‘You won’t get me, I’m part of the Union…’

The UK is as relevant to the people of Scotland today as it was in 1997, writes RICHARD OLSZEWSKI

As we pull ourselves off the ropes of the electoral battering we received on May 5, there is no shortage of prescriptions for how we heal our wounds and recover. Understandably, our immediate focus is on how we start rebuilding our position in Holyrood – without forgetting that we also have to address our political defeat in the UK. We also have to deal with the fundamental challenge that the nationalists present to the future of the UK and Scotland’s position in it.

Devolution was described, memorably, by John Smith as the “settled will of the Scottish people”. Well maybe, but it certainly hasn’t been the settled will of all the Scottish people.


Labour’s 1997 White Paper on devolution stated clearly that the aim of devolution was “a fair and just settlement for Scotland within the framework of the United Kingdom.” It also said that “Scotland will remain firmly part of the United Kingdom.”

These were the underlying principles on which devolution was based and put to the Scottish people in the referendum of 1997 – held just 133 days after Labour took power, nationalists please note. More than 74 per cent of the Scottish people voted for devolution on this basis. This could hardly have been a more emphatic expression of Scotland’s “settled will”.

But the nationalists never truly accepted that and have marched to an insistent drumbeat, that the role of the UK in Scottish life is illegitimate and that the Scottish Parliament should have more of Westminster’s powers. The intention, of course, is to hollow out Scotland’s role in the UK so that independence comes to be seen as no more than the next logical, and legitimate, step in a process of separation.

This approach will inform every move that they make. We have seen it in action already with a shopping list of demands for new powers to be added to the current Scotland Bill and the contrived dispute over the powers of the UK Supreme Court to protect human rights in Scotland.

For those of us who support devolution and believe in the Union, the key guiding principle is to make devolution work “within the framework of the United Kingdom.” Policy areas such as macroeconomic policy, taxation, defence and social security are of vital interest to Scotland, but they are also best exercised at UK level and that’s why they are reserved to the UK government.

I worked for John Reid when he was Secretary of State for Scotland in the early years of devolution, and recall how hard we had to work to carve out a role for Scottish politicians in these reserved areas. It also required significant effort to persuade English minsters in charge of reserved matters that they could legitimately talk about Scotland’s interest in what they were doing. We didn’t do this because we wanted to undermine devolution – we did it because we wanted to strengthen it by highlighting the continuing relevance for Scottish people of decisions made at the UK level. To ensure that devolution worked “within the framework of the United Kingdom.”

Of course Party activists and politicians need to address our political recovery in Holyrood and to develop the right policies on issues like schools, hospitals, housing and health. But we also need to be vocal and visible in areas like the Coalition’s disastrous approach to deficit reduction, welfare reform, defence, energy and telecommunications.

It’s not easy, I know. The decisions that impact most directly and visibly on people’s lives are made predominantly in Holyrood. So it is entirely appropriate for attention to be focused there. But the UK’s relevance to Scotland today is just as great as it was in the first 113 days of the Labour Government.

If we want to avoid the nationalists winning by default then we need to demonstrate effectively the political importance of the UK for Scotland and to give a voice for Scotland’s role in it. Enter LabourHame, stage left…

Richard Olszewski joined the Labour party in 1981 but claims not to be a masochist. He has been an industrial officer for the NUR and a researcher for Brian Wilson. From 1998 to 2005 he visited various government departments as a special adviser to John Reid. He now runs a communications consultancy based in London. He tweets occasionally as @olszewskilab.

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19 thoughts on “‘You won’t get me, I’m part of the Union…’

  1. More than 74 per cent of the Scottish people voted for devolution on the basis that it was the only option available to us, I was one of those who voted for it and would have welcomed the opportunity to vote for a far greater degree of separation.

    1. Indeed. If you want a Coke but the only options on offer are coffee and Fanta, you take whatever’s closest. It doesn’t mean you don’t still want a Coke.

  2. “we need to demonstrate effectively the political importance of the UK for Scotland”

    You keep saying over and over again that you need to demonstrate the positive case for the Union. Yet are still unable to detail what it actually is. Sooner or later you’re going to have to sit down and come up with something.

    “Policy areas such as macroeconomic policy, taxation, defence and social security are of vital interest to Scotland, but they are also best exercised at UK level”

    Why? Simply stating something as a fact is not the same thing as constructing a convincing argument for it.

  3. Oh dear, oh dear. Donald Dewar also reminded us that devolution is a process, not an end. Now we can trade quotes to our hearts content or, we can acknowledge that the process of devolution is a dynamic one and changes the culture, perception and mabition of people in Scotland. Will Labour face up to that and respond to the flow – or simply dig it’s heels in and give us many versions of “we didnae mean it to be like this”???

  4. You say taxation,’are also best exercised at UK level and that’s why they are reserved to the UK government.’

    The fact is the snp will be hollowed out when they cease to Tax spenders and become Tax collectors

  5. Why do the “cyber-nats” posting here seem to think that if the ’97 had an independence option people would have voted for it. The harsh reality that they like to forget is that there has never been a single poll that shows a majority of Scots in favour of Independence (but that’s probably a polling company conspiracy right?). Using the constituency vote (since the I don’t where all the lesser parties stand on inpendence) at the election just gone unionist parties won a majority of the votes. Does that mean their is a mandate for Union. Personally I don’t think it means that but I reject that it means there is a mandate for indepedence.

    As for Mr McCrivvens, the bigger the country, the more money it can put together to fund a better equipped military. A strong military is vital to securing a countries interests. Some countries go the road of having no military. I feel they weaken their position as a result.

    As for the foreign office, it is regared as one of the slickest foreign policy operations around. Going the down the road of independence means that we not only have to fund such a service ourselves but we’d have to find the start up money to fund it. Personally I would rather spend this money on schools and hospitals rather than use it to assuage nationalistic pride. As for macroeconomic policy Salmond the chosen one has said he wishing to keep the pound. He is obviously happy with UK monetary policy.

    When you start to look at what the Union has to potentially offer you see it is the better option!

    1. “As for Mr McCrivvens, the bigger the country, the more money it can put together to fund a better equipped military. A strong military is vital to securing a countries interests. Some countries go the road of having no military. I feel they weaken their position as a result.”

      The logic of that is a single European defence force is it not? Or do defence forces not “secure a countries interest”, so force projection overseas is critical for a countries international success perhaps?

      So how do countries such as Norway, Sweden and Finland manage to better almost all the UK’s indices of wealth, education, social support, with simple little defence forces…..

      1. Yes the best solution is a European defence force. The problem is getting everyone in Europe to agree how it should be done (not to mention the outrage from the eurosceptics). In the mean time however our defence needs are best met through the Union.

        The scandanavian contries with the exception of sweden (although sweden still benefits from it) are members of Nato. With Rober Gates’ comments the other day however europe will have not be able to rely on the US to shield them any more.

        As it stands the only big spenders in defence in Europe are the UK and France (both at around 2.5% of GDP). The Scandanavian countries used to spend more but now spend around 1.5% of GDP.

        People in the UK like bucking the trend and having a strong military. It provides peace of mind and also Jobs. That is why the SNP are up in arms about scottish base closures. You might disagree that a country requires a strong armed forces but I think in Scotland you’ll find you are in the minority.

        1. People in the UK like bucking the trend and having a strong military. It provides peace of mind and also Jobs.

          Whilst having half of the children living in Scotland in fuel poverty.

          1. I fail to see how getting rid of the military solves that problem. The UK has a major defence industry that brings in a lot of investment and jobs. If we are to tackle fuel poverty the answer is more jobs not less.

          2. @MJL

            The UK has a major defence industry that brings in a lot of investment and jobs.

            If that is the solution to solve poverty why is it getting worse, no wonder the UK is in such a financial mess with that ideology.

  6. “Policy areas such as macroeconomic policy, taxation, defence and social security are of vital interest to Scotland, but they are also best exercised at UK level”

    Why?

    An answer would be appreciated. If better at the UK level, it should not be hard to explain the rationale behind this statement.

  7. The Scottish Labour MPs voted for the non-renewal of Trident but the UK Labour MPs voted in favour.

    How as part of the union can the Scottish Labour Party prevent this substantial and immoral waste of money?

    1. I think you need to remember that this vote was in the last days of Blair goverment. Alot of them may have voted against the bill as part of the campaign to oust Blair. It would be interesting to see if the same outcome happened conditions in which there were no ulterior motives.

      I however myself is that a nuclear deterrent is a good thing. Although that doesn’t necessarily mean Trident. I think it is no coincidence that since the creation of the nuclear weapon there have been no world wars and the last major war was Korea. Yes there are still smaller wars but in general the world is a more peaceful place.

      1. And until there was an assasiantion there had been no world wars. There could have easily have been WW3..and we came close several times. Those Commies would have used nukes had they been pushed 😉

        1. but in the end they didn’t. Mutually assured destruction weighed heavily on them as it does on us. Its funny how war averse leaders become when their survival is on the line.

  8. @cynical highlander The reason it is getting worse is because there is a culture of irresponsibility at the very top of society. Pay increase for CEOs (forgive the rough figures, i can’t find the article I saw the figures quoted in, thought it was the Independent but can’t find it on their site) over the last decade was in the range of 150% compare that to unskilled workers whose wages only rose in the region of 10%. The problem wasn’t our approach to creating wealth, it was how we encouraged business to use that wealth. The rich got richer and so did the poor but the poor didn’t see enough of the gains.

    1. The problem is that Business hasnt taken its social responsibility seriously. It needs to realise that it has to treat its worforce fairly, and pay its fair share of taxation – not attempt to avoid it. If it did, then we could all pay less tax and have properly funded public services.

  9. I don’t disagree with Jeane Freeman that devolution is dynamic. My point was not that Schedule 5 of the Scotland Act can never be amended, but that we should think through how far we reduce the scope of reserved matters.

    There’s nothing wrong with change that makes sense within the original spirit of devolution. Go too far and you start to weaken Scotland’s place within the UK, which is precisely the nationalists’ intention.

    Yes, those of us who support the Union need to make a positive case for it and I’m sure that Labour Hame will have contributions that do that. And when the UK Government and Parliament consider issues that are reserved, there needs to be a strong Scottish contribution to those debates. Again, I look forward to Labour Hame generating discussion on welfare policy, nuclear power, aviation, defence, etc. Not just on why they should be reserved but on the substance of policy as well.

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