Imagine if there had been a political VAR in 1979. A mechanism which would have confirmed that since the ball had crossed the goal line, since 51.6 of Scots had voted for an Assembly on a 64% turnout, one should have been created. If only the referee hadn’t been hobbled by a wrecking adjustment to the normal rules of play.Then again maybe that’s one result we should stop mourning. Sure it took an unconscionable time for the second devolution referendum to arrive in 1997. Twenty long years in which, bar the Constitutional Convention in ’89, our ambitions towards self determination were largely stalled.
And in some ways, to flog the analogy to death, the Thatcher years were partially an own goal given that the SNP and the Liberals voted against the confidence motion which brought down the Labour government by a single vote. (Though just like the current Conservative administration, the Callaghan one was already holed near the water line.)
Yet It’s instructive to look back at the plans for the 1979 Scottish Assembly which were thwarted by the unlovely George Cunningham. What a poor shilpit wee sowel it would have been. No First Minister, merely a First Secretary. An Executive, not a Government. No ability to pass Acts of parliament, just measures subject to external approval of their competence. Control over agriculture, fisheries and food shared with Westminster which also retained power over energy. And elections via first past the post rather than PR. In retrospect that really would have justified the infamous jibe from Billy Connolly that we had a “wee pretendy parliament.”
Arguably of course that apology for a legislature might have been a building block which grew its powers and increased in self confidence. Equally, it might have been such a disappointment in practice that the nation wondered why it had bothered. Now we have Holyrood. Now we have a parliament which, despite its faults and failures, is central to the lives and concerns of Scotland. Only diehard opponents of self determination would wish to see it disbanded. For anyone under 20 it is the natural order of things. For people of my generation it has become a satisfactory staging post to something better.
The Commission on Parliamentary Reform two years ago made a number of important recommendations around more transparency, scrutiny, efficient use of committees and wider participation by MSP’s and the public. But it echoed the consistent views of the Scottish public at large that Scotland is a better, more democratic place for its being there.However we should now be alert to the very real prospect of our parliament becoming emasculated by plans to repatriate powers from Brussels post Brexit directly to Westminster – even those currently devolved by the Scotland Acts.
This then is a pivotal moment for Scotland and for those of us committed to Scotland remaining part of the European family of nations. It’s important that in parallel with domestic campaigns much work has been done behind the scenes in Europe to help future negotiations. All of that matters in attempting to complete the journey to proper statehood which we lacked the bottle to back in 2014. The passing of the cleverly worded legislation on future referendums has paved the way for stage 3 of that journey when the nation, with the attendant horrors of Brexit at the door, can demand the chance to vote for independence on the very real grounds that circumstances have changed beyond recognition in five years.
As has the social culture of many constituent parts of the UK. Gordon Brown can continue his lonely bid to resurrect a sense of collective Britishness, but that political ship has long since left port.In its stead we have a Brexit induced bastardisation of Englishness choosing to wallow in misplaced nostalgia whilst enabling racism, not just on the streets, but within the walls of Westminster and most particularly the Home Office. As social media confirms, liberal England is appalled at this hijacking of its heritage, just as many Americans are sickened by the changes in tone wrought by President Trump.
I’m not daft enough to argue that Scotland is immune from prejudice or racism. But I am optimistic enough to believe that a Scottish government which consistently rolls out a welcome mat for those who choose this country as its home would have no truck with naked bigotry within its own parliamentary walls. Our country, and our politics, has changed radically in 20 years. We have had coalition government, majority and minority government as a result of proportional representation – even if it’s not the most effective form in my view. At the time it was introduced, Labour was in a position to benefit more than anyone by continuing with first past the post, so they deserve kudos for moving on from that discredited model. But, having introduced devolution, Labour then fought consistently against its natural expansion the result of which intransigence is only too obvious in the 5 administrations we have voted for. In 1999 Labour had 56 MSP’s to the Nationalists 35 and the Tories 18. By the last election Labour had 37 to the Nationalists 69 and the Tories 31. A once unthinkable revolution.
But administrations of all stripes have brought forward important legislation and, at least as importantly, held the line against the most illiberal Westminster initiatives from the marketisation of the health service, to the dismantling of the welfare state. There some areas like migration which they can’t control, and others like education and inequality where much work still needs to be done. Yet the announcement of a new £10 child benefit last week is a welcome step towards ameliorating the child poverty which shames us all.
The glass half empty tendency, 20 years on, still nurses its cynicism to keep it warm. For the rest of us, there remains real hope and undimmed ambition that the best is yet to come for this talented, feisty, contrary, peerie nation of ours.