Alex Massie

Ten Years of Devolution

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This is a day for anniversaries: my 35th and the Scottish Parliament's 10th. The latter is, I concede, the more significant milestone. Once upon a time George Robertson, then Shadow Scottish Secretary, declared that devolution would kill the demand for independence "stone dead". His Labour colleague, Tam Dalyell, disagreed predicting that devolution would put us on the "motorway" towards independence. Well, a decade later, neither man has been vindicated and, indeed, the case remains Not Proven.

Scotland does not stand where once she did, but nor has her future path been determined. It is still too soon to say whether devolution has been a success, but some myths concerning it deserve to be, forgive me, scotched. The first of these - one that one has frequently been aired in the pages of the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail - is that devolution was part of a Blairite plot to destroy Britain. Not so. Indeed, if Tony Blair could have avoided devolution he would have done so. But it was part of his inheritance and could not be avoided. There was, whether England realised it or not, a genuine demand for Home Rule.

Not that this was a new idea. Indeed, Labour had technically been in favour of devolution since the party's foundation. Nonetheless, Labour's conversion to the idea of Home Rule was built upon an essentially negative analysis of British politics and political trends. On the one hand devolution was supposed to shoot the nationalist fox; on the other it was a means of protecting Scotland against the supposed ravages of Conservative rule at Westminster.

So it was not a great surprise that Labour, though committed by 1997 to the idea of a parliament in Edinburgh, had little idea as to what it might do with that parliament once it came into being. This was partly, though not only, because the best and the brightest members of the Scottish Labour party were more concerned with what Labour might do once given the chance to rule the whole of the United Kingdom.

Nonetheless, most of Scottish Labour's talent remained in London, ensuring that, with the exception of Donald Dewar, it was largely the B Team that entered governement, in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, in Edinburgh. In truth, the new parliament had a pretty modest agenda and the new First Minister had few more powers than he would have done had he merely been administering Scotland as Secretary of State.

But of course, that is also part of the point: devolution was certainly a response to 18 years of increasingly unpopular Tory rule but it also recognised that government by civil servant was not necessarily healthy. Certainly it was undemocratic in the modern sense of the term.

Devolution also recognised an important political and psychological point often, I think, overlooked or ignored in England: the United Kingdom is a Union, not England with a few Scots and Welsh and Irish added on. It's easy to understand why the English, being so numerically superior, might forget this but it's not something so easily ignored on this side of the Tweed. Pierre Trudeau's famous quip about being "In bed with an elephant" resonates in Scotland. And reasonably so.

This is something that is sometimes forgotten in England. It is not always easy or comfortable to be part of a political entity in which you are outnumberd 10:1. That discomfort is exacerbated when the majority partner seems, as is often the case, to conflate English with British. The Union may be something of an abstract notion in England, but it's concrete up here. Britain is a multi-national state with all the layered, complex and sometimes contradictory loyalties that implies.

I use the word partner deliberately. The idea of a voluntary union existed in Scotland well before the actual Union came into being. (Successive English monarchs, of course, had a different view.) Indeed the idea of Union predates even the Union of the Crowns in 1603. But my sense is that many English people do not see the Union as a partnership and, instead, assume that Great Britain is really Greater England. Not so!

If the Scots are sometimes unduly chippy (and we are!) it's because this niggles us. Rightfully so, I would hazard, even if we sometimes protest too much.

Britain and Britishness are ideas and powerful ones at that. But they are not necessarily undermined by devolution. Nor, it should be said is Scottishness undermined by Britain. Not for nothing does Alex Salmond often sweeten the independence pill by stressing that the "social Union" between Scotland and England would continue. He's right to say this, not least because our histories and cultures are so intertwined. Indeed, though they might dispute it, the Irish are still in important and significant respects British. The same would be true of any putative independent Scotland.

Perhaps Britain has run its course. But I somehow doubt it, not least because the most recent poll show only 38% support for independence. Not least but not only either. I think - though all such predictions are hostages to fortune - that Scotland will settle down and that Edinburgh will be to London what Barcelona is to Msdrid or Montreal to Ottawa.

Devolution has been, despite the long list of terrible bills passed at Holyrood (terrible in my estimation of course), a success and a welcome affirmation of the fact that Britain is, as I say, a multi-nation state. There are, for sure, flaws in the current arrangements but these can be worked out in the years to come. Devolution then may have, paradoxical as it may seem, weakened Britain in order to save it. Time will tell. What it has done, however, is make what was always true, clear: Britain is not England and England is not Britain.

Also: I am not a subscriber to the Burns Cult but there's something impressive, even moving, about the film of Sheena Wellington singing A Man's A Man For A' That at the opening of the parliament ten years ago. Hell, it's a braw song and the sentiments are fine and a' that. The best bit is when the newly elected MSPs join in. That's at about 2.30 in the tape:


Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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