Scottish devolution at 20: some hits, some misses and that eternal maybe …

Scottish parliament with Calton Hill in the background. Bernt Rostad, CC BY-SA

It is the anniversary time of the Scottish referendum, in which the electorate voted Yes in overwhelming numbers. I don’t mean the 2014 poll, of course, but its predecessor. It took place on September 11, 1997, a full 20 years ago, and was a vote in favour of a devolved parliament with tax-raising powers.

Within two years, a Scottish parliament was established at Holyrood following the Scotland Act of 1998. It was a pivotal moment in the history of Scotland and the United Kingdom. After nearly three centuries Scotland had begun to recover what had been lost in the Union of 1707 with England.

It was the culmination of more than a century of campaigning. National self-confidence grew over that time, as did a belief in the ability – and right – of the Scottish nation to govern itself. Post-war central planning under Labour had gone too far. Scots became increasingly dissatisfied with English insensitivity to Scottish distinctiveness, and Westminster’s inability to respond to Scotland’s particular needs.

Holyrood is now firmly embedded. Further Scotland acts in 2012 and 2016 extended the parliament’s powers significantly beyond those originally envisaged. Members of the Scottish parliament (MSPs) are more accessible and less distant, physically and metaphorically, than Westminster MPs.

Holyrood in session. Scottish Government, CC BY-SA

The Scottish parliament has achieved much since its inception. Perhaps its greatest success has been the smoking ban in 2006. In this regard Scotland can genuinely claim to have led the rest of the UK, which followed suit a year later. Minimum pricing of alcohol is of the same order of importance, with Scotland again leading the way, but Holyrood cannot be held responsible for vested interests continuing to delay implementation.

Devolution has not solved all the nation’s ills, however. The democratic deficit has only partly been dealt with, as we saw with the recent Brexit vote in which Scotland voted to stay in the EU but faces having to leave because it was outnumbered by England and Wales.

The Scottish parliament has also mostly failed to tackle seriously pressing social matters such as poverty, inequality, and lifestyle issues such as diet and obesity. Education policy – regardless of party – has been confused, to the extent that the performance of Scottish schoolchildren is falling relative to other countries.

The rise of the SNP

Labour – the party that delivered devolution – dominated the Scottish parliament’s early years. But Iraq, dissatisfaction with New Labour and the party’s complacent, managerial approach at Holyrood left the door open to an SNP that projected itself as a left-leaning, socially conscious counterweight to Westminster.

The first SNP government (2007-11) gave the appearance of being dynamic and effective. Competence mattered and the leadership team impressed – led by Alex Salmond as first minister, John Swinney as finance secretary and Nicola Sturgeon as deputy first minister/health secretary. The SNP won 69 of Holyrood’s 129 seats in 2011 -– an incredible feat given the voting system had been designed to prevent majority government. Independence was suddenly on the table.

In the days immediately prior to the Scottish independence referendum in September 2014, it looked as if the Yes campaign might just win. And though a shattered Salmond ultimately had to admit defeat, the SNP had an army of new members. In the weeks and months after the 45%-55% defeat, the party’s long march towards the dream that would “never die” appeared to have hastened.

When Scotland voted the opposite way to England and Wales in 2016’s EU referendum, it initially looked like it would be the trigger for a second independence referendum. The incremental slither to separation, forecast and feared by the opponents of any kind of devolution, seemed well under way.

But then came June 2017’s UK election, in which the irresistible rise of the SNP came to a halt. More than one third of their MPs lost their seats. Not only did Labour win back some seats in Scotland, but against the odds, the Tories did even better.

Short-term factors were clearly at work, including much tactical voting. But looked at in historical context, it is perhaps not so surprising that support for independence may have peaked – for the present anyway.

Opinion divided as ever

There was no referendum in 1707. Had there been, Scotland would have resoundingly rejected the parliamentary incorporating union that ensued.

There was strong support in Scotland for a federal union, however. Despite longstanding rivalry and resentment of England, many Scottish parliamentarians recognised the potential benefits of a trade treaty with their larger, richer and more powerful neighbour. Out and out opponents of any kind of treaty with England were fewer in number.

In short, opinion about the most suitable relationship with England was divided. It has been the same ever since. Politicians who talk about the “Scottish people” or boldly declare that “the nation” has spoken, forget this or perhaps just ignore it.

Mebbes aye, mebbes naw. Rob Eaglesfield, CC BY-SA

It’s obvious that commitment in Scotland to the union is much weaker now than in the 19th century. Yet Scottish national feeling was as intense then as that which fuelled independence movements elsewhere in Europe. Much of it in Scotland coalesced around celebrations to commemorate Robert Burns. Yet few challenged the union. And despite its flaws, that remains an ingrained habit which large numbers of Scots have yet to break.

Many hoped devolution would kill nationalism stone dead, to paraphrase George Robertson, Scottish secretary during the 1997 referendum. His Labour colleagues in particular failed to grasp Scots’ powerful sense of nationhood.

It was another Labour man, the late Tam Dalyell, who argued that devolution could lead to independence. As you might expect, Salmond shares this view. He recently asserted that independence was “rendered inevitable when the Scottish parliament was established”. In his view, the Scots will vote for independence within four years.

Will they? Both sides may claim to know where Scotland is heading, but history tells us not to be so sure. When it comes to what relationship it wants with the rest of people in the British Isles, the reality is that Scotland has never quite made up its mind.