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.