once inside the Scottish parliament, the politics of alliance and coalition rather than acrimony and confrontation are more likely to predominate. There are two reasons for this. First, the parliament will operate on fixed four-year terms, so forcing an election to unblock a political logjam will not be an option. Second, Labour and the Liberal Democrats have agreed that their seats should be filled by equal numbers of men and women. The effects that this will have are uncertain, but it seems likely to make macho posturing less fashionable.
The likeliest coalition is easier to predict. While there is a left-right spectrum in Scottish politics, the nationalist-unionist continuum is a more powerful determinant of alliances. This places the SNP at one end, the Tories at the other, with Labour and the Liberal Democrats in the middle. Since both the latter parties have been, through their joint work in the Scottish constitutional convention, the architects of the present home rule plan, they have an interest in making it work.
Labour’s nationalist wing may therefore be under some pressure to join the SNP. The SNP, however, will have its own factionalism to contend with. Quite a few SNP members see their role as a pressure group aiming to ensure that Labour delivers a Scottish parliament. These people will want to make a success of the parliament. But others will argue that it needs to fail, because only out of the ruins of failure will come the determination to push for full independence.
The Tories will have problems, too. Throughout the years of strident Unionism, the small band of pro-devolution Tories have kept quiet. But once the parliament is seen to be on its way, they will come out of hibernation to argue that the Tories’ best course is to accept that it has lost the war on this issue. Their main difficulty will be not so much Scottish Tories wanting to carry on a resistance battle, but the party in England which will want to address the West Lothian question and perhaps cut the number of Scottish MPs at Westminster.
These problems are unlikely to cause a sudden dash for independence. If Labour’s devolution scheme does run into trouble, it seems unlikely that the electorate, having been persuaded to take one problematic step towards autonomy, will think that the best cure is to take another more dangerous step.
opening up the scottish establishment
In any event, the new politicians will also have to contend with another part of Scotland’s hidden sub-strata that devolution will expose to daylight. This is the Scottish establishment elite which has quietly got on with running the country while the politicians have ranted and raved.
Sometimes too much is made of the distinctiveness of the Scottish education system, but the policies which guide its development have not, in the main, been devised by politicians, but by a largely unknown elite-the administrators of the Scottish Office education department, Her Majesty’s inspectorate, the certification and curriculum authorities, the general teaching council and the local authority directors of education-who make up a formidable array of bureaucrats.
From these people has come a seamless robe of policy changes which can be traced back to the 1960s and which has flowed on unperturbed by changes in government and politicians. Only one politician, Michael Forsyth, has been able to introduce changes which the bureaucracy did not approve of. Yet even he, perhaps the most determined politician the Scottish Office has seen in two decades, found it a difficult task. Despite all inducements, only two of Scotland 3,700 local authority schools have opted out for grant-maintained status.
And yet there is much need for reform. Scottish education rests too much on the laurels of being superior to English education. In terms of exam results, it is not as good as a Northern Irish education; and measured by other forms of achievement, it does not match up to France or Germany.
Much the same goes for the Scottish legal system, which quietly prospers away from the spotlight which shines on its English counterpart. Why are there so few women judges? What is being done to speed up court procedures? What can be done to lift the pressure on the public prosecution service? Is sentencing policy right? None of these questions receive any serious political or public debate.
The people inside the education and the legal system are inherently hostile to any idea or innovation which comes from south of the border. Devolution should cure that. If the new Scottish politicians rise to the challenge, they can abandon the ramparts of defensiveness in favour of serious examination of the internal workings of Scottish society. In time, self-confidence can replace self-doubt. True, there is much to be doubtful of in Scotland. The myth that Scottish society is not racist needs to be destroyed. The cancer of religious sectarianism which afflicts many communities in the west of Scotland needs to be rooted out. Parochialism and parish rivalries are rife. Enterprise is still a vaguely unsavoury word, profit still close to being a swear word.
The one area which does not need a boost to its self-confidence is the arts. They could hardly be healthier. But the thesis that English oppression is responsible for producing the cultural exuberance of recent years hardly stands up to examination. There has been no oppression of language or identity as there was in Catalonia or the Basque country in the days of Franco’s dictatorship. James Kelman and Irvine Welsh have been able to pioneer the vernacular novel of the urban underclasses uncensored and have been lauded for it. Pop is so over-loaded with Scottish bands that the music critics moan about their proliferation. Scottish films, such as Shallow Grave and Small Faces, are critical successes. Gaelic culture has turned from being a dying minority interest in the highlands and islands to being a renowned treasure, from the susurrating poetry of Sorley MacLean and Norman MacCaig to the insistent beat of Runrig and Capercaillie.
A good deal of this work has been motivated by the search for a national identity. That will go on, just as French, German, or American writers gnaw at the bone of their national identity and dissect the complexities of their societies. If you can detect in contemporary art the portents of the future, as you could hear the breaking of chains in the theatres of pre-1990 Prague, then the state of Scottish art bodes well. Where Scottish art has travelled in the last 20 years, Scottish politics and Scottish society can, with luck, follow in the next 20.