Tuesday, 12 August 2008

The Song Remains the Same

Quick question for you: Has devolution made a difference?

Okay, not such a quick question. But I'm (just) old enough to remember 1997 and the referendum campaign. That was 11 years ago (seriously!) and I was 13 - and had slightly more hair. 11 years ago on the 11th of September 1997 we went to the polls (well, I didn't - I wasn't old enough) to face be asked a simple question - did we want a Scottish Parliament, and did we want the opportunity to vary taxes by up to 3p in the pound. We all know that, on both counts, Scotland - overwhelmingly - voted yes. And we also know that the tax varying power made famous in that second question has not been utilised. But really - has devolution made a difference?

Even at 13 (I was, sadly, interested in politics from an early age - 1997 was a new, post-Tory dawn and an "exciting" time politically...) I remember some of the debates being played out in the referendum campaign:

  • Devolution will strengthen the union (Lab/ Lib Dem position)
  • Devolution will act as a stepping stone to independence (SNP - gradualist - position)
  • Devolution will create more transparency and participation in democracy
  • Devolution will allow more Scottish control over Scottish affairs
  • Devolution will increase taxes in Scotland ("No/No" campaign")
So really, 11 years on from that debate, which of those statements is true?

Well, according to research done at the time for Scotland Forward, we all thought that taxes would rise if we had a Scottish Parliament - but we still voted for a Parliament with tax-varying powers. However, that tax power has not been used - and, since last May, the Council Tax in Scotland has been frozen by the SNP Government, in contrast to the rest of the UK. So both the No/No campaign and the general populace were a bit wide of the mark with that one.

Control over Scottish affairs has obviously increased with the devolution of powers, particularly in the fields of health and education. Distinctive Scottish policies such as the scrapping of tuition fees - and later the graduate endowment - and free personal care for the elderly have set Scotland apart from the rest of the UK, where similar policies have fallen away in the face of top-up fees for students and the implementation of foundation hospitals. And there has even (he says with a cheeky grin) been Scottish control over non-Scottish affairs, with Scotsmen and women in high-ranking cabinet positions in the UK government. So I guess that box can be ticked. As can transparency in democracy - you just have to walk through the Parliament building and see the Petitions committee, open access to the chamber sessions, live streaming on the internet and lots of glass.

So that leaves one more question - has devolution strengthened the union or is it a stepping stone, a motorway with no exits on the way to independence?

I guess as a nationalist, I really do see it as a stepping stone. There were many in the SNP who worried that, despite suggestions of devolution being a "process not an event", that it was essentially a trojan horse to kill independence stone dead. And with Labour in power in Scotland and at UK level there was no tension in the constitutional arrangement. Labour were happy with how they had organised devolution and were unwilling - as they continue to be - to make waves. And I understand that, to a certain extent, when you are in power in both legislatures. But now - with the SNP in power in Scotland and Gordon Brown clinging to power at Westminster - certainly seems like the time to evolve.

Credit must go to Labour, certainly, for delivering devolution and for guiding it through its infancy. Credit too, the opposition in those first two sessions for keeping the government on its toes and not allowing it to become subservient to Westminster as it could have done. But now, with the SNP leading the Scottish Government, devolution has an opportunity to be much more, to make a real difference.

Where it will lead, only time will tell I guess. Interesting to hear what you make of it.


McChatterer 14 August 2008 at 18:18  

Devolution has made a big difference. English discussions about health, justice, transport, education, health, and economic development have no relevance to Scotland, where we have our own debates. (Before we didn't get the debate - we got told what to do by the Scottish Office.) People in England haven't even noticed. But England is a more foreign country now than it was in 1996.

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