The dance of death of Scottish devolution


The dance of death of Scottish devolution

25 years of devolution have exposed the hollowness of the independence movement.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Long-reads Politics UK

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The political demise of soon-to-be former Scottish first minister Humza Yousaf is the climax (for now) of a dance of death for the Scottish National Party (SNP) government that began with the resignation of Yousaf’s predecessor, Nicola Sturgeon, last March. Having dominated Scottish politics for more than a decade, the SNP can’t seem to put a foot right.

A variety of policy failures and blunders culminated in the ending of the SNP’s power-sharing deal with the Scottish Greens, leaving the government unable to govern and the already weak Yousaf lacking any credibility. Few believe Yousaf’s presumptive successor John Swinney is likely to save the SNP’s fortunes, and nor is there anything resembling a government-in-waiting among the opposition parties. Whatever happens next is likely to happen slowly and painfully.

In fact, one way to understand the whole 25-year history of the devolved Scottish parliament is as a much longer, but no less painful, dance of death. That of Scottish – and indeed British – Labourism. The fact that the zombified Labour Party itself is set to be the beneficiary of the SNP’s demise, perhaps in Scotland and almost certainly at the UK level, only underlines the old truth about history repeating itself, first as tragedy and then as farce.

There was a paradox surrounding the re-establishment of the Scottish parliament as a devolved assembly 25 years ago in May 1999. The political rationale had been that, for two decades, Scottish voters consistently voted mostly for Labour, while the UK electorate as a whole consistently voted in Conservative governments. The only way to make devolution a reality, however, was to get a Labour government elected at Westminster. This finally happened in 1997, making devolution possible and, at the same time, robbing it of its most immediate and compelling justification – namely, that Scotland had a different political outlook from the rest of the UK.

Queen Elizabeth II (centre foreground) stands next to Sir David Steel (centre left) at the state opening of the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh, 1 July 1999.
Queen Elizabeth II (centre foreground) stands next to Sir David Steel (centre left) at the state opening of the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh, 1 July 1999.

Despite the whole Union being in tune with Scottish voting preferences, there was little chance of the new assembly being scrapped as unnecessary. Devolution for Scotland and Wales was a key plank in the ‘New Britain’ pitched by Tony Blair’s New Labour. Constitutional ‘modernisation’ was the sort of thing Blair and Co wanted to be seen to be doing. Moreover, Blair’s government had a landslide mandate from the British electorate, and there was unstoppable political momentum behind devolution within Scotland itself, as demonstrated by the decisive 74 per cent vote for devolution in the 1997 referendum.

An additional advantage, as Labour strategists saw it, was that devolution would take the wind out of the sails of the SNP, whose case for independence rested on the same frustrations as the case for devolution. Labour had shown it could win a UK election and, given decisions mostly affecting Scotland could now be made in Scotland by an assembly directly elected by Scottish voters (a ‘parliament’, with all the dignity if not powers of the one that closed in 1707), there would be no need to break up the nearly 300-year old Union.

In hindsight, of course, this was a strategic miscalculation on Labour’s part. The Scottish parliament worked as anticipated for its first two terms. With an electoral system involving proportional representation, it was effectively designed to prevent outright majorities. The first two elections in 1999 and 2003 resulted in Labour-Liberal Democrat coalitions. But in 2007, the SNP edged ahead of Labour and formed a minority government. Then, in 2011, the unthinkable happened: the SNP won an outright majority, with 69 of 129 seats.

The SNP’s success owed less to any positive vision of Scottish independence, than to the steady falling away of support for Labour, thanks to the Iraq War and a wider disillusionment with Blair’s New Britain. At first, the turn against New Labour benefitted the Liberal Democrats – keeping the governing coalition intact. But the year after the Lib Dems formed a UK coalition government with the Tories in 2010, their vote at the Holyrood election collapsed. This was crucial in handing that majority to the surging SNP. Holyrood politics, then, were significantly shaped by wider British trends.

In the early days of the Scottish parliament, the public was hardly enthusiastic about the prospect of distinctively Scottish politics. Even the novelty of the first elections in 1999 inspired less than 60 per cent of the electorate to turn out. That fell to below 50 per cent the next time around. Given that Scottish voters continued to elect representatives to the more powerful UK parliament, there was a perception that Holyrood was a second-tier assembly, attracting mediocre politicians. MSPs were widely disparaged as ‘numpties’.

After a Conservative-led government took power in Westminster in 2010, the political dynamics in Holyrood changed. The SNP administration had an opportunity to prove that Scotland really was politically different. Its majority not only gave the nationalists a mandate for a referendum on full independence, which came in 2014, but also a chance to flex their muscles as a party of government and even to push against the limits of the devolution settlement.

Alex Salmond, then SNP leader and Scotland's first minister and Nicola Sturgeon, then deputy leader pose together during a SNP campaign poster launch on 25 January 2011 in Edinburgh.
Alex Salmond, then SNP leader and Scotland's first minister and Nicola Sturgeon, then deputy leader pose together during a SNP campaign poster launch on 25 January 2011 in Edinburgh.

Certainly, the SNP positioned itself in opposition to the UK government’s post-recession austerity policies, and spoke about the need for a more equal and just society. But the referendum campaign was animated by a movement that was notably to the left of the SNP itself. Many of the loudest advocates of independence saw it as an opportunity to go far beyond the SNP’s rather tame 2013 white paper, Scotland’s Future: Your Guide to an Independent Scotland.

Perhaps the SNP was missing a trick. Perhaps it just had an eye on its traditional voters outside the big cities, and remembered that the Scottish Socialist Party had gone from seven MSPs in 2003 to electoral oblivion. In any case, Scotland voted against any version of independence in 2014. And, at least in terms of its socio-economic agenda, the radical left that was so conspicuous during the referendum campaign has not made a notable impression on Scottish politics in the years since.

Nevertheless, the case for devolution or independence was always that Scottish voters had different preferences from those of English voters; more socialist or at least more social democratic. If you asked most people what that meant in practical terms, they would say more government spending on public services, even if that meant higher taxes. (The 1997 referendum on devolution had a separate question on whether the Scottish parliament should have tax-raising powers, which was agreed by 63 per cent of voters.) Indeed, middle-to-higher earners do now pay more in Scotland than elsewhere in the UK, and nobody would suggest the most recent hike in income tax, announced in December, has had much bearing on the SNP’s travails. But what difference does Scottish government spending make?

Famously, the Labour-Lib Dem coalition did abolish upfront university tuition fees in 2001, just a few years after they had been introduced by the Labour UK government (students still had to pay upon graduation). The SNP later made university tuition completely free to students, which is still listed at No1 in the party’s own list of its top-100 achievements. The Scottish government also brought in free eye tests in 2006 and abolished medical prescription charges in 2011. There’s also free bus travel across the country for young, elderly and disabled people.

These things are certainly not nothing. But they hardly speak of a country with fundamentally different and more social-democratic values. Crucially, they do not point to the supposedly rich, imminent possibilities of a fully independent Scotland. While the SNP trumpets its achievements, ‘despite the limited powers and budgets of devolution’, it is not at all clear how independence would usher in a Scottish government with substantially greater powers and budgets – especially given the SNP wants to re-join the European Union. Indeed, the SNP has no satisfactory answer to the question of which currency an independent Scotland would use, let alone big ideas about how to create the jobs and wealth that might underpin a more egalitarian society.

Indeed, while it used to be argued that an independent Scotland would flourish on revenues from North Sea oil, this no longer looks like a viable long-term prospect. In fact, the Scottish government boasts of being among the first in the world to declare a ‘climate emergency’, and is committed to reaching Net Zero by 2045. The proximate cause of the SNP’s break with the Greens was the government’s decision to scrap its commitment to reduce carbon emissions by 75 per cent by 2030, having decided this is just not affordable. But Net Zero remains a priority for all parties at Holyrood, just as it is at Westminster – although neither polity is in a position to make a dent in global emissions.

It is telling that in its list of its top-100 achievements, the SNP mentions ‘praise from the UN’ for its climate targets, praise ‘from around the world’ for action on something called climate justice and ‘praise from experts’ for its minimum alcohol-unit pricing. It seems inordinately concerned with winning the approval of observers who are not necessarily Scottish voters.

That’s not to say voters don’t care about the environment, and there is no doubting the harm done in Scotland by alcohol abuse. But the praise the government has received is at least one step removed from any real-world benefit. This is press-release politics, and perhaps more impressive to those who are paid to read press releases than to those who pay to read newspapers.

In fact, much of what’s distinctive about the Scottish government’s agenda has nothing to do with the distinctive issues facing Scotland. Instead, it reflects the concerns of the quangos, think-tanks and pressure groups that pass for ‘civil society’ in Scotland, and indeed the UK as a whole. The only difference is that in Scotland they have more influence, because the government is actively looking for things to be seen to be doing.

There could be no better example than the disastrous Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill 2022. This sought to introduce gender self-ID, so people would be legally recognised as the opposite sex on no more than their own say so. Notably, the SNP passed that bill with the support of Labour and the Lib Dems. Polls (and common sense) suggested the bill was unpopular with the Scottish public, but it eventually took the UK government to step in and block it on constitutional grounds early last year, after outrage over male rapist Isla Bryson being placed in a women’s prison. This was the setback that ultimately precipitated the resignation of Nicola Sturgeon.

Another reform that failed was the Named Person scheme. This would have assigned a professional ‘named person’ to take responsibility for each child in Scotland and keep a dossier on their welfare, regardless of their parents’ wishes. The legislation passed in 2014, but after legal challenges over the obvious threat to civil liberties and the integrity of the family, it was finally scrapped in 2019.

Then there was the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act 2012, which criminalised unsavoury football chants. Even many who were sympathetic to the goal of tackling sectarianism baulked at the illiberalism of the law, which was also repealed in the late 2010s. But that illiberal spirit is back with a vengeance in the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act 2021, which came into force in April. This act criminalises the entirely subjective offence of ‘stirring up hatred’, and can apply even to things said in the privacy of someone’s own home. It remains to be seen whether it will survive contact with reality.

First minister Humza Yousaf arrives for a press conference at Bute House, 29 April 2024.
First minister Humza Yousaf arrives for a press conference at Bute House, 29 April 2024.

There is little reason, though, to suppose a change of government at Holyrood will lead to a different or more grounded agenda. Much of the SNP’s worst legislation has had cross-party support – and crucially, support from Labour. The only significant divide between the two parties is on the question of independence. The damage caused to the SNP’s reputation by recent events certainly makes a second referendum unlikely in the foreseeable future. But it will not necessarily undermine support for independence itself. To a great extent, the ‘indy’ cause seems to be insulated from the travails of the SNP and its relatively free-floating agenda.

That’s because support for independence has long had a ‘none of the above’ character. Apart from the assumption that it will be vaguely left-wing, ‘indy’ can mean almost anything to anyone. It means taking refuge in the sheer fact of being a minority polity within the UK to disavow the prevailing political arrangements altogether. The appeal is obvious, but 25 years of devolution do not point to a compelling Scottish alternative.

For most of the 20th century, the majority of Scottish voters did not vote primarily as Scottish voters at all, but instead as supporters of one of the two or three main UK parties, above all Labour. As such, they often found themselves in the majority, electing governments to Westminster. In 1964 and 1974 (twice), Scottish votes were decisive. The last time the majority in Scotland agreed with the majority in the UK as a whole was in 2005, while in 2010, Scottish votes kept the Tories from winning an outright majority. The next time Scotland ‘decides’ a UK election result could well be later this year. Even if that happens, though, it will not mark a return to the old settlement.

Constitutionally, the UK has never been a nation state, but a political union. But over the course of the 20th century – and especially after the Second World War – it did become something much more like a nation state (or at least Great Britain did). Institutions like the BBC and the NHS were never anything but British, while the ‘national’ parties forged a shared political culture. The Labour Party was especially crucial in shaping a common British identity because it gave the working class across the country a stake in Britain’s political life. Labour ceased to play that role at least a generation ago.

If Scottish voters turn to Labour at the next election, it will not be a homecoming but a vote for the lesser of two (or three or four) evils. If they are unenthusiastic about any of the options, though, the great irony is that this is just one more thing they have in common with English and Welsh voters. Disillusionment with Britain’s zombie parties does not make Scots any less British than anyone else. And the Holyrood March Macabre has nothing to do with the peculiarities of Scotland or any unusual shortcomings in its politicians.

Neither devolution, nor independence, is the answer to the great challenge of our time: giving the people of the UK the power to make a real difference.

Dolan Cummings is the author of The Pictish Princess… and other stories from before there was a Scotland. His Substack is at L’esprit de l’escalier.

Pictures by: Getty.

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Topics Long-reads Politics UK


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