Another guest article from Alasdair Stirling, to follow up a very well received Referendum Round-up from earlier in the month. Aasdair describes himself as cynical of politicians and believes that we should reject all authority which we cannot justify by reason, but believes that politics that delivers the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers can be virtuous.
With at least some of the post-Olympics opinion polls lending support to the Unionist contention that TeamGB successes have ushered forth a celebration of Britishness that is turning Scots heads away from independence, it is worthwhile considering how devolution may develop if the Scots do vote NO in 2014. Whether Donald Dewar ever referred to devolution as “a process not an event” is neither here nor there. The concept is what is important, and whoever said it (it was in fact Ron Davies the Welsh Secretary) was bang on the money. Devolution did not start in 1997 and (absent a YES vote) is unlikely to have reached a conclusion with the Scotland Act 2012.
From a faltering and short lived mid nineteenth century campaign (Devine 2006) the impetus for specifically Scottish political institutions, and local control thereof, developed and progressed throughout the remainder of the century. Although never matching the tempo or intensity of Irish demands for Home Rule, this gradual but growing pressure saw a dedicated education department empowered to conduct school inspections in 1872 (O’Connor & Robertson 2000) and resulted in the reappointment of a Scottish Secretary in 1885. These were tentative steps down the ‘devolution highway’ and further progress came only slowly. It was not until 1928 that the Scottish Board of Health (created 1919), Board of Agriculture for Scotland (created 1911) and the Prison Commissioners for Scotland (created 1877) were abolished as semi-independent bodies and re-established as departments of the Scottish Office (HMSO 1928). Westminster tidied up these ‘devolved’ responsibilities by amalgamating prisons, agriculture and fisheries to form a Scottish Home Department in 1939 (HMSO 1939). This reorganization also saw the Scottish Office opening its resplendent new offices in St Andrew’s House and, more importantly, gaining dedicated civil service support.
These developments created, in effect, the apparatus of a ‘pocket’ government for Scotland, complete with is own ‘pocket’ Prime Minister (the Scottish Secretary), a ‘pocket’ executive (the Scottish Office Ministers and Departments) and ‘pocket’ secretariat (the Scottish section of the Home Civil Service). However, they were not the whole sum and substance of the devolution’s progress: Westminster itself was also in on the act. Starting with a Scottish standing committee established in 1909, Scottish MPs progressively came to dominate the consideration and legislative process of exclusively Scottish Bills. This arrangement developed as the century wore on, eventually becoming the grandly titled the Scottish Grand Committee (Scotland Office 2000). Whilst never entirely excluding English, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs, this ‘pocket’ parliament nevertheless represented a significant further devolution of power by ensuring that Scottish MPs had a disproportionate influence over legislation affecting only Scottish voters.
With the wounds of 1979 still fresh in the memory, many a Nationalist has branded David Cameron’s much reported claim that he is open to ‘considering what further powers could be devolved’ after a NO vote (STV 2012) as ‘jam tomorrow’ and most likely just another example of Unionist perfidy. So is his position just a worthless promise, easily broken once a NO vote lances the independence boil, or can the Scots take him at face value? To its credit, Westminster has a substantial and honourable record when it comes to devolving power to Scotland. Scottish Labour likes to claim the devolution mantle, but in truth all of the major Westminster parties have embraced the devolution process over its long history and may take some of the credit for having the constitutional flexibility and political will to develop a form of government that is to some extent responsive to Scotland’s particular needs. So to answer the question: Scots voters can and should take David Cameron at his word when he says that a NO result in the referendum would not be ‘the end of the road’ for devolution (STV 2012).
However, nobody should read more into it than that. What is important is what is not being said. To date, no Unionist party nor any high ranking Unionist politician has made any specific undertaking on what further powers might be devolved to a post referendum Scotland or (perhaps more importantly) when any further devolution might take place. Much is made of the need for clarity in the vote, of lack of consensus on what further powers might be devolved and of the complexity of crafting a proposal that voters might readily understand. Without doubting the difficulty of these issues; ‘where there is a will there is a way’.
There are many constitutional models already operating successfully throughout the world that might serve to inform a debate on the shape of further devolution. No doubt Quebec’s arrangements with Ottawa or the Australian state’s relationship with Canberra are a worthwhile study. However, the constraints of European Union membership, mean that the templates that would most likely to be relevant to enhanced devolution in Scotland would come from within Europe itself. This need not be a limitation, there exists is a rich diversity of arrangements: the autonomous regions of Spain, the German lander and closer to home the Isle of Man and Channel Islands readily spring to mind as useful starting points.
The plain fact is that it is not beyond the best Unionist brains to act quickly and outline a comprehensible template for Devo-Max that could form the basis of second or Devo-Max question. So why this reluctance to explore the possible future of devolution? It is far from a vow of silence. That Unionism has set its face against a second question is actually most eloquent, and speaks volumes as to Unionist intentions for Scotland’s constitutional future. What they are saying: the Unionist promise, in effect, is that in the event of a NO vote the the process of devolution will continue along much the same lines and at much the same pace as it has over the last 127 years.
Perhaps it is cynical, but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Westminster really only embraces devolution when it is confronting a serious Nationalist threat. Was it by chance that it allowed semi-independent bodies for prisons, health and agriculture in Scotland and re-appointed a Scottish Secretary just as the Irish campaign for Home Rule gained strength? Did the creation of the Scottish Office in 1928 have anything to do with Britain having fought and lost a bloody war against Irish Nationalists? Is it fair to suggest that devolution stalled during the period from 1940 to 1970 because there was no real threat from Irish or Scottish Nationalists? Can we attribute the Scotland Act 1978 to fear born of Scotland’s oil fuelled enthusiasm for the SNP? Did George Robertson reveal Westminster’s true intentions in the mid-1990s when he said that ‘devolution will kill nationalism stone dead’? Would Kenneth Calman ever have chaired his commission had Scottish Labour won the election in 2007?
It doesn’t take the wisdom of Solomon to answer these questions, nor is a crystal ball really necessary to foresee Scotland’s constitutional prospects in the event of 2014 NO vote. Although no longer leader, it is hard to believe that Gordon Brown’s recent speech – all but ruling out a move toward fiscal autonomy (Telegraph 2012) – is far from Scottish Labour’s view of, and preferred approach to further devolution. At the other end of the political spectrum, David Cameron has already warmed over the ‘Real Devolution’ theme, beloved by the Tories in the 1990’s, in an attempt to recast future devolution in the context of local councils rather than further powers for the Scottish government (Independent 2012).
Such views are more than idle speculation, they are the genesis of Unionism’s post referendum policy and represent the likely boundaries to Scotland’s future constitutional development. In practical terms they mean that, free from the fear of Nationalism, Westminster will most likely restrict future devolution to piecemeal powers devolved from the periphery of their current reserved responsibilities (e.g. international development, the civil service or broadcasting). Moreover, with only seven major events (appointment of the Scottish Secretary, formation of the Scottish Office, creation of a dedicated secretariat, the evolution of the Scottish Grand Committee and the 1978, 1998 and 2012 Scotland Acts) throughout Scottish devolution’s 127 year history, it is arithmetically unlikely that Westminster will be minded to pass another Scotland Act much before 2030.