Scotland's Parliament: lessons
for Northern Ireland
This paper is
based on a lecture given by Gerry Hassan for Democratic Dialogue in Belfast
on June 15th 1998. The author is director of the Centre for Scottish Public
Policy; he recently prepared a report for the Fabian Society, The New
© Democratic Dialogue 1998
Scotland's politics have been
shaped over the last 20 years by a conservative consensus in which the
parties have differentiated themselves primarily on the constitutional
question while converging on economic and social issues. This is similar
to Northern Ireland and the process of devolution will demand that the
parties in both address an economic and social agenda.
Scottish politics have been
defined during 18 years of Tory government by an oppositionalist mentality
and agenda which avoided hard choices. This matches the experience of
Northern Ireland under direct rule, where politicians without power were
able to see extra government spending as the solution to every problem.
Debate and discussion around
the Scottish parliament has focused almost exclusively on institutional
and political processes, to the exclusion of economic and social issues.
If this remains so, there will be a growing prospect of the parliament
changing very little and quickly disillusioning the high hopes of its
An internal status quo
has defined both Scottish and Northern Ireland politics. In each, a defensive
consensus characterised by stasis and inertia has become the political
settlement. The conservatism of this has aided the divorcing of the language
and values of politics from economic and social realities.
This politics without responsibility
has had many repercussions. In Scotland, the old-Labour coalition has
been held together long past its sell-by date, while in Northern Ireland
both unionists and nationalists have defined their politics by defensiveness
and the past.
Labour-SNP politics in Scotland,
in a manner similar to unionist-nationalist politics in Northern Ireland,
has become stuck in old certainties and mentalities which have prevented
change and adaptation. Both have failed to develop what could be called,
for all their limitations, 'middle-Scotland' and 'middle-Ulster' strategies.
Scottish unionism and nationalism
overlap to a marked degree, unlike Northern Ireland. In both, however,
unionism has become defeatist and apprehensive about the future: in Scotland
in the 80s it became a cause that dared not speak its name. In both, we
need a politics which includes a positive, pluralist unionism, articulating
the sense of Britishness a majority of people feel in Scotland and Northern
rule: a brief history
Scotland is on the brink of
historic and far-reaching change with the establishment of a Scottish
parliament. Indeed, the process is already well under way, and Scottish
politics is being redefined. Inefficient and corrupt Labour local authorities
are being put under new scrutiny, and competition between Labour and the
Scottish National Party for the first parliamentary elections is developing
into the first serious political contest in Scotland for decades.
Scotland sits in this position
after over a century of debate, discussion and failed campaigns. The struggle
for Scottish home rule—to achieve a parliament within the United Kingdom—goes
back to the 1880s when Gladstone began considering Irish home rule. Since
then, more than 30 Scottish home-rule bills have been proposed at Westminster
with only two—the Scotland Act 1978 and the Scotland Bill 1998—having
succeeded in getting through Westminster.
Scotland's political parties
have shifted their positions many times on the issue of a parliament,
usually in relation to two issues: first, whether they were in power or
close to power, and, secondly, whether they viewed Scottish nationalism
as a threat to themselves electorally or to the union. The two primary
factors in shaping the debate over home rule in the last 30 years have
been the rise of the SNP and the existence of Thatcherism.
The SNP arrived in Scottish
politics as a serious electoral force in the second Wilson government,
winning Hamilton in 1967 and forcing the British parties to respond to
its agenda. The Conservatives moved briefly to supporting devolution under
Edward Heath. Labour set up a royal commission, and when the SNP broke
through, in the 1974 general election, Scottish Labour moved back to a
devolutionary position imposed by the London leadership.
To most Scots, Thatcherism
pursued an agenda which was at odds with Scottish distinctiveness in the
union and with the social-democratic settlement in Scotland. At every
general election post-1979, a majority of Scots voted for parties supporting
constitutional change, while the Conservatives insisted that the only
options were the status quo or independence.
The 1987 election saw the Scots
Tories lose over half their seats, while Mrs Thatcher won an overall majority
of 102 based on English constituencies. In response, a distinguished group
of the great and the good produced 'A Claim of Right for Scotland'— signed
by all Scottish Labour MPs bar Tam Dalyell—which asserted the "sovereign
right of the Scottish people to determine the form of Government best
suited to their needs".
This was Scottish Labour adopting
the politics and language of Scottish nationalism. It led to the cross-party
Scottish Constitutional Convention, through which Labour and the Liberal
Democrats (with the SNP absent) produced a detailed plan for a parliament
which formed the backdrop to the Scotland Bill.
unionisms and nationalisms
Scottish unionism and nationalism
have changed themselves, what they represent and their agenda, many times
in post-war politics. They have also changed in terms of their popularity,
with unionism declining dramatically over the last 20 years.
All four main political parties
currently relate in some way to a Scottish nationalist agenda. In the
Thatcher-Major years, the Scottish Tories were seen as alien, English
and un-Scottish, while the other three parties (Labour, the Liberal Democrats
and the SNP) were seen as representative of a broad, inclusive Scottish
nationalism. But the Tories began 'rebranding' themselves during Michael
Forsyth's period as the last Conservative secretary of state, and in opposition
they are continuing to reposition, with a 'Made in Scotland' identity.
The decline of Scottish unionism
during the Tory years was associated with the hard-edged attitudes of
Mrs Thatcher and Mr Major, but this concealed divisions within unionism
and its continued majority support. Scottish Labour and the Liberal Democrats
have both always been unionist parties, but during the 80s they chose
to emphasise their nationalist credentials to differentiate themselves
from the unionist Tories. When the Conservative era drew to a close, this
caused problems for Scottish Labour as it repositioned itself, on a partly
unionist, partly nationalist agenda.
What differentiates Scottish
unionisms and nationalisms is more often matters of style, language and
values than substance—and there is a changing but substantial degree of
overlap between them. The simple distinction of unionists being anti-devolution
and nationalists pro-devolution is a caricature of the complexity of Scottish
Most unionists are also devolutionists.
Both pro- and anti-devolutionists emphasise their unionist credentials
by centring their policies on whether they will 'save the union'. The
defining question between unionisms and nationalisms during the Tory years,
and now under New Labour, is whether unionist devolutionists have more
in common with unionist anti-devolutionists or with Scottish nationalists.
In the 80s, unionist anti-devolutionists were marginalised, yet we may
be about to see the rebuilding of a new majority-unionist alliance to
defeat the SNP.
The Scottish parliament has
in part been brought about by a home-rule consensus which is based on
a series of inter-connecting assumptions and 'myths'. These include: that
Scotland is substantially different from England in ideas, values and
policies supported; that Scottish nationalism is profoundly changed, and
more confident, since the 70s; and that there is a long-term 'Scottishing'
of Scottish politics which will see increasing autonomy for Scotland.
There are difficulties with
all these assumptions. But, above all, the home-rule consensus is presented
by its supporters as a given—as something that has always been there,
as the logical expression of Scottish national identity and nationalism.
Nothing could be further from the truth: it is a relatively recent development,
coming out of the conjuncture of the 1979 devolution referendum débâcle
and the subsequent Tory victory.
This consensus has in its over-emphasis
on Scottish politics tended to ignore the way Scottish and wider British
politics and nationalisms influence each other. Minority and majority
nationalisms in multi-national states often have evolving inter-relationships,
shaping and defining one another. The minority nationalism (Scots) is
more shaped by the majority one (English) than vice versa, but
both contribute significantly to multi-national British 'nationalism'.
Scottish nationalism is thus
a very British phenomenon. Despite this, many Scots have a problem acknowledging
the British part of Scottish politics, identity, culture and ourselves.
Even if we now consider Britishness to be a marginal or secondary identity
in Scotland, defined by past ties, it is an identity which has some relevance,
irrespective of our political future.
An independent Scotland, for
example, would still have to acknowledge a degree of British identity,
geographically, as part of the British isles, and politically, via co-operation
with the rest of the UK in something similar to the Nordic Council—the
role anticipated for the British-Irish Council envisaged in the Belfast
agreement. Separatism, in this sense, does not exist even in the politics
of Scottish independence.
The home-rule consensus has
tended to see Scotland as radical, egalitarian, community-minded and,
above all, different from England. It has also become more and more linked
to an anti-Tory consensus, developing during the 18 years of Conservative
government, which saw Scotland as 'left-wing' and 'anti-Tory' and England
as 'right-wing' and 'Tory'.
This allowed the Scots to see
themselves as principled and virtuous in their opposition to Thatcherism,
while the English were thought of as having sold their souls to the materialist
and selfish agenda of the 80s. It is an outlook that lives on under New
Labour, with many Scots dismissing the need for New Labour north of the
border and equating its analysis with Thatcherism.
Scottish political classes and the parliament
The campaign for Scottish self-government
has tended to look almost exclusively at ways of achieving a parliament,
to the exclusion of what it will do. This is due to the power of the home-rule
consensus, which perceives the parliament as its living embodiment and
so assumes it will automatically be a liberating, radical and relevant
Even when the Scottish political
classes venture on to an agenda for the parliament, they concentrate almost
entirely on institutional and political processes—such as the electoral
system or standing orders—to the neglect of an economic and social agenda.
This means that, with less than one year to the parliament, there is very
little clear idea about what difference a parliament may bring to Scottish
life, and very little ferment of ideas and debate beyond this narrow agenda.
Different social-policy scenarios
for the parliament have been outlined by Richard Parry of Edinburgh University:
- professionally based stasis—where
the Scottish professional classes and vested interests use their influence
to maintain their advantaged position;
- innovative social policy—flexibility
and client-led policies; and
- conflict-ridden social policy—differences
between expectations of a parliament and its actual policy agenda.
Unless we act urgently, the
Scottish parliament will represent the administration of the internal
status quo. This would allow the Scottish professional classes
and vested interests to use their influence to maintain their cosy lives
at the expense of the rest of us. It should be remembered that, the 'poll
tax' excluded, Thatcherism never really happened in Scotland at a political
level—a powerful alliance of the Scottish Office, the political parties
and most of civil society maintaining the social-democratic settlement.
These groups think that the arrival of a parliament represents a vindication
of their opposition to any change during the last 18 years, and a green
light to carry on as before.
Yet while it failed to change
the language and values of Scotland's politics, Thatcherism presided over
fundamental changes in its economy and society. A Scottish social democracy
has survived, linked to the home-rule consensus, even though a combination
of Mrs Thatcher and Mr Blair have finally killed it off at a British level.
The prospects for rebuilding and revitalising Scottish social democracy
on the back of the powers of the parliament are extremely low.
Thatcherism post-1979 aided
and encouraged many changes—including limited government, low taxation,
increased labour-market flexibility and wider personal choice. This framework
and series of trends have to be accepted and worked within to develop
policies to enhance opportunities and tackle social inequalities.
Many on the Scottish left seem
to live in a time warp, assuming Thatcherism never happened in Scotland
or that its consequences can be easily reversed. Many want to use the
parliament as a bulwark against social change since 1979, and to try to
roll the clock back.
The home-rule consensus has
many strengths. It assisted the majority opposition to Thatcherism in
80s Scotland and aided the undoubted growth of self-confidence and diversity
in certain parts of Scottish life. The demands of the 18 Tory years, however,
represented an oppositional politics inappropriate to the current situation,
where we have to face tough and critical decisions about the future of
Scotland and the society in which we want to live.
The obsession with opposing
every action of Thatcherism from 1979 has preserved Scottish politics
in a kind of aspic. Scotland as an economy and society has been transformed,
but politicians still talk and think in a world of 60s and 70s big government
and parochial, small-time local government. A Scottish political class—in
a way similar to Northern Ireland under direct rule—has grown up without
responsibility for running things, setting priorities and making tough
politics of the parliament
The 'new-politics' perspective
associated with the constitutional convention and the Claim of Right
aimed to make sure a Scottish parliament would represent a fundamental
break with Westminster and local-government practice. It sought to improve
on the Scotland Act 1978, addressing concerns—such as of Labour one-party
rule and central-belt domination—through proposals for electoral reform,
gender balance and more open, accountable government.
Of the 129 members of the Scottish
parliament or MSPs (21 more than for the Northern Ireland assembly), 73
will be elected on a first-past-the-post constituency basis, with the
56 additional members drawn from party lists to achieve a broadly proportional
overall outcome. This will make it extremely unlikely that any party will
win an overall majority: Scottish Labour has never won more than half
the popular vote (whereas Welsh Labour has done so nine times out of 15
in post-war elections).
New-politics supporters assert
that this absence of majority control will aid inter-party co-operation
and dialogue—with the cross-party constitutional convention the most-cited
instance. This, however, was a consensus formed to establish a detailed
plan for a parliament, whereas the parliament in reality will be shaped
by the very different pressures of competitive electoral politics.
Consensus politics will not
be produced by the electoral system, as any comparative analysis shows.
Germany, the Republic of Ireland and Israel may all have proportional
systems, yet their political practices vary widely from consensual Germany
to adversarial Israel. Consensus springs from deeper issues than electoral
systems, such as political culture—as we should know in Scotland, where
a style of consensus politics operates in an adversarial electoral system.
On gender balance, both Labour
and the Liberal Democrats gave a commitment in 1995 to gender equality,
but this has proved troublesome. The Liberal Democrats threw out gender-equality
proposals at their latest Scottish conference, as did the SNP at its recent
gathering. Labour has finally—after legal problems over all-women shortlists
and in light of the opposition of the lord chancellor, Lord Irvine, to
positive discrimination—supported twinning between constituencies. Under
that plan, Edinburgh North and Leith and Edinburgh Central, for example,
would choose between them one male and one female Labour candidate.
Let us assume that both Labour
and the Liberal Democrats do succeed in selecting, and having elected,
a significant number of female MSPs. This would mark a substantial shift
in the male, exclusive ethos of Scottish politics, but would it actually
change anything of substance? The election of 102 Labour women to Westminster
last year has so far failed to dent the misogynist culture of the Commons—and
we know that this macho culture is more embedded, and thus more difficult
to dislodge, in Scotland.
I am not arguing against electoral
reform, gender balance or the pursuit of open government. But the home-rule
consensus has focused excessively on these institutional issues, to the
exclusion of economic and social concerns. And the implementation of such
proposals will not necessarily shift Scottish politics from its current
perspective of social democracy and élite consensus politics.
Much of the debate and advocacy
on the new politics has come from organisations outside the confines of
political parties, including self-organised groups and agencies in Scottish
Scotland is a small country,
whose occasionally unlimited aspirations meet a reality of limited resources
and skills in intellectual activity, politics, culture and—obviously—sport.
The forces of Scottish civil society—the voluntary sector, think tanks
and other institutions—do not have the finance or infrastructure to develop
major research departments or projects, and nor do the parties.
There is no Scottish equivalent
of the Fabian Society, the Institute for Public Policy Research or Demos.
The two centre-left think tanks—the Centre for Scottish Public Policy
and the Scottish Council Foundation—both have very limited resources and
personnel. Moreover, while the Fabians are clearly an established 'old-left'
think tank, and IPPR and Demos draw from the newer strands of left thought,
the Scottish think tanks do not come from these distinct perspectives—putting
them at a disadvantage in terms of their range and radicalism.
The limited nature of Scottish
civil society is indicated by the fact that the 'long march' through Scottish
institutions is not that long: it is not very difficult to move from being
an 'outsider' in Scotland to an 'insider', or to enjoy the appearance
of being one. But this often carries a high price—incorporation into a
conformist perspective in which it is well-nigh-impossible to secure the
resources to advance a critique of the existing consensus.
The establishment of a parliament
will have consequences for all the parties and the party system. It will
make it possible to break with the conservative consensus which has shaped
Scottish politics over the last 20 years, in which the parties have differentiated
themselves primarily on the constitutional question while converging on
economic and social issues.
While there is no guarantee
that the new electoral system for the parliament will engender benign
inter-party relationships, what is clear is that Scottish Labour will
find that the additional member system will not only make an overall Labour
majority extremely implausible, but will also subtly shift the balance
of power in the party.
Since the 20s, Labour's outlook
has shaped Scottish politics and the party has in turn been shaped by
its dominance of the west of Scotland, which has become a one-party state
in terms of both Westminster and municipal elections. The AMS system will
reintroduce opposition representation into places like Glasgow, where
with 60 per cent support in 1997 Labour won ten Westminster seats and
the opposition none. Power will shift within Labour away from the west-of-Scotland
The new electoral system will
change the balance of party strengths profoundly. If the 1997 voting pattern—in
which Labour triumphed in 56 out of 72 seats—was replicated in an election
to the parliament, it would produce the much more diverse result of Labour
63, SNP 28, Conservatives 22 and Liberal Democrats 16. This means that,
even on Labour's excellent showing in 1997, it would fall short of an
overall majority in the parliament.
Several governing alliances
are possible in Scotland's four-party system:
a Labour majority administration—although
unlikely, Labour did win 49.9 per cent of the Scottish vote in 1966, which
would be enough to win more than half the seats in the new parliament;
- a Labour minority administration—this
could be feasible on Labour's 1997 showing, where it would miss an overall
majority by just two seats;
- a Labour-Liberal Democrat
coalition—this would be viable on the basis of the 1992 and 1997 election
- an SNP minority administration—on
neither the 1992 nor 1997 results is this a runner, but on the latest
and most favourable polls the SNP would be the largest party, so this
is an outside possibility;
- an SNP-Liberal Democrat
coalition—not feasible on the 1992 or 1997 figures, but most polls show
this to be a definite possibility;
- an SNP-Conservative agreement—on
a 1992 showing this would enjoy four more seats than Labour, and so
if a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition was not possible it might have
a chance; and
- an anti-Labour front—as
long as Labour fails to command an overall majority, this unlikely alliance
would be able to do so.
Some will say some of these
alliances are extremely unlikely. This makes the mistake of projecting
Scottish politics from its current state, rather than imagining the new
dynamics that could be unleashed by the parliament, reconfiguring Scottish
politics in ways not yet conceivable.
An SNP-Conservative agreement
or three-party anti-Labour front is unlikely at present as a governing
coalition, but it could develop as an issue-based alliance and in the
longer-term be viable when the Conservatives, at some point, re-establish
their Scottish credentials. There is even the possibility raised by Tory
and Labour spokespeople of the two parties co-operating in some unionist
alliance against the SNP.
The only alliance that is not
conceivable in the next 25 years or so is Labour-SNP, because conflict
between these two parties and competition for voters defines Scottish
politics. And the new electoral system will in some ways enhance this
conflict, rather than aiding consensus.
The current SNP parliamentary
group is entirely taken from ex-Tory rural seats outside the central belt,
whereas in the Scottish parliament most SNP MSPs will come from the central
belt and Labour strongholds. Labour's gut-instinct hatred of the SNP will
be increased by the sizeable SNP representation in what much of Labour
still sees paternalistically as 'our heartlands'. There will be no let
up in the age-old Labour-SNP war of words and insult.
Labour is bemused by the SNP:
it cannot understand a party which does not correspond to the simple class
politics of most Labour activists. Epithets like George Robertson's 'snake-oil
peddlers' or Donald Dewar's 'wreckers' show the confusion Labour feels
about the SNP. And these remarks were made just months after Labour and
the SNP had worked closely and successfully together in the 1997 home-rule
Shortly after this onslaught
failed—the SNP drawing level with Labour in the polls—it was reversed
with talk of 'positive, positive, positive'. And when that did not work—the
SNP taking an opinion-poll lead—Labour formed a council of war to do battle
with its rival once more.
It is a sad tale of a party
without a strategy—no matter how many highly paid advisers Mr Dewar has
around him. Scottish Labour appears completely unaware of the way most
Scots tend to view the SNP, irrespective of whether they plan to vote
for it. More than half of all Scots have for the last 20 years seen the
SNP as good for Scotland and as a defender of Scottish interests. A recent
poll in the Scotsman found 77 per cent perceiving the SNP as standing
up for Scotland as against only 43 per cent thinking the same of Scottish
Labour. Labour must pick this up from its extensive private polling and
expensive focus groups, yet it chooses to ignore its strategic implications.
Labour has to respond to the
SNP in a mature, measured and focused way, which does Labour credit as
well as the Scottish people. It needs to present its record in government
at Scottish and British levels and it needs to articulate a vision of
a new Scotland—at which Mr Dewar and Gordon Brown have been spectacularly
We need to talk about economic
and social issues if we are to move Scotland away from the politics of
the internal status quo. We do not need to continue the Scottish
political classes' obsession with constitutional change by talking about
the latest referendum.
In many ways the SNP is promoting
the old Labour 'tax-and-spend' agenda and the Scottish consensus which
has to be challenged. Its focus on constitutional politics hides the fact
that its politics are about maintaining the internal status quo
in a separate Scottish state. Most Scots see the SNP as a moderate, centre-left,
social-democratic party, but for Labour to engage the SNP successfully,
the former has to discard its old agenda itself.
The amount of invective flung
between Labour and the SNP hides the fact that the parties agree with
each other on so much. They converge on a social-democratic view, they
dominate political debate and the way they manufacture phoney differences
disfigures Scottish politics profoundly. The divisions between them drained
the home-rule opposition to Thatcherism of the confidence it should have
enjoyed throughout the 80s; it still has fundamental consequences today.
The disjunction between a dynamic
Scottish society and culture on the one hand and a conservative politics
owes a lot to Labour and the SNP. In their competition for the same left-of-centre
urban vote, they both draw on a vision of Scotland which, from Red Clydeside
to the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders 'work-in', is one of heroic causes and
struggles. This invoking of a past Scotland prevents them addressing the
new Scotland which has been emerging over the last 20 years: a growing
female workforce, new service and financial sectors, and a new stratum
The convergence of Labour and
the SNP prevents them developing agendas for 'middle Scotland' in the
way New Labour has done so successfully in England. This has similarities
to the politics of Northern Ireland, where the 'peace process' and an
Ulster Unionist-SDLP rapprochement might develop into a new vision
of a 'middle Ulster'. For all the limitations in the politics of 'middle
Scotland/Ulster' obvious in New Labour's 'middle England' strategy, such
an approach would be a huge advance in both cases.
The SNP is slowly repositioning
itself. Its leader, Alex Salmond, is in many ways the most believable
New Labour politician in Scotland. He wants to define the SNP as pro-business,
as aware of the limits of government and of the constraints of globalisation.
But he leads a party that needs to maintain a 'catch-all' electoral strategy
which makes as few enemies as possible, and this involves not rupturing
the Scottish status quo and breaking with the old-Labour agenda.
future of Scottish politics
With the establishment of a
parliament, Scottish politics will witness the biggest changes and face
the biggest challenges of recent times. The home-rule consensus has got
us through many difficult times and aided us through the tortuous experience
of Thatcherism, but it is not equipped for the new politics of the new
The framework of Scottish politics
and the home-rule consensus are defined by two characteristics: a social-democratic
perspective and a nationalist dimension. Within this framework, four paradigms
• a social democratic
Britishness—this very old-Labour strategy, of Attlee and Gaitskell, is
not viable today;
• a post-social-democratic
Britishness—this is the Blair strategy for the UK, which causes problems
in Scotland on the national question;
• a social-democratic
Scottish nationalism—the view of old Labour, the SNP and the Scottish
Trade Union Congress, this represents the politics of the Scottish status
• a post-social-democratic
Scottish nationalism—this is the potential ground for a Scottish Labour
strategy which challenges the old Labour/SNP view.
The future shape of Scottish
politics will be defined by what strategies Scottish Labour and the SNP
adopt. At the moment, both articulate essentially old-Labour ideas of
'tax and spend' and big government as the solution to every problem, defining
themselves in opposition to a very English New Labour seen as an external
threat to the Scottish political order.
Scottish Labour has to shift
its position to compete with the SNP and develop a constructive relationship
with New Labour. This means developing a post-social-democratic Scottish
nationalism—a Scottish Labour modernisation which acknowledges the changes
Thatcherism brought about, the crisis of social democracy (including its
Scottish variants) and the importance of the national dimension.
To many outside Scotland, in
the English left or elsewhere in the world, the Scottish home-rule project
is a radical, liberating and victorious cause. This is a moment for new
avenues and routes at a Scottish and British level.
From a Scottish point of view,
however, these changes can be seen very differently: defining the home-rule
consensus in terms of a 'settled will' or 'unfinished business' evinces
conservatism and caution rather than radicalism, and is linked to a very
non-radical expression of Scottish identity. Home rule could, in this
perspective, change very little in Scotland and the UK—bar introducing
another layer of politicians.
In the early years of the parliament,
with a Labour government in London, there will be a huge incentive to
make devolution work, to prove that the new structures can work effectively
and harmoniously. The onus will thus be on minimising conflict and this
will help maintain the Scottish political consensus. Realistically, the
parliament's early years will see only small, incremental changes.
Thus, in the short term, the
parliament may change very little and will reinforce a Scottish political
settlement long since past its sell-by date. In the medium-to-long term,
however, it will allow for new possibilities and openings: of a reborn
unionism, of a more pluralist sense of Scottishness and, on New Labour's
terrain, a post-social democracy of Scottish sensibilities.
future of the United Kingdom
Labour's asymmetrical devolution
policies are undoubtedly the right set of priorities for the UK at the
moment: Scottish and Welsh devolution, London regional government and
the Northern Ireland peace agreement. Much more vision and thinking are
needed, however, if Labour's policies are to develop into a stable, long-term
A central point here is to
recognise that the UK has never—despite all protestations to the contrary—been
a unitary state, but rather a union state. The distinction comes
from Rokkan and Urwin and is profound: a unitary state is one of 'administrative
standardisation', whereas a union state has many distinct and detailed
local and regional arrangements, such as 'pre-union rights' and 'regional
The UK has never been a state
with administrative standardisation, like the old French model. Instead,
it has developed with different degrees of autonomy, showing one of the
strengths of an unwritten constitution when it worked—allowing for flexibility
The Labour leadership has to
clear up ambiguities in its understanding of the UK, between unitary and
union politics. In its first year of office, the government has shifted
between the two concepts—regularly invoking an unambiguously unitary politics
in its central control of communications, while its constitutional reform
programme and the rhetoric of the 'New Britain' clearly imply a union
politics of difference and decentralism.
Labour needs to link its immediate
agenda to a longer-term vision if it is to avoid the danger, in asymmetrical
devolution, of an English backlash. The means would be a constitutional
inquiry—a Commission on the Governance of the United Kingdom. Headed by
a senior constitutional figure, this would be a larger and bolder version
of the Jenkins commission on electoral reform, with the remit to establish
coherent rules and principles for the broader, post-devolution governance
of the UK.
The commission could examine
such issues as a framework for English regional devolution (whether 'rolling'
or systematic), the powers of the UK parliament, and the feasibility of
a federal settlement and written constitution. The timetable should be
a minimum of two years, reporting before the next Westminster election.
This could mean that not only would Labour by then have delivered devolution
to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but it would also have addressed
the challenge of situating its reforms in a coherent framework for a new
Such a leap requires boldness,
imagination and vision, and it demands that New Labour break with the
politics of old Labour more fully than it has so far managed. Yet the
political opportunities the government enjoys are unprecedented for the
British centre-left and have to be seized before they pass. The possibility
of remaking the UK as a modern, vibrant country should not be squandered
This requires a new politics
in the nations and regions of the UK as well as at the centre. In Scotland
and Northern Ireland over the last two decades, unionism has become defeatist,
defensive and apprehensive about the future. In Scotland in the 80s it
became a cause that dared not speak its name, while in Northern Ireland
it became synonymous with 'no surrender' and a 'siege mentality'.
A new politics of the UK requires
that risks be taken at the periphery as well as the centre. Unionists
in both Scotland and Northern Ireland must begin to develop a positive,
vibrant vision, which articulates the sense of Britishness a majority
of people still feel in both. That will require accommodation and compromise,
but with that can come greater self-confidence and security.
- See James Mitchell, Strategies
for Self-government: The Campaigns for a Scottish Parliament, Polygon,
Edinburgh, 1996, for an overview and analysis of the different strategies
of the Scottish home rule movement over the last century.
- A Claim of Right for
Scotland Declaration, Scotsman, March 30th 1989
- For an appraisal of the
impact of the convention see Peter Lynch, 'The Scottish Constitutional
Convention 1992-95', Scottish Affairs, no 15, spring 1996, pp
- Richard Parry, 'The Scottish
parliament and social policy', Scottish Affairs no 21, summer
- For a deeper analysis of
the electoral dynamics of the Scottish parliament see Gerry Hassan,
The New Scotland, Fabian Society, London, 1998.
- Scotsman, June 5th
- On 'middle Ulster' see
Arthur Aughey, 'A pragmatic triumph', Fortnight 371, June 1998,
- Stein Rokkan and Derek
Urwin, 'Introduction: centres and peripheries in western Europe', in
Rokkan and Urwin eds, The Politics of Territorial Identity: Studies
in European Regionalism, Sage 1982