Monday, 11 September 2017

Devolution Britain At 20

We seem to be going through a phase at the moment where we are seeing all sorts of nostalgia for 1997. A couple of weeks ago we saw various reminiscences of the most famous drink driving car crash in history, while last week BBC Parliament repeated 1997’s other so called ‘JFK’ moment. Including the moment that has given it’s name to all subsequent high profile electoral casualties at the moment of defeat – the Portillo moment. We have also seen people revisit, thanks to an appearance at Glastonbury in June, Radiohead’s critically acclaimed/criminally overrated (delete where appropriate) album from that year.
Blair, Dewar and McConnell greet pro-devolution supporters in Edinburgh's Parliament
Square, post result: Friday 12 September 1997

One moment that seems to have evaded the nostalgists, except for viewers in Scotland (of course), is the moment where devolution began to be made flesh. Twenty years on from those twin referendum’s it is forgotten how controversial they were. But then again, there is an awful lot that is forgotten about the development of what became the Scottish Parliament.

Labour were of course, late converters to the Devolution cause. Seeing it more as something to stymie the rise in support for the SNP in the aftermath of the two General Elections in 1974, Labour then put together and proposed assemblies in Wales and Scotland. Both were put to their respective electorates in the winter of 1979, but with the campaign taking place among the backdrop of the so called ‘Winter of Discontent’ it’s debatable if the climate was conducive to a positive outcome. As a result the Welsh proposals were dismissed by their electorate. The Scottish assembly won by 51.6% to 48.6%. However thanks to a key intervention by the Islington (Labour) MP George Cunningham who successfully got his motion passed (on of all days, Burns Night 1978) stating that if less than 40% of the electorate voted yes then this ‘Scotland Act’ should be brought back to parliament for repeal. At 63.8% turnout, that 51.6% vote looked more like a third of the Scottish electorate and failed the 40% rule. The ensuing arguments brought about the fall of the Callaghan government within four weeks of the Assembly referendum and a resulting General Election which provided Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives with a 44 seat majority.

As Thatcher’s brand of Friedman/Hayek inspired Monetarism became more and more toxic here in Scotland, devolution gradually came back into fashion. A cross party, cross society, constitutional convention was set up in the late 80’s. The only people who did not contribute was the Scottish Tories, who instantly set their face against devolution, and the SNP, who at that point did not see a roadmap to Independence through devolution. It is strange to remember that the SNP spent most of the 80’s and 90’s disdainfully dismissing devolution. When Labour eventually won, and it became clear that there would be a referendum campaign, the SNP were wise to set aside their misgivings and campaign for a Scottish parliament.

Ah, the referendum. As the late Donald Dewar observed, the Scottish Parliament had become the settled will of the Scottish people by the time Blair had succeeded the late John Smith. It was therefore a shock and a surprise to see that Blair intended to hold twin referendums on both the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. As Blair pointed out in his book though, this was a tactic designed to make the passage through parliament easier, not to thwart the desires of the Scottish People – “As the legislation to devolve trundled through Westminster, I knew the only way we could avoid the trap that previous governments had fallen into was to negate the possibility of the legislation being sabotaged by the House of Lords... The tactic was obvious: get the people to say yes, then the lords could not say no.”

At the time though, this tactic went above some people as it became rather controversial and somewhat set the template of Blair’s opinion of us. Being Scottish, going to school here and being brought up here, Blair felt like an alien in his own country, thanks in no small thanks to our own inferiority sensibility, or as he put it our chipiness. The other thought I had at the time was that this was Labour laying to rest some ghosts from 1979. In the event, Blair’s election in the May of 1997 meant that there would be significant changes to the UK constitution and that those twin referendum were now pencilled in for the 11th and the 18th September 1997.

If memory serves, it was all too obvious that we would vote for a Scottish Parliament. There were two areas where there was some doubt. The second question on the ballot paper was on whether the parliament should have tax varying powers. Pre-Indyref and pre-Calman, the original proposals were that the tax raising powers only extended to 3% difference either way. There was doubt over whether this proposal would gain approval from the Scottish electorate. The other doubt being that campaigning was essentially curtailed for a week thanks to the death of Diana in that aforementioned accident. We’ve since had campaigning curtailed by the death of Jo Cox and terrorist incidents in Manchester and London but this was the first time that campaigning was suspended in this way. The worry was whether and how would this impact on voting. In the end we shouldn’t have worried.

Scottish Devolution Referendum, 11 September 1997
Should there be A Scottish Parliament?1,775,045 (74.3%)614,200 (25.7%)
Should the Scottish Parliament have tax varying powers?1,512,889 (63.5%)870,263 (36.5%)
Turnout 60.43%

Now, looking back at that referendum, there are two thoughts that occur. The first is that while we wouldn’t want to get rid of the Scottish Parliament, there is an element of disappointment about the Scottish Parliament as a radical transformative force. Say what you like about Scottish Labour (and I’d generally agree with you) but at least they can point at some sort of legacy. Donald Dewar scrapped Clause 28, in the teeth of vicious opposition from home-grown religious fundamentalists. Henry McLeish brought in Free Care for the Elderly, in the teeth of opposition from his own party. The longest lasting of Labour’s three First Ministers, Jack McConnell brought in the smoking ban. However both Scottish Labour and the SNP have looked to protect and manage public services, but not looked at ways of making them better. Meanwhile the SNP ducked out of reforming local authority financing because, firstly they couldn’t make Local Income Tax work and then lost faith in that policy.

This of course is the frustrating thing about the SNP. Among all of our parties, their values have the highest ambition, national self determination. Yet as we found out during the Independence referendum campaign they didn’t really articulate very well what they would do differently – save for some corporation tax cuts and giving power away to Brussels and to Threadneedle Street. The really interesting and radical policy manoeuvres came from The Common Weal and Radical Independence Groups. Organisations that the SNP hierarchy would only touch with a long stick and the SNP supporting Macblogosphere have recently started to try to discredit. Now that Independence is in the long grass (until it becomes feasible and winnable), the SNP have started to do what they should have been doing two years ago, and kitefly desirable policies. On the one hand it is to be welcomed that there will be new Social Security powers to tackle inequality, free care and childcare will be extended. On the other while record investment is needed in the NHS, surely we should be looking at NHS reform & reorganisation to see if the NHS can be run better. If anything, the running sore which is GGHB’s treatment of the RAH is proof that the NHS is something that needs to be looked at, not treated as a sacred cow.

The people who should be looking back with interest at events 20 years ago are the current occupants of Bute House. As I’ve said previously and in previous posts, Indyref 2 is simply not winnable at this moment. Three years is still fresh in the memory and in most people’s minds nothing has really changed. Yes the First Minister and her supporters talk of material change having taken place last June, in the minds of most voters however this material change has not happened. The second thought that occurs is that the SNP really should be aiming to take inspiration and emulate what the campaign for a Scottish Parliament achieved twenty years ago. Independence as the settled will of the Scottish People, and on those percentage points, should be the target.

How they do that is really for the SNP to decide. Here though it’s worth reiterating some thoughts I’ve had both here and on twitter. It should be a broad campaign, not afraid to make contradictory left wing and right wing arguments. The SNP should not be front and centre of the campaign (James MacKenzie first made this point in the aftermath of the first Independence referendum & it’s something I completely agree with). Some right wing endorsements for Independence might not be a bad thing (is Michael Fry seriously the only right wing person in Scotland who supports Independence?). The arguments (from whichever wing) should be completely and utterly bombproof and in particular the economic argument. Though if there is anything that can be learned from the EU referendum it is that dry economic figures can be trumped (apologies for the use of that phrase) by making the link to people’s real lives. Maybe pro-Independence campaigners could use graphs and charts. After all, it seems to work for Kevin Hague...

More than Blair’s victory and the death of Diana, the twin referendums here and in Wales (followed by the Good Friday agreement) did more to change the UK than those two previous events. It has changed us, I may be disappointed at Holyrood, but that’s the failings of Holyrood politicians. It has also changed England as it has somehow become easier for the London based media to not cover events here with the nadir being McConnell’s win in 2003 garnering very little coverage in the network news. SNP victories seem to gather much more interest (can’t think why...) while coverage of the Independence referendum merely showed how ignorant the London based media were of events here. For as long as we remain within the UK, Holyrood should remain a part of the political architecture of this country and be allowed to evolve and thrive. Any attempts to remove or neuter Holyrood would therefore be akin to playing with fireworks in a garage forecourt. Be warned Teresa May.

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