Labour’s road to perdition – Devolution for Scotland

Labour’s road to perdition – Devolution for Scotland

by Alan Sked
article from Monday 23, November, 2020

THE DISTINGUISHED American historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. once wrote a fascinating book entitled ‘Cycles in American History’, which analysed how America went through periods of reform followed by periods of reaction. He would have done well to turn his attention to British history, where the story of the Labour Party during the past hundred years would have offered him much food for thought.

The party, for example, has suffered long periods out of office – from 1931 to 1939, 1951-1964, 1979 to 1997 and now from 2010 till the present. If we put the latest period aside for a moment, we can see that in the previous cases, each period was longer than the one before and was marked by leadership challenges, policy disputes and disagreements over the party constitution. In 1939 the party was rescued by the war, in 1964 by the political genius of Harold Wilson and in 1997 by Tony Blair who stole many of the principles of his opponents, since it was never clear whether he had any himself.  

Since 2010 the party has again had bitter leadership elections, disputes over policies and arguments about the party’s constitution. But this time it is clearly in a more dangerous situation. So far it has only been out of office for ten years but there is a real possibility, indeed probability, it will never enter office again. The Conservatives not only have an 80 seat majority but have broken through Labour’s traditional ‘Red Wall’ in Northern England and Wales and now promise to consolidate their positions there by ‘levelling up’ the national economy and infrastructure explicitly to the benefit of the North. That in itself could finish off Labour’s prospects for good.  

True, Covid 19 and trade negotiations with Brussels are creating problems for the present government but these are likely to be temporary and there need not be another general election till the end of 2024. Meanwhile, attention will turn to Scotland – and Scotland is the real site of Labour’s death agonies. For after almost half a century of political dominance there the party destroyed itself. Brilliant Blair and his smug New Labour chums brought in devolution as part of their incoherent programme of constitutional reforms. And they did so in such a way that made the destruction of the Labour Party in Scotland almost inevitable. 

There was absolutely no need to create a Scottish Parliament in the first place. For all Thatcher’s unpopularity in Scotland opposition to her there continued to be channelled into Labour not SNP votes. The latter party “went mad” in the words of its Chairman after the 1979 general election when it secured only two seats and thereafter descended into fratricidal warfare. Meanwhile in the 1990s Scotland’s economy had caught up with England’s. There was no popular demand for independence even if Britishness was giving way to Scottishness – with Scots rediscovering a compulsion to dress up in tartan on almost all formal occasions, waving saltires and lion rampant flags rather than Union Jacks, and singing ‘Flower of Scotland’ rather than the national anthem. With the end of conscription in 1963 and the subsequent amalgamation of the traditional Scottish regiments in 1990 and 2003 (resulting in the Royal Regiment of Scotland) Scottish ties to Britain’s armed forces were weakened, while various royal scandals undermined traditional Scottish support for the monarchy. Scottish novelists, playwrights, pop stars and popular historians (John Prebble above all) reinforced this new feeling of Scottish identity.  

Finally, of course, there were films like Braveheart (1995) where Michael Forsyth, by now John Major’s Scottish Secretary, turned up, embarrassingly, to the premier in Highland dress – the first Scottish Secretary ever to wear it – while Trainspotting(1996) showed an unusual side to contemporary Scottish life. One of its characters, Mark Renton, complained that if the English were wankers, Scotland had been colonised by wankers. Yet none of this meant there was any overwhelming desire in Scotland for independence. Far from it. 

The case in general for and against devolution was outlined in a previous chapter. By the time Blair entered office all the opposition parties supported it including the SNP. Callaghan in 1974 had imposed the policy on a reluctant Labour Party out of fear that without some major concession to nationalism Labour would be destroyed in Scotland at the next election. Blair, whose own position will be considered in more detail below also acted out of fear. He told the editors of a book on British Labour Leaders in 2015: “I don’t accept the idea that we should never have done devolution. If we had not devolved power, then there would have been a massive demand for separation – as there was back in the Sixties and Seventies.”

Blair, born in Edinburgh in 1953, then raised in Australia and Durham due to his father’s employment as a lecturer, returned to be schooled at Edinburgh’s Fettes College between 1966-71. Blair himself admitted he lacked any sense of history and never read history books. If he had he might have picked up the idea that concessions to nationalists anywhere never work. They just raise the ante and demand more. As the Austrian Emperor Francis l put it to his chief prosecutor in Northern Italy in 1822: “Every concession is dangerous. Man with his insatiable nature always asks for something more. Give him the hand and he wants the arm; give him the arm and he wants the whole body.  I do not wish to give them my head.” Today Labour holds only a single seat in Scotland. 

To be fair, Blair was also honouring the memory of his predecessor as Labour leader, the dour Scottish QC, John Smith. The latter had been influenced by Charter 88 and advocated wholesale constitutional reform which included an elected House of Lords, devolved assemblies for Scotland and Wales, a human rights bill, a freedom of information act, a reformed judiciary, a reformed electoral system and regional assemblies for England as part of the reform of local government. Much of this was enacted by the Blair Governments, including the establishment of a Supreme Court, the incorporation of the European Convention of Human Rights into British law and the establishment of a variety of elected assemblies with a variety of names, powers and electoral systems in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. By 2007 Scotland for example enjoyed four different voting systems, for elections to Westminster, the Scottish Parliament, the European Parliament and local councils. However, the English in one referendum rejected a proposal for a regional assembly in the North East and the Welsh came within 0.4 per cent of rejecting devolution to Wales. There would also be difficulties with judges whose powers were increased as a result of judicial reforms. So the end result was much less than perfect. 

Still, this was only to be expected. Blair’s Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine told the Lords during one debate in 2002 that the government had no all-embracing view of the constitution but proceeded ‘by way of pragmatism based on principle without the need for an overwhelming theory’. The correct road to reform was to devise a solution to each problem on its own terms. That was one way of putting it. However, once Irvine left government amidst acrimony in 2003, there was no one in government with a clear interest in carrying on his work. 

In Scotland meanwhile the key figure was Donald Dewar who had been a committed backer of devolution since the 1970s. He had taken Labour into the Scottish Constitutional Convention which was a cross party group devoted to drawing up a plan for a Scottish Parliament. It was supported by all sorts of bodies – the Church, trade unions, local authorities, women’s and ethnic groups as well as by the Green and Communist parties. But neither the Tories nor the SNP backed it. 

The Convention itself was the by-product of A Claim of Right for Scotland, a document published in 1988 by the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly. This document denounced the ‘English constitution’ as a fraud, compared Mrs Thatcher to Mussolini, declared that Scotland faced a crisis of identity and survival and that ‘the Union has always been and remains a threat to the survival of a distinctive culture in Scotland’ – this at a time when Scottish culture was becoming more distinctive than ever. Scottish history was selectively distorted. Still the Convention was established and on St Andrew’s Day 1990 it unveiled its blueprint for a Scottish Parliament – a legislature elected by PR with ‘assigned revenues’ from Scottish taxes. Nothing was said concerning Scottish representation at Westminster. 

The Convention plan became the basis for New Labour’s proposals which were left very much to Dewar to work out. Other Scottish members of the cabinet apart from Irvine – Brown, Robertson, Reid and Darling – seemed more interested in attacking the Tories while Blair really saw his job as securing South East England for Labour. In the end Labour’s plan offered Scotland a Parliament elected by the AMS system of PR, that is to say an ‘additional member system’ with electors voting for an individual in a constituency but also voting for a party in a regional list, where votes are then divided to ensure that extra members are so assigned to make final numbers of MSPs proportional to the number of votes cast for all parties. Westminster retained control over foreign policy, defence, and macroeconomic policy, abortion, broadcasting, immigration, and was declared sovereign. The new Scottish Executive would be financed by a block Treasury grant but would have the power to raise the standard rate of income tax by 3p in the pound. Scotland would have an office in Brussels and Scottish ministers could be included in UK delegations to EU Council meetings. Scottish MPs at Westminster would remain in place with their powers the same as before – except they could obviously no longer vote on matters that were devolved, such as education, but could vote on education in England..  

Before these proposals were passed into law by Westminster there would have to be two referendums passed in Scotland: one for the proposals as a whole and one for the income tax variation power, which the Tories were denouncing as a ‘tartan tax’ on Scots for being Scots. 
The referendums were held on the 700th anniversary of Wallace’s victory over the English at Stirling Bridge, 11 September 1997. Campaigning was suspended between the death and funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, recommencing on the Monday 8th. The turnout was 60.18 per cent – lower than in 1979 (63.8 per cent). There were huge majorities (1,775,045 to 614,400 and 1,512,889 to 870,263). Both Jim Sillars and Margo MacDonald had advised abstention but Alex Salmond and the SNP had campaigned vigorously for a yes vote. The Bill was introduced on 18 December 1997 and became law on 19 November 1998. Parliaments would have fixed terms of four years and the first was opened on 12 May 1999 by Winnie Ewing as ‘mother of the House’ with the words: “The Scottish Parliament which adjourned on 25th day of March in the year 1707, is hereby reconvened.” 

Labour, which held majorities at Westminster, Cardiff and Edinburgh became very complacent. It believed it had definitively solved the constitutional problem. It even praised its own generosity at introducing the AMS system to Scotland, since, while this would deprive Labour of an overall majority (it ruled in coalition with the Lib Dems in Edinburgh till 2007) it also meant the nationalists could never have a majority there either. In George Robertson’s notorious words “devolution will kill nationalism stone dead”. In his first speech to the Scottish Parliament Dewar on 1 July 1999 said that devolution could never be seen as a nationalistic project or a stepping stone to independence. It was meant to strengthen the Union and not to weaken it. He himself, he said was a strong unionist. In the same vein, the former assistant general secretary of the Labour Party, Matthew Taylor, said that MSPs had not received the right to create a separate political platform. Meanwhile Blair, campaigning in Edinburgh in 1999, had declared: “Sovereignty rests with me as an English MP and that’s the way it will stay.” His pledge not to raise the standard rate of income tax for five years applied to Scotland as much as England. He compared the tax-raising powers of the Scottish Parliament with those of an English parish council. 

If Blair had no interest in history he had no interest in the workings of government either. One senior politician recorded that whenever constitutional matters were raised with him “his eyes just glazed over”. In a parliamentary debate in July 2000 on a motion on parliamentary reform moved by William Hague, Blair derided the latter for wasting parliamentary time: “He could have discussed jobs, the economy, schools, hospitals or even crime. I do not know whether in his pubs and clubs they are discussing pre-legislative scrutiny, but they are not in mine.” The constitutional historian Philip Norton concludes: “Blair had no clearly defined view of a desired constitutional landscape and never articulated one.” The result was he ignored constitutional convention and developed informal ‘sofa government’ where he and his cronies took decisions without minutes. 
As far as Scotland was concerned he showed little interest. He didn’t attend the opening of the Scottish Parliament at its temporary home of New College on The Mound, or the opening of the ugly new Parliament building in 2003. He rarely spoke to Scottish first ministers. One colleague of Jack McConnell, first minister from 2003-07, wrote: “People would be shocked if they knew how little they speak. Jack only speaks to the prime minister three or four times a year. He (Blair) has absolutely no interest in what we do.”

Gordon Brown was little better. He re-read the Scotland Act and declared in 2007 that Scotland needed no new powers. And in the words of Andy Kerr, Scottish Finance Minister from 2001 till 2004, the Treasury under him “did not treat Holyrood with any respect whatsoever.”

Perhaps Holyrood deserved little respect. Labour ministers there treated MSPs with the same disdain they encountered from Westminster. Instead, they dealt directly with their buddies in local government, the trade unions and various quangos. Most ministers and MSPs were grey uninspiring characters anyway, who read out boring, bureaucratic speeches. They were all tightly controlled by Labour’s bureaucracy. And they were used to operating in its local fiefdoms. Initiative or personality were rarely encountered. Moreover the popular view was that they were merely hacks and time-servers, there for remarkably high salaries (£50,000 a year plus generous expenses) a three day- short hours-week and 17 weeks holiday a year. Certainly no charismatic leaders emerged.  

The party’s first ministers – despite the great homage paid to Dewar who died in 2000 – were extremely unimpressive. Dewar lost control of his cabinet colleagues. McLeish became a figure of fun on account of his gaffes and had to resign over the ‘officegate’ expenses scandal claiming it was more of “a muddle, not a fiddle”... Besides he lacked any self-confidence. McConnell sacked his cabinet colleagues when he became first minister but thereafter showed little concern to do much than copy Ireland’s smoking ban. It transpired that when he visited Brussels as part of a UK delegation to the EU he was happy to sit in the ante-room. Between them these three oversaw a few positive achievements but not many: the abolition of feudalism; the right to roam; the right of communities to buy their land if it came on the market; the abolition of pinding and warrant sales (the forced auction of debtors’ property), although this was really due to Scottish Socialist Party leader Tommy Sheridan; free care for the elderly despite huge opposition from Westminster; the criminalisation of sectarianism; the rejection of university top up fees; and curiously the refusal to introduce official performance indicators for schools, hospitals and local government as was done with evident success by Blair governments in England. There standards rose while according to a forensic examination of all relevant Scottish and international data by ThinkScotland in 2014, standards in Scotland fell. This was to become a pattern.  

Scottish standards in health and education would decline while subsequent governments refused to participate in international comparative surveys which might point this out. It still happens today. That Scotland continued to spend more per capita on education and welfare was only possible due to the continuation of the Barnett formula that meant it received about 20 per cent more per head in public expenditure than most of the rest of the UK. But the poor results and standards achieved merely highlighted the greater waste of resources. It also turned out that the extra money coming in from the Barnett formula equalled the tax take of the Treasury from North Sea Oil. Hence Scotland was not being deprived of its oil revenues after all. This rather poor record in government may explain why only 49.7 per cent of the electorate bothered to vote in the second Scottish parliamentary election in 2003.  

Meanwhile one last achievement must be mentioned. In 2007 McConnell, no doubt to please his Lib Dem coalition partners, agreed to replace the traditional voting system with the alternative vote in local elections. This destroyed Labour’s hegemony in Scottish local government overnight and in 2007 it lost control of 30 of its 32 local councils. The SNP ended up with the largest number of local councillors in Scotland. Meanwhile the third Holyrood election that same year lost Labour its majority in the Scottish Parliament with the SNP winning 47 seats to Labour’s 46. As a result Alex Salmond became head of a minority SNP government with the support of two Green MSP’s – with the Conservatives (17 MSPs), Liberal Democrats (16) and Margo MacDonald (now an independent) abstaining. Subsequently the Conservatives under the leadership of Annabel Goldie agreed to support SNP budgets so that Salmond’s administration could stay in power. But the SNP majority over Labour was due entirely to the AMS voting system which had consistently awarded more list than constituency members to the SNP since 1999. The SNP was accorded 28 list seats in 1999, 18 in 2003 and 26 in 2007. It only won 7 constituency seats in 1999, 9 in 2003 and 21 in 2007. Hence the voting system enacted by Labour so generously in its own opinion was an essential precondition for SNP success. George Robertson was proved entirely wrong. 
Clearly from Labour’s point of view and indeed from the viewpoint of the Union, devolution was a huge mistake. If there had been no devolution the SNP could never have been anything more than a minority, however big, in the Westminster Parliament. It would have been condemned to permanent opposition and impotence. But the Labour Party needed Scottish seats to hold on to power at Westminster. The handsome, youthful Blair was like Bonnie Prince Charlie – only interested in Scotland to claim power in England. 

Blair eventually saw his error. He told the editors of ‘British Labour Leaders’: “I did feel that we made a mistake on devolution. We should have understood that when you change the system of government so that more power is devolved you need to have ways of culturally keeping England, Scotland and Wales very much in sync with each other. We needed to work even stronger for a sense of UK national identity.” Brown writing in the New Statesman recently confessed that he and Blair “were naive to believe that devolution would strengthen the Union. It was naive to think we could create strong Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish and regional decision-making bodies and automatically expect people to feel more British as a result. Equally it was naive not to anticipate that devolution could create a megaphone for intensifying resentment.”

Given their once total dominance of British politics Blair and Brown are now remembered for a disastrous war in Iraq, the triumph of Scottish nationalism, and their part in what looks like impending doom for the Labour Party. 

Hubris followed by nemesis may, however, not be a fate shared only by them. The SNP for all its braggadocio would soon enough also end up on the wrong side of history – or appear to. It certainly ended up on the wrong side of both great referendums of twenty-first century British history. Alex Salmond seems to share the fate of Blair – a famous failure. But we will take up his story next time.  

This is the twelfth part of Professor Sked’s series, here are the others:    

Part one – Mythology in the history of Anglo-Scots relations;       

Part two – From Auld Alliance to creating the Union;      

Part three – Scotland 1707-1914: The Union adjusts and consolidates;      

Part four – A loyal Scotland fights for Britain: 1707-1918;   

Part five – Union survives the War and evolves: 1918-1938      

Part six – United Britain was victorious in war – but fallacies about the interwar peace persist     

Part seven – The political peculiarities of interwar Scotland    

Part eight – Scotland and the Second World War   

Part nine – The rise of the SNP 

Part ten – Scotland under the Conservatives 1979-1997, Part one  

Part eleven – Scotland under the Conservatives 1979-1997, Part two  

See AlsoWhen Scots enslaved fellow Scots 

Alan Sked was educated at Allan Glen's School in Glasgow, before going on to study Modern and Medieval History at the University of Glasgow, followed by a DPhil in Modern History at Merton College, Oxford. Sked taught at the London School of Economics where he became a leading authority on the history of the Hapsburg Empire, also teaching US and modern intellectual history and the history of sex, race and slavery. Alan Sked is now Emeritus Professor of International History at the London School of Economics.   

Photo of the Scottish Parliament by from the Editor’s collection. 

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