TOM HARRIS believes Scotland can chew gum and walk at the same time, whatever the nationalist doubters may claim


I remember it well: May 2003, when the dream of independence died.

Having fought valiantly and unequivocally for their policy of a separate Scotland, the SNP were roundly defeated for the second time in the Holyrood elections. The party’s response was as fast as it was inevitable: its flagship policy obviously had to be jettisoned. Clearly, the voters were not convinced by John Swinney’s vision for Scotland’s future. So, to a chorus of approval from enemies and supporters alike, the SNP announced it would no longer advocate its long-held principle of independence and would instead support a more popular, voter-friendly and strengthened version of devolution.

Except, not really, of course…

The SNP surrendering its commitment to independence was as inconceivable then as it is now; such a move would have been considered the ultimate in cynical opportunism. It’s hard to imagine that its subsequent political victories could have happened at all had it simply ditched principle because a focus group told it to.

So why, after Labour’s second defeat at Holyrood, are we being told that we must abandon our support for the devolution settlement?

If posts from contributors on this site are anything to go by, it’s fast becoming received wisdom that our route back to electoral viability must inevitably be via federalism or “devolution max”. And maybe it is. But that’s a debate that’s yet to conclude. And based on what was said on the doorstep in the run-up to May, it’s far from certain that a complete re-booting of devolution is anywhere near the top of voters’ “to do” list.

So how about this for some blue-sky thinking: let’s try to make devolution work. Radical, huh?

It’s simply wrong to claim – as some inevitably will – that supporting the devolution settlement, as amended by the Scotland Act, precludes the ability of Scottish Labour to articulate a positive vision for our nation. In fact, it presents us with an opportunity to turn the tables on Salmond.

The 1999 devolution settlement was not some kind of half-hearted compromise; it was a radical, modern and fair solution to a critical political challenge. It was exactly what Scottish voters had said, over many years, they wanted: a strong devolved parliament with Scotland remaining in the UK. That settlement, remember, was developed painstakingly and meticulously by the Scottish Constitutional Convention, a broad coalition of Scottish civic society – including the Labour and LibDem parties, the trade unions, business groups and the churches – over many years.

The resulting template – put to a referendum in 1997 – confounded those who believed any parliament set up by a Labour government would not be worthy of the name. On the contrary, the White Paper, “Scotland’s Parliament”, published by Scottish Secretary Donald Dewar weeks after he took office, impressed all sides of the debate. The new parliament would be powerful and strong, well able to deliver the change that Scotland needed.

And yet, ever since the overwhelming “Yes” vote in the referendum, the SNP have done everything they can to belittle and undermine that devolution settlement and, by implication, the disparate interests who set aside their differences for the good of our nation in order to make the convention a success.

So, a question for the nationalists: what is it about Scotland that makes us so incapable of making devolution work? What are the peculiar defects of Scottish political culture that make us incapable of taking full advantage of our devolved parliament? Are we too small? Too weak? Not confident enough? Too easily bullied? Not capable of running our nation efficiently while taking a full part in the United Kingdom?

Why do the SNP believe Scotland can’t walk and chew gum at the same time?

Labour should make a virtue of what we already have; a substantial proportion of voters don’t relish the constant constitutional bickering over what is reserved and what is devolved and would, I suspect, be responsive to a vision of an efficient, innovative, optimistic Labour-led government at Holyrood; a government that made the most of the powers we already have instead of nurturing grievance about those we don’t.

There may well be a case for concluding that advocating “Devolution max” or some kind of federalism is the most appropriate response to Scottish Labour’s defeat. But to turn our backs now on a constitutional settlement so carefully constructed and so keenly fought for would be a knee-jerk reaction unworthy of its architects.

Tom Harris is the Labour MP for Glasgow South. Follow him on Twitter at @TomHarrisMP.

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26 thoughts on “In defence of devolution

  1. The positive reaction to Ed Miliband’s leadership on the hacking scandal shows that the public admires a firm and principled stand.

    We should have stood up for our principles and against NI long ago and we should stand up for own principles now and against the myth that “independence” is inevitable.

    I voted for devolution and I think it is working well.

    In a strange way, the fact that the SNP is in power should be a help. As they fail to deliver (as they will) and have to make the compromises of government (as they must), the idea that they can deliver anything that is recognisably better than the status quo will look ever more silly.

    1. Slightly off topic but as regards to this:

      “The positive reaction to Ed Miliband’s leadership on the hacking scandal shows that the public admires a firm and principled stand.”

      Miliband’s reaction reminds me (ironically) of David Cameron’s reaction to the expenses scandal. Right off the mark Cameron was adamant that Tory MPs who’d made very questionable claims should pay back the money right away, regardless of whether it was possibly technically OK under the rules at that time. In both cases their response looked quite good to the public and was impressive politics, but there was nothing very original or groundbreaking, they were just using commonsense to do what the public would obviously want politicians to do. In short, it would have been difficult for him to mess it up (although, as usual, Gordon Brown broke with all conventional thinking and managed to achieve the near impossible by doing just that).

      Excellent article Tom.

  2. Tom, Jack McConnell is still the longest serving First Minister. What did Scottish Labour do with all their years in power at Holyrood to make Scotland better? The smoking ban, is that it?

    Trying to turn the tables on the SNP this way simply highlights how poorly Scotland was served when Labour were in power at Holyrood. Now, okay, an argument could be made that everything was new and the Scottish Executive (as it was then) was just finding its feet but that argument only goes so far. It’s still far too easy to reach the conclusion that the powers just aren’t sufficient to have a real impact on the day-to-day issues that effect the peoples of Scotland.

  3. The problem with the devolution settlement is that it leaves George Osborne in control of macro economic policy in Scotland. It’s as simple as that. Labour either step up to the plate & argue for devo max which would resolve that, or the SNP campaign on independence alone as the resolution to that.

    It’s up to Labour.

  4. Alex as much as I was delighted to see Ed Miliband totally divorce the Labour Party from the evil clutches of Murdoch, it has been a long, a very very long, time coming. So I don’t think you are going to get many brownie points. I am of the view that the Murdoch campaign against Gordon Brown – shocking – was assisted by the Blairites. So please do not try & come over all moral.

    1. Observer, I agree that we should have acted sooner, but Miliband has only been leader for a short time and he has seized his opportunity. I don’t expect “many” brownie points, but he deserves some.

      But the real point is, if you stand against a bully whether he be Rupert Murdoch or Alex Salmond, the bully deflates and runs away, and we, the majority, should have the confience to stand against the bullying minority….. always.

      1. I am not entirely sure that Mr Salmond is a bully in the mould of Rupert Murdoch, Alex. I have some reservations but on the whole I think he is doing a good job in moving Scotland forwards. What would be useful is if the SNP & Labour stopped fighting each other like ferrets in a sack & actually got on with fighting the Tories.

        I think the electorate would agree.

        1. I couldn’t agree more about the Labour/SNP waste of energy fighting each other. But we didn’t pick this fight, the Nationalists did.

          I would much rather those of the SNP who are of a left persuasion gave up the idiotic obsession with “independence” and joined us.

          I’ve said as much on numerous occassions, not least on my own blog.

          But they haven’t seen sense. Yet.

          If we don’t solve the problem we’ll be wasting our political energies fighting each other forever. It’s such a waste.

          1. I would much rather those of the SNP who are of a left persuasion gave up the idiotic obsession with “independence” and joined us.

            I’ve said as much on numerous occassions, not least on my own blog.

            But they haven’t seen sense. Yet.

            What utter nonsense and it just shows the arrogance of the Labour party in all its glory.

          2. Arrogance? Something the SNP have in spades. How many times have I heard the opposite “If only labour party members/voters would join the SNP for a proper socialist voice/progressive Scotland/etc”.

            What utter nonsense and it just shows the arrogance of the SNP in all its glory.

  5. Don McC
    what has Labour ever done for us?

    Not sure about all of Scotland, but in my own area, Norh Ayrshire, we built the three town bypass and set up the funding for the Beith/Dalry bypass. The SNP diverted the allocated cash for Beith/Dalry elsewhere.

    Beween 2003 and 2007 we built 5 new schools and some other extension/refurbishments. Since the SNP took over there has not been one new school built. Not one. None. Not even started.

    I could give a longer list…..but the simple lesson is: Labour did good.

    Could you tell us what the Nationalists have done in their four years to make Scotland better? They certainly haven’t built schools or hospitals or employed more teachers or doctors….

    They have adopted the Tory policy of a Council Tax freeze (because the local income tax is a dog’s breakfast)….

    anything else…?

    1. It was Glasgow City Council who first introduced the Council Tax freeze. I didn’t agree with it then & I don’t agree now but the reality is that most people support it.

      Labour used PFI far too much & that has saddled us all with a massive debt. They may have been well intentioned but there was too much empire building & not enough competence.

      1. Observer

        the mechanism recommended by the so-called SFT is a PFI, and the SNP are insisting on its use for new capital projects. Four lost years and we’re back with PFI but no schools built….

    2. ‘Could you tell us what the Nationalists have done in their four years to make Scotland better? They certainly haven’t built schools or hospitals or employed more teachers or doctors….

      They have adopted the Tory policy of a Council Tax freeze (because the local income tax is a dog’s breakfast)….’

      Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t the Labour Party undergo a deathbed conversion to the Council Tax freeze. It’s a bit rich to nick a policy and then condemn it.

      And I’ll offer free prescriptions as a Nationalist policy that made Scotland better. It certainly helped me and mine. And my son is one of the 1000 extra police officers, so a double whammy plus there for my family.

      1. Four years and the abolition of prescription charges at a cost of £40 million from a £30 billion budget? Populist, certainly. And it re-established a principle.. free at the point of use. Major for the 10% of the poulation who benefit? Arguable. Many of them could, like me, afford it. There were some in hardship, and that was wrong. So well done, but ….

        1000 extra polis… pre-existing Tory policy again. And it was achieved in year 4 and the numbers will (are probably already) fall.

        No new schools. No new hospitals. No abolition of PFI, in fact the reinstatement of PFI for capital projects. No aboloition of tuition fees. No local income tax. No abolition of Council Tax. No referendum on “independence”. Almost all the Nationalists main promises broken or not delivered. Fewer teachers and hundreds of trainee teachers on the dole. Fewer doctors and nurses.

        Set against so many broken promises, prescription charges, while welcome and undoubtedly popular, are not a lot to show for four years of government. And nothing like the achievements of previous Labour-led administrations.

        1. Not True on schools, Alex. Forfar’s Langlands and Whitehills Primary schools have both been re-built/built in the last 4 years.

          1. But have they been built with Holyrood’s support and money? Some councils have built schols by traditional financing, without help from Holyrood.

            And, let’s face it, even if they have been built with Holyrood money (which I doubt as the SNP is opposed to PFI), two schools is not matching Labour’s hundreds of schols “brick for brick”.

            @Caledoinian, “being built” is not he same as actually built. Please check before you post “facts” that your own post disproves.

          2. I suggest you talk to Labour’s John Ruddy, he’s part of Angus Council and there have been a lot of renovation and building of schools across our County in the last 4 years and several more in the pipeline. Those are the facts and they do not reflect what you have stated about the SNP.

        2. Brechin High School is also being re-built on it’s existing land. Please check before you post “facts” that can be easily disproved.

          1. Using a form of PPP. It will be built and maintained by a private sector company who will be paid an annual fee by the council for supplying the building. This fee will include the costs of raising the money to build the school in the first place, as well as the facility management work.

            It may work out cheaper than previous PPP projects, or it may be more expensive. But its basically PPP. And since it is, the SNP could have just done it in 2007 saying “We’re building these schools using PPP, but we’re limiting the profit the contractor can make”.

        3. I don’t doubt that you’re sincere in what you’ve written, but didn’t we just have an election? We know what voters thought of the arguments, which included this one. And to a degree why even know why they thought as they did. Didn’t people (or that tiny minority that the Scottish Election Study folks asked) say that they favoured SNP because of that party’s perceived competence? The electorate may have got things wrong but their judgement is what counts.

          I think Tom Harris is slightly off the mark in his introductory imaginings although his conclusions make perfect sense. The SNP had never been the largest opposition party before in parliament, not least because there had never been a Scottish Parliament before, the very existence of which would have been counted a great triumph in the 80s or earlier. They may have wanted more, faster, but what they’d gained was quite substantial.

          The Labour Party has ambitions beyond Scotland at the UK level. It seems logical enough for a party with UK-wide ambitions to be organised on a UK-wide basis and for it to make the well-being of the UK central. To switch from devolution to LibDem federalism, which even the LibDems seem to like better on paper than in practice, doesn’t have any obvous attractions. And we don’t need to look back very far into the past to see that a federal party structure is no miracle cure.

          The crude stereotype has it that Labour is the tax and spend party. There are more positive-sounding ways to put that, but however it is described a party which favoured high government spending would have little to gain in Scotland from tax powers being devolved and the Barnett Formula dropped unless there was no prospect of power at Westminster in the foreseeable future. Nobody will be formulating Labour policy on that basis.

          For me, “devomax” makes most sense as a policy for those Tories looking for something radical to give the moribund Scottish Conservative Party new life and purpose, something which a debate over levels of taxation might well do. For the SNP it may be a distant second best, but its introduction by other parties would make the gap between the status quo and independence that much less. It would be remarkably selfless – right up there with the 2003 reform of local government elections – to adopt a policy which doesn’t obviously help Labour achieve its aims but which will instead probably assist other parties.

    3. The Nationalists argue they don’t have sufficient powers, so asking what have they done in their time in power only plays into their hands. Remember, Tom is arguing that Holyrood does have sufficient powers right now.

      In terms of Labour’s record, any fool can use an unlimited credit card to build schools and hospitals, knowing that someone else will have to pick up the bill. Just how much of Scotland’s block grant this year went to pay for schools built years ago? How much will next year’s block grant go? What about the year after that? And the year after that? And the year after that? (Need I go on?)

  6. Where is the Scottish Labour campaign to save RAF Leuchars and Fife Ness Coast Guard station, whilst I’m on Fife local issues? Not much sign of a Union dividend for Fife in either of those decisions. Fife’s Labour MPs & MSPs should have resolved to oppose these decisions with every fibre of their being. The implications for local jobs, seafarer’s safety and national security are grave.

  7. Something to chew on! Forget independence and get the roads sorted!?

    1. The Guardian quoted a figure of 2.25 billion for the road repair backlog in February this year. The same article said you’d need over 250 million a year more to bring the roads budget up to the level needed to avoid deterioriating motorways and trunk roads. That’s not all roads, but to keep things simple let’s say that this comes to a nice round 3.5 billion in this parliament to get things fixed and keep them that way.

      So where would you be taking that 700 million pounds a year from?

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