In defence of devolution
TOM HARRIS believes Scotland can chew gum and walk at the same time, whatever the nationalist doubters may claim
I remember it well: May 2003, when the dream of independence died.
Having fought valiantly and unequivocally for their policy of a separate Scotland, the SNP were roundly defeated for the second time in the Holyrood elections. The party’s response was as fast as it was inevitable: its flagship policy obviously had to be jettisoned. Clearly, the voters were not convinced by John Swinney’s vision for Scotland’s future. So, to a chorus of approval from enemies and supporters alike, the SNP announced it would no longer advocate its long-held principle of independence and would instead support a more popular, voter-friendly and strengthened version of devolution.
Except, not really, of course…
The SNP surrendering its commitment to independence was as inconceivable then as it is now; such a move would have been considered the ultimate in cynical opportunism. It’s hard to imagine that its subsequent political victories could have happened at all had it simply ditched principle because a focus group told it to.
So why, after Labour’s second defeat at Holyrood, are we being told that we must abandon our support for the devolution settlement?
If posts from contributors on this site are anything to go by, it’s fast becoming received wisdom that our route back to electoral viability must inevitably be via federalism or “devolution max”. And maybe it is. But that’s a debate that’s yet to conclude. And based on what was said on the doorstep in the run-up to May, it’s far from certain that a complete re-booting of devolution is anywhere near the top of voters’ “to do” list.
So how about this for some blue-sky thinking: let’s try to make devolution work. Radical, huh?
It’s simply wrong to claim – as some inevitably will – that supporting the devolution settlement, as amended by the Scotland Act, precludes the ability of Scottish Labour to articulate a positive vision for our nation. In fact, it presents us with an opportunity to turn the tables on Salmond.
The 1999 devolution settlement was not some kind of half-hearted compromise; it was a radical, modern and fair solution to a critical political challenge. It was exactly what Scottish voters had said, over many years, they wanted: a strong devolved parliament with Scotland remaining in the UK. That settlement, remember, was developed painstakingly and meticulously by the Scottish Constitutional Convention, a broad coalition of Scottish civic society – including the Labour and LibDem parties, the trade unions, business groups and the churches – over many years.
The resulting template – put to a referendum in 1997 – confounded those who believed any parliament set up by a Labour government would not be worthy of the name. On the contrary, the White Paper, “Scotland’s Parliament”, published by Scottish Secretary Donald Dewar weeks after he took office, impressed all sides of the debate. The new parliament would be powerful and strong, well able to deliver the change that Scotland needed.
And yet, ever since the overwhelming “Yes” vote in the referendum, the SNP have done everything they can to belittle and undermine that devolution settlement and, by implication, the disparate interests who set aside their differences for the good of our nation in order to make the convention a success.
So, a question for the nationalists: what is it about Scotland that makes us so incapable of making devolution work? What are the peculiar defects of Scottish political culture that make us incapable of taking full advantage of our devolved parliament? Are we too small? Too weak? Not confident enough? Too easily bullied? Not capable of running our nation efficiently while taking a full part in the United Kingdom?
Why do the SNP believe Scotland can’t walk and chew gum at the same time?
Labour should make a virtue of what we already have; a substantial proportion of voters don’t relish the constant constitutional bickering over what is reserved and what is devolved and would, I suspect, be responsive to a vision of an efficient, innovative, optimistic Labour-led government at Holyrood; a government that made the most of the powers we already have instead of nurturing grievance about those we don’t.
There may well be a case for concluding that advocating “Devolution max” or some kind of federalism is the most appropriate response to Scottish Labour’s defeat. But to turn our backs now on a constitutional settlement so carefully constructed and so keenly fought for would be a knee-jerk reaction unworthy of its architects.
Tom Harris is the Labour MP for Glasgow South. Follow him on Twitter at @TomHarrisMP.