Saturday, 10 September 2011

Thoughts after the Last Night of the Proms and before the triumph of Andy Murray

I'm a devolutionist. I accept that this may be a minority opinion. Many of these who have supported devolution over the years have done so only as a stepping stone to something further while others have done so only in an attempt to head off something, in their opinion, much worse.

That's never been my view. Oddly enough there was a time when I thought that there might be an opportunity for the minimalist wing of the SNP and the maximalist wing of the Labour Party to meet somewhere in the middle. If the UK had joined the Euro and engaged wholeheartedly with European integration, then I could certainly have forseen a situation where the importance of "British" government would wither away, a bit like the state under primitive communism. But events elsewhere make that increasingly unlikely. I might be tempted to suggest to say by virtue of the cowardice of Blair but, to be honest, at least as much by virtue of the lack of vision of Brown.

So we have to accept where we are. A Scotland with a (UK) Government we didn't vote for (yet again), and a Scottish Government with little they can do about it.

So why don't I think we should bail out? Well partly because we can't bail out.

I disagree fundamentally with the economic policy of the coalition. Nonetheless, I recognise that the economic policy even of a “second division” member of the G8 can’t be isolated from world events. If the USA goes back into recession, so, inevitably, will the UK. And that would be the case even if Labour had been returned with a landslide in 2010 and Ed Balls had been given absolutely free reign ever since.

So even a big nation, like the UK, has limited control over economic events. So much more would a small country like Scotland.

But that’s never been my major objection to “Independence” (whatever that is).
I don’t like the idea of wee Countries. They are inclined to be too full of people determined to prove their own importance and to hide behind perceived grievance with others to explain or excuse their own inadequacies. I am slightly reluctant to engage in football analogies but, no matter what the shortcomings of the referee a week past on Saturday, in the end Scotland failed because they were, at the very best, no better than a team who had lost at home to Lithuania. That was no doing of the referee. But who in Scotland was prepared to say that? Once again, all the commentary was of the “We were robbed!” variety.

No great harm in that if it’s restricted to the field of sport but a rather dangerous basis for a view of the real world.

And big countries inevitably allow more diversity. No wee Country could contemplate the diversity of output we enjoy from the BBC. Or the influence in the world enjoyed by the British Council or, yes, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I’ve certainly had my disagreements with British Foreign policy over the years but I am uneasy with the idea that it would be better for us to ignore the rest of the world altogether or at least to be no more than a spectator.

So, in the end, I’m quite happy being British. But I’m Scottish as well. There’s no real rationality to this but on the few occasions I’ve driven abroad on holiday, I’ve not felt “home” at Dover. Home is the “Welcome to Scotland” sign on the M74. Whenever, in my almost second home of Italy, attempts have been made to describe me, officially or otherwise, as “Inglese”, my otherwise wholly inadequate Italian has always, somehow, risen to the task of assuring my accuser that I am anything but the sort.

The Union was a long time ago, but it is still a Union, not a merger, nor even less a takeover. Although it was more than three hundred years ago, I’ve never doubted that the population of Scotland, however constituted at the time, had and has the right to dissolve it on request. I’ve just never wanted to dissolve it.

But I have wanted to recognise, and protect, Scottish particularism.

I’ve never been a huge 1314 man. To be honest, one group of Normans, calling themselves Scots (or possibly Ecossais), defeating a different group of Normans, calling themselves something else, always seemed to me to have likely to have been, even at the time, a matter of huge indifference to the vast majority of the population, particularly because, no matter what Nigel Tranter says,those who ended up on which side at the showdown was largely a matter of historical accident or personal opportunism.

On the other hand, I’ve always regarded 1560 as a hugely important date. After 1517, religion engaged popular opinion in a way that nationalism never had (to date). And in 1560, Scotland took a very different religious route from England. Which led to a very different attitude to education as the embryonic modern nation state began to emerge and also led to Scotland, by 1707, being a significantly different Country from England. This time not in the calculations of its ruling classes, but in the day to day lives of its people. We were not Catholics (most definitely not!) but we weren’t Lutherans or Anabaptists either. We were Presbyterians. That might not have been an entirely happy inheritance but it was indubitably where we stood. For predestination but for popular Church governance and the universal right to be able to read the Bible as well.

So, when the Treaty of Union was drawn up, what was the Scots bottom line? That this religious difference be protected, as it was; with the protection of an independent legal system as a necessary adjunct.

And, on the one occasion this was seriously challenged it brought about the Disruption, a much more important and popular movement than the 1821 martyrs or, I concede, Thomas Muir of Huntershill ever represented.

But progress in other spheres, welcome progress, together with the decline of religion in public life threatened that diversity and led to demands for Scottish distinctiveness to be protected. The National Health Service, no matter how welcome, was about a different “Nation” from Scotland; universal education meant something different across the Border if it encompassed a burden rather than an opportunity; British Rail, British Steel, the “National” Coal Board all had a dangerously sounding homogeneity.

So, particularly if Scottish people stopped going to the Church of Scotland, but still wished to be Scottish, then they needed to be able to assert their nationality in another way. And that’s where I come from; for the benefits of the Union but also for the protection of that distinctiveness. For Devolution. And that’s where I believe most Scottish people stand.

Now in the last weeks we have been told that the SNP’s victory in May allows them to define (subject to a Referendum) not only the terms of “Independence” but also the terms of devolution.

I’ve always believed devolution might be improved. Within the context of a hostile Prime Minister, the original Scotland Bill was a masterful achievement but on the day it was published I emailed Wendy querying where the borrowing powers were. That wrong has been righted by the current legislation but there remains no reason Drugs legislation remains undevolved;  or any number of other specific examples. Equally, some would say more importantly, it seems to me that the taxation powers of the Parliament could be strengthened in a number of ways not inconsistent with continued membership of a unitary state.

But defining devolution is for the devolutionists. Having seen off the Unionists on one flank there is no reason we should cede ground to the nationalists on the other. I am more than a little irritated by the demands of the SNP that we need to develop a different devolved settlement to enable them to put it as a fall back option in their legendary referendum.

No matter what devolved scheme is developed it will never be acceptable to Nationalists. Quite right too.  If you believe in an “independent” Scotland then why should you settle for something less?  If I was of that persuasion, I certainly wouldn’t.  I don’t however go about insisting the ways in which the Tories should organise their affairs; any more than I would demand of Methodists that they abandon their aversion to strong liquor or aspire to select the team at Greenock Morton. I’m not a Tory or a Methodist or (thank the Lord) a supporter of the Morton so while I might have an opinion about how they conduct their affairs I recognise that, in the end that’s a matter for them.

However no such stricture applies to the SNP. They complain, if we don’t come up with a different devolved scheme we’ll end up with the status quo. Well, firstly, that’s got nothing to do with them, because they’re not in favour devolution at all and, secondly, and in any event, maybe we devolutionists are more or less happy with the status quo.

I had some part in the thinking behind the Calman Commission but I always thought it was too “Grandee” a project, particularly after Wendy’s fall detached it significantly from those practising day to day politics in Scotland. It nonetheless is a well argued document. If you wish to exist within one nation state (Calman’s essential premise) then its constituent parts must have a modus vivendi and that has to be on some basis other than trying to fight each other for competitive advantage. If, on the other hand, you want to make devolution meaningful, then it requires not just to be about how money is spent but also about how it is raised. And not just year to year.  Calman makes a fair stab at coming up with a solution.

But the SNP didn’t win in May, or Labour lose, because people were unhappy with the current devolution settlement. They won, and we lost, because their people were perceived as competent to govern Scotland, and our’s, correctly, weren’t. Because they were perceived to have some idea where they were going, and we, correctly, weren’t. Because while they might have few ideas other than independence, we were perceived, correctly, to have no ideas at all.

But the SNP’s Achilles heel lies in that last sentence. The Government programme published this past week is, bluntly, boring. The SNP is a coalition held together by a common belief in Independence. But real politics is about choice and that choice is measured on a left/right spectrum. Across the world, the Left is for higher taxes and collective provision while  the Right for lower taxes and individual initiative. The Left is for personal liberty while the Right is for the maintenance of order; the Left stands for the essential goodness of creation while the Right persists with original sin.

 But to hold their coalition together, the SNP can’t address these universal choices. So the only solution is to choose to do nothing at all.

As a result, Scotland will stand still for the next three years. Nothing wrong with that if we were already a happy and contented Nation. But we’re not. Our health statistics are appalling; our proud education tradition is being bypassed by the rest of Europe; we are developing a permanent underclass and such indigenous industry as we have left has neither support nor even a clear future.

What has the Government programme to say about any of this? Nothing at all, except that we might save a bit of money by having a National Police Service. An initiative so exciting that it was in the Scottish Labour Manifesto.

Now there are lessons about opposition and the first is that you are the opposition.  You can’t legislate for anything. But there is also a danger about opposition. Not just that you fall into the trap of opposing measures that are patently sensible (because “that’s your job”) but also because it frees you from the responsibility of saying what you would do yourselves.

With the exception of no-one (my own candidate Tom Harris not excluded) no potential candidate for the Labour leadership has had anything to say about the platform on which we should have fought the last election, let alone the programme on which we should fight the next one. It has, so far, been about how the winner might reform and then run the Labour Party.

And, for what its worth, the same might as easily be said about the Tories and their own contest.

Scotland needs change. And bluntly one of the major obstacles to that change has been the Labour Party itself.

So, c’mon Tom. Let’s have a bit of New Labour thinking about Scottish public services; or institutional poverty; or chronic ill health. I reserve the right to denounce your ideas but I promise an alternative proposal. I hold out no hope of any ideas of any sort from any of the other potential candidates.


  1. Good article Mr. Smart. If there were more like you in the Scottish Labour party we in the SNP would have an opposition worth the name. Why don't you stand for leader? You make more sense than all the candidates.

    At some point Labour people in Scotland will have to let go of England and form a truly Scottish Labour party. When they do, I think there will be a lot of support. Labour might even win an election in independent Scotland.

    Keep going Mr Smart because Scotland needs a healthy opposition to keep the government on the straight and narrow and currently all the opposition parties are looking in the rear view mirror.

    Topher Dawson.

  2. Ian, enjoying your hard-bitten eloquence... But on this litany -

    "Our health statistics are appalling; our proud education tradition is being bypassed by the rest of Europe; we are developing a permanent underclass and such indigenous industry as we have left has neither support nor even a clear future"

    - don't you remotely accept that the majority-opinion in the SNP, as an avowedly "social-democratic" party, is that maximal constitutional and macro-economic powers are required to act on addressing exactly that scenario? And that within the current settlement, in terms of capital investment and the "social wage", they're acting as best they can?

    I sometimes idly dream that wise and learned left-of-centre socialists in Scotland like yourself would apply their zeal for infrastructural and institutional reform to the horizon of an independent Scotland - to get the best tools to act on the consensus of values that's up here. What would it take to get you there?

    And on the small-nation = parochialism equation... Do you really think that the culture of a indepdnent Scotland would be anything other than relentlessly connective to the wider world? For better or ill, we are a component of (to put it no less grandly) Western modernity - in every thing from Smith and Hume to slavery, from Mark Millar to Dolly the Sheep, from Hamish Henderson to Gary Tank Commander... Where in that environment does your cosmopolitan, worly soul curdle and shrivel?