Unless you’re a big fan of Ouija boards you might have been a mite surprised at how much the late Donald Dewar has had to say for himself in the last 48 hours. Or, to be precise, how many words and opinions have been put in his mouth. The 20th anniversary of his untimely death has prompted some who knew him well – and some who didn’t – to explain what he would be thinking of 2020 politics.
As it happens, I did know him well. Well enough to be one of the two eulogists at his funeral. Well enough to chair the arts awards created in his name and his memory. And, here’s the thing; I haven’t the foggiest notion what he would be thinking about anything at all right now. Nobody has. Though that impediment hasn’t clouded the vision of some of the crystal ball brigade, most especially those so impoverished in thought and imagination to have their 20 year old opinions preserved in constitutional aspic. Miss Havisham syndrome for the political classes.
Which brings me to Brian Wilson, in his weekly diatribe against all matters indy, who wrote of once being a great friend of the first First Minister, but who didn’t see much of him post devolution. Not unconnected I surmise, with the fact that Mr Wilson had spent years railing against the creation of a parliament which, in many ways, was the fulfilment of Donald’s lifetime ambition. Meanwhile David Whitton, his media advisor, opines that he supposed his old boss would have been content to join the Tories in the 2014 Better Together campaign. I’m pretty sure he would done no such thing. He might instead have gone the Gordon Brown route of a Labour only campaign. Who knows? I don’t. Nobody does.
What I do know is that this intellectually gifted, socially maladroit man, was passionate about Scotland having its own voice when he lived. “Scottish solutions for Scottish problems.” I do know that when he introduced the first Scotland Act to the Westminster parliament he didn’t trouble to hide his unbounded delight: “There shall be a Scottish Parliament; I like that.”
I know too, that during the long wilderness years in opposition, he didn’t lust after what were once – prior to the current incumbents – the great offices of state. He wanted, above all else, to be Secretary of State for Scotland. And did a deal with Tony Blair that he would labour in the unforgiving vineyards of social security for a couple of years, if Bute House was the promised reward.
The day he spoke as First Minister at the official opening of the Scottish parliament brought him great and self evident joy. Uncharacteristically, he went that night to every party going. So I believe it’s fair to observe that having dedicated his entire life to the creation of a Scottish parliament he would be unlikely to rejoice at the thought of Conservative attempts to dismantle it.
However, much safer to ponder on the attitudes of those who are still here to speak for themselves. In my view, it was utterly disgraceful of the Scottish Conservative contingent at Holyrood to be the only people in the chamber to fail to endorse the parliament’s overwhelming rejection of the internal market bill. Outside of breaking international law, it seeks to dismantle the devolved administrations and render them utterly toothless. Just as it was an affront to their Scottish constituents for their MP’s to vote for the bill at Westminster.
I’m truly at a loss as to why this gunboat diplomacy has failed to raise more alarm bells in so much of the Scottish media. In my book, absolutely everything, even the pandemic, is of less consequence to Scotland’s long term future and her prosperity. The combination of the internal market bill and the onrushing post Brexit landscape is the scariest I’ve contemplated in many years before the media mast. Even those other Scottish parties who have set their face against independence – against even another referendum recognising how much the tectonic plates have shifted - have understood the existential threat to the chamber in which they ply their trade. And they’ve done so despite sniping from the sidelines from their own colleagues in that bastion of contemporary democracy, the House of Lords.
The House of the Undead, the late Denis Healey called it, perhaps surveying some in the ranks of erstwhile Commons Labour colleagues - those whose elevation owed more to the need to replace them in their constituencies rather than a late developing recognition of their intellectual gifts. Once that chamber self described as a repository of unique wisdom and experience. Lord Botham anyone? Lady Fox? It is fervently to be hoped that there are still enough backbones in the Lords to treat the Internal Market Bill with the wholesale contempt it surely deserves – though they will be principally pre-occupied by its cavalier attitude to international law. I doubt many tartan warriors will be much in evidence trying to protect the Scottish parliament from the visigoths at the gates.
They might remind themselves the convention always was that Westminster could not legislate on any devolved matters without the consent of Holyrood. That convention was subsequently made statutory. Despite which the Supreme Court in London saw fit to declare Westminster sovereign in all matters. So here we are at two minutes to midnight. We can pursue Holyrood’s legitimacy and the sovereignty of the Scottish people by every route available. We can use yet another favourable independence poll as evidence of the current and therefore most relevant guide to Scottish popular opinion.
Or we can roll right over and throw in the towel. Which doesn’t seem much of way to mark the 20th anniversary of Donald Dewar losing his opportunity to serve a full term as Scotland’s first First Minister.
FIRST PUBLISHED IN THE NATIONAL ON 12.10.20