On 11 September 1997 Scotland’s voters gave an overwhelming endorsement to the proposition that there should be a Scottish parliament. A massive 74.29% of them said YES. Turnout was 63.4%. So, a smidgen short of two-thirds of Scotland’s electorate came out. A fraction short of two-thirds empowered the Westminster government to pass the Scotland Act 1998. The next year, Scotland voted for the men and women who would sit as MSPs in the first Scottish Parliament in 300 years.
The result of the 1997 referendum left no room for doubt. The people of Scotland spoke and they spoke loudly and unambiguously. Scotland was to have a parliament, not an assembly. A parliament that would make laws for Scotland. The members of the new parliament would be elected.
On the parliament’s opening day, its founding first minister, the cerebral and wholly decent Labour grandee, Donald Dewar said;
“This is about more than our politics and our laws. This is about who we are, how we carry ourselves. In the quiet moments today, we might hear some echoes from the past:
The shout of the welder in the din of the great Clyde shipyards:
The speak of the Mearns, with its soul in the land;
The discourse of the enlightenment, when Edinburgh and Glasgow were a light held to the intellectual life of Europe;
The wild cry of the Great Pipes;
And back to the distant cries of the battles of Bruce and Wallace.
The past is part of us.
But today there is a new voice in the land, the voice of a democratic parliament.
A voice to shape Scotland, a voice for the future.”
Dewar would have chosen every word of his speech with great care and in the certain knowledge he had delivered what democracy asked. The advent of the parliament was the greatest democratic advance in the three centuries of union. Now, the Conservative Party is determined to neuter the parliament, to make it subservient to Westminster. In a phrase redolent of the Brexit campaign – Scotland is to be a vassal state.
Jack the Destroyer
Secretary of State for Scotland Alister Jack has stated that his aim, before quitting as an MP at the general election, is to destroy the independence movement. As the movement is embodied in electoral form on the benches of the SNP-Scottish Greens government at Holyrood, he’s content to slash away at the powers and status of the Scottish parliament.
Now, the House of Lords has thrown its unelected hat into the bash Holyrood ring. The former Labour MP George Foulkes, who sat for Ayrshire seats, has for decades seethed with loathing for the SNP. Sitting like some curmudgeonly gargoyle on the red benches of the Lords, the English public school educated Foulkes, has more in common with former Tory Scottish Secretary Lord (Michael) Forsyth than almost all his former constituents in Cumnock and Doon Valley. Foulkes and Forsyth both find it hard to tolerate Holyrood and, most especially, its wholly democratically elected government.
Foulkes has a new ally in Baroness Lucy Neville-Rolfe, the Cabinet Office Minister in the Lords. Responding to a question from Foulkes, Neville-Rolfe confirmed that the Tory government is investigating Scottish government spending on promoting independence. Foulkes has since said Scottish ministers should be fined for spending public money in such a way. It bothers Foulkes not a jot that the Scottish government is a collation of two parties that won at the polls with independence in their manifestos.
None of the London government ministers in the Lords were elected by anyone. None of the members of the House of Lords were elected by anyone. There are now 784 of them. (Only the Chinese National People’s Congress is bigger). It costs the taxpayer £38,000 a year to support each Peer. That’s £29,792,000 in total, per year. That’s the cost of about 1,000 nurses a year.
No such courtesy exists
Alister Jack’s wilfully dismissive attitude to Scottish democracy can be seen In the levelling up and regeneration bill, now going through its Westminster stages. If passed, the UK government would need the consent of the devolved administrations of Northern Ireland and Wales if London wanted to stop or amend environmental laws. No such courtesy is to exist for Scotland. Scotland is only to be consulted.
In the vital area of economic development, the UK government has side-stepped the Scottish government by dealing directly with Scottish local authorities. It is difficult to blame hard-pressed councils for taking Jack’s shilling, but the process returns Scotland to days of remote London government handing out goodies from the rich man’s table. It also undermines the spirit of devolution and its very meaning. Devolution is meant to bring decision making and political power closer to the people and to connect the people’s vote more closely to the power exercised on their behalf.
This is democracy too far for the Tories. Power in the hands of the people is a threat not only to the Tory Party, but to the vested interests it champions. A successful Scottish parliament is a constant threat. It must be put back in its box, lest those in England look north to see serious and democratic levelling up.
Jack is the first Scottish Secretary to use Section 30 powers. Two pieces of legislation, wholly and entirely legally passed by Holyrood – the gender recognition bill and the Deposit Return Scheme – have been forced into redundancy. Farmer Jack has further punctured the spirit of devolution by trying to stop Scottish Government ministers talking about independence to foreign politicians and diplomats. Scotland is to be silenced.
The Scottish Tories are likely to be wiped out as a Westminster force come the general election. You can expect the attacks on Holyrood to grow more shrill, more nasty and more unhinged. Recently, we had Commons Leader Penny Mordount, and Home Secretary Suella Braverman, pitch in to the “behave Scotland” rhetoric. Much more will surely come, as Sunak’s disgraced and tottering administration fights for its life and that of the Tory Party.
Scotland a secondary consideration for Labour
And where is Labour in all this? Labour is the party that brought Scotland its parliament. It was hailed as a great Labour achievement. Now, we have not a word said by Labour in its defence. Once, not very long ago, Labour was the party of Scotland, the party that understood Scotland, the party that stood up for Scotland. Labour now seems to look on Scotland in a similar way the British Empire looked on the Highlands. A place to find troops and a few officers. All Starmer seeks from Scotland is cannon fodder. If, by default, he undermines the political legitimacy of Scotland’s parliament then so be it. The prize for Starmer is power in England. Scotland is a secondary consideration.
Let’s hear again Dewar’s words about the Scottish parliament.
“This is about more than our politics and our laws. This is about who we are, how we carry ourselves.”
We are all now ‘all Scots, new and ancient’ in a time when we have to ask ourselves who we are and how we carry ourselves. When future generations ask, “What did you do for Scotland when you had the chance?” What will you answer?