Schemes for Scottish autonomy date back to just after Gladstone’s introduction of his Irish Home Rule Bill. Indeed, they were then part of what was called the “home rule all round”, leaving the Parliament of Westminster to deal with imperial affairs. On several occasions, Scottish Home Rule bills have almost been passed by parliament. One of them did so in 1978, but was rejected by referendum in March 1979, on condition that 40% of the electorate voted in favor.
This story suggests that while the demand has been constant, or at least recurring, it has not been very deep or sustained very strongly. If this had been the case, it is inconceivable that home rule has not been achieved to date.
This shows the significant difference between Scottish and Irish history. Scotland has never been conquered or colonized. He entered into a union with England by a vote of his own parliament. The Scots saw themselves as equal partners in the British Empire. In the 19th century, the Scots were not a submerged people like the Irish, Poles or Czechs. On the contrary, they felt dominant.
This feeling faded in the 20th century. Early industrialization made Victorian Scotland confident and vibrant. As confidence faded as the old heavy industries struggled between the two world wars, the nationalism that had manifested by then was entrenched, romantic and backward-looking.
The response to industrial decline was to hold on even more to the British state, which had the resources to alleviate its effects and facilitate the transformation into a new economy – or, indeed, as many hoped, to support declining industries.
In addition, the experience of World War II reinforced the sense of British patriotism. It was Great Britain, not England or Scotland, that stood contra mundum. Significantly, the major air battles of 1941, although primarily fought in southern England, were unanimously referred to as the “Battle of Britain”.
For 20 years after the war, Britishness reigned almost unchallenged, despite the apparent success of the Covenant movement of the
1940s, which called for a vague measure of autonomy. The Labor Party was committed to socialism in one country and forgot its historic, albeit nominal, attachment to self-government.
It was not until the Wilson years of the 1960s that the decline of British power, and the apparent failure of British governments to stem the economic decline of Scotland from the more advantaged areas of the United Kingdom, gave a new impetus to nationalism.
It was the rise of the Scottish National Party in the feverish atmosphere of the 1970s that persuaded Labor to introduce a decentralization plan.
From the start, this was hampered by its internal contradiction. Devolution appealed to nationalist sentiment, but its apparent aim was to strengthen the Union by creating a better government of Scotland within the framework of the United Kingdom.
Decentralization could therefore only work if it stifled the nationalist sentiment which it also nourished, and because of which Labor had been brought back to its roots as national government.
The condition for decentralization was that there should be a strong SNP seeking independence; the condition for the proper functioning of any deconcentration project was for the SNP to lose its support.
Undoubtedly, the unpopularity of the Thatcher-Major government in Scotland made devolution more attractive. Although general policy was made by the Scots and administered by the Scots, it was nonetheless referred to as a ‘democratic deficit’.
There were claims that the very real and considerable administrative devolution that had taken place should be matched by political devolution in the form of a Scottish parliament.
After 1987, the Labor Party became involved, in part because of the natural frustration resulting from its inability to translate electoral support in Scotland into political power, and in part out of fears that in the absence of decentralization its support does seep into the SNP.
We are therefore now on the verge of voting for a Scottish Parliament along the lines proposed in the British Government’s White Paper.
Its areas of competence will be the parts of government already administratively devolved to the Scottish Office. If we approve it, it will also have modest taxing power and, because of its control over local governments, the power to change local government taxation.
The modesty of the project could, one might think, recommend it. Yet although the result is likely to be a nice majority in favor, there are still some trade unionists who view the project with suspicion and dismay.
They do this for four reasons. The first is simple. As the government presents its proposals as, in the words of Secretary of State Mr Donald Dewar, ‘a fair and just settlement for Scotland within the framework of the UK’, Labor has hailed nationalist support who see what is proposed not as a “settlement” but as a step in the process towards independence.
Clearly the two cannot be right. Therefore, many who are happy to identify as both Scottish and British are inevitably devoskeptics.
Second, the powers of tax variation, while modest, worry many businessmen. They fear that if Scotland becomes the most heavily taxed part of the UK, as seems likely, they will find themselves at a competitive disadvantage. Their doubts are shared by those who think this is all an expensive extravaganza that will only benefit professional politicians and create more jobs for the boys.
Third, some of us fear that one of the consequences is the diminishing Scottish influence, which is now considerable, within the UK. A semi-detached country is unlikely to play a full role in governing the whole. Scotland may become more withdrawn and parochial, as was Northern Ireland during Stormont’s time.
The government’s refusal to attempt any response to the West Lothian question, formulated 20 years ago by now veteran Labor MP for Linlithgow, Mr Tam Dalyell (then MP for West Lothian), who asks why Scottish MPs for Westminster should be able to vote on a range of English affairs, but English MPs should not vote on comparable Scottish affairs, is worrying. Ultimately, the only answer to this problem would be some form of federalism.
Finally, the proposed regime will create a fundamentally irresponsible parliament because, despite the modest power of tax variation, its income will depend on Westminster. He will have the pleasure of spending money as long as he does not incur the odiousness of snatching it from the people.
Writing recently on the problems of local government in the west of Scotland, Iain McWhiter (who favors decentralization) suggested that it was important to “restore the local tax base”.
Part of the problem, he said, was that local councils no longer collected the money they spent. “Nothing could be better designed to undermine civic responsibility. The balance should be restored, with more taxes levied locally and less levied centrally. Councils would then be accountable to their local electorate.”
He is absolutely right and yet we are being offered a so-called national parliament that will collect an even lower proportion of its income than the meanest and poorest local authorities currently do. Nothing, in its own words, could be better designed to undermine civic responsibility.
And that, even if one did not see in the proposals an institutionalization of the friction between London and Edinburgh, to the probable benefit of the SNP, this would be a sufficient reason to vote “no” on September 11th.
Allan Massie is a journalist and novelist who lives on the Scottish borders. He writes regularly for several publications, including the Scotsman and the Daily Telegraph. Her most recent novel, published last month, is Shadows of Empire.