This is a tale of two toffs. (From not quite the best of times to the worst of them). In the pale blue corner, Lord George Younger, scion of a brewing dynasty, appointed Secretary of State in the white hot heat of the Thatcherian revolution. (Was meant to have been Maggie favourite Teddy Taylor, the hang ‘em, flog ‘em erstwhile MP for Cathcart – but he had carelessly lost his seat in the ’79 election.) For seven turbulent years, George did what Secretaries of State for Scotland traditionally did in those days; went into bat for their country’s interests in the face of disinterest and ignorance from Whitehall’s finest.
As his legendary predecessor, Red Clydesider Tom Johnston described it: “Every now and again some ingenious gentleman in London would exude a plan for a centralised planning of our industries, our housing, our roads, rails, canals, airports, our shops, our churches -- yes, the location of our churches! -- and our beer shops. And you never knew in what rapturous moment some persuasive hierarchy at a ministry might have been authorised to so plan and blueprint for us.”
And indeed various ingenious wheezes confronted Younger, not least the plan to close the giant Ravenscraig plant, then the beating heart of industrial Lanarkshire. He mounted a lengthy – though latterly unsuccessful – campaign to save it, including threatening to hand back his jotters. Vivid imagination as I possess, it’s not easy to conjure up a vision of David Mundell reprising that self sacrificing defence of Scottish industry.
But the fact remains that regardless of which party colours they wore, Secretaries of State were routinely expected to be Scotland’s man in the cabinet, rather than spying for the cabinet from their northern fiefdom. Willie Ross, who had two bites at the Scottish Office cherry, took a well thumbed leaf out of the Johnston playbook telling London that if he didn’t get his way there would be hell to pay in the shape of an upsurge in nationalist opinion. And it was during Willie’s stints that we saw the invention of the Highlands and Islands Development Board, and the Scottish Development Agency.
Further down the line, Malcolm Rifkind resigned his shadow Scottish post in protest at Thatcher’s implacable opposition to devolution, whilst the Scotland job was the one Donald Dewar most coveted, slogging at two London based jobs on a promise from Blair that the Scottish post would finally be his.
Then along came the Scottish parliament. Now you might think that with the creation of an actual parliament, the post of Secretary of State for Scotland was a wee thing redundant. Not least since the myriad responsibilities held by the SOS were now devolved to the folk camping out at the Assembly Hall on the Mound. In fact immediately subsequent Secretaries of State like Alistair Darling, Douglas Alexander and Des Browne had the Scottish portfolio tacked on to the main day job of transport or defence.
But come the UK’s coalition government two things happened, neither of them benign. Over the succeeding years the cost and the personnel attached to the renamed Scotland office burgeoned in a sort of inverse ratio to its relevance. One of the last official duties of Mr Mundell was to take possession of the keys of a shiny new custom built ‘Hub’ in the capital, a companion piece to the grand Dover House used in London.
This new edifice has apparently house room for no fewer than 3000 civil servants not to mention a room for the London cabinet to utilise when they’re popping over the border to fly the flag for the “precious union.” The civil servants in question will be dispatched from other departments like the treasury and HMRC. The Scotland office will, in effect, will have a berth inside the UK Government’s Trojan horse.
The man who will now occupy an office in the new pad when it’s up and running is another Tory toff, very well heeled farmer and business chap, Alister Jack, who has been an MP for Dumfries and Galloway for a whole two years. Like George Younger before him, he’s a pillar of a certain kind of Scottish establishment being, among other things, a member of the Royal Company of Archers whose dress code is especially useful around Hallowe’een
(Every appointment has a silver lining, and ours is the news that Ross Thomson, previously found gambolling around Boris Johnson’s heels like an eager to please puppy, has been ignored from a great height in the new Scottish world order.)
The second post 1999 development has been more subtle, but arguably more insidious. When the Scottish Office was succeeded by the Scotland Office it underwent a rebranding. Top of its duties as per its website was now to be “Strengthen and sustain the union.” And further down a lengthy to do list is the promise to “champion the UK government in Scotland” and “represent and advocate for the UK government’s policies in Scotland”. Viewed through that prism, it might be argued that David Mundell has been harshly treated. Nobody, surely, could have done more to represent and advocate for the UK government.
And this is all of a piece with both the Michael Gove and Boris Johnson agendas to re-brand Scotland as North Britain through a flurry of union flags on indigenous products and, as Gove said in Aberdeen, to overturn the convention that the London government does not directly fund anything for which the responsibility has been devolved. Boris Johnson as the newly dubbed “Minister for the Union” – copyright Rory Stewart – and Alister Jack will be just the boys to erect a roadblock to independence they must be supposing.
They can and must be stopped in that retrograde ambition. But, as I may just have mentioned before, time is very much of the essence with that Brexit cliff edge ever nearer. Not a time to have a man clutching a bow and arrow at the Scotland Office wheel.
Published in The National 1.8.19