What should those MSPs do?

September 5, 1997

On Thursday some four milion people will vote for or against the setting up of a Scottish parliament. It is likely the vote will be successful, so what happens next, asks Lindsay Paterson

The debate about whether a Scottish parliament should be set up is almost over. After a century of campaigning, the Scots are finally faced with the last serious opportunity to secure a parliament for at least several generations. Unlike in the aftermath of the inconclusive referendum of 1979, there is no conceivable conjunction of political circumstances which could deliver a parliament if the vote next Thursday goes against. Campaigners have achieved all they thought was necessary for victory - a Labour government, the unity of almost all the pro-parliament forces, the Tories marginalised, and the sympathy of people elsewhere in the United Kingdom. So, it is now or never.

And it does look as if the debate will be settled in favour of a parliament. The most recent survey shows a 3:1 majority in favour of the principle of a parliament, and a 3:2 majority for it to have tax-varying powers. This support has been stable since June 1996, when Tony Blair announced Labour's decision to hold a referendum, and is much higher than at the analogous stage of the 1979 referendum. Moreover, majorities can be found in every region of Scotland, in all but the oldest age groups, among men and women, and in all social classes.

So, in the light of this national consensus, what happens next? The passage of the legislation through Westminster will be guaranteed by a yes majority in the referendum, because of Labour's command of the Commons. Opposition will, no doubt, come from the Lords, who will thereby not only help to further dig their own political graves, but will also sharpen Scottish radicalism: the Scottish parliament, it will seem, will have been secured in the teeth of opposition from unelected privilege. And then the parliament will become real, and we will begin to see its effects.

Three things have counted in the debate to date. The first is Scottish resistance to Thatcherism. Throughout the last two decades, Scots remained loyal to an idea of the state and of the community which Tory governments abandoned. They continued to believe in the efficacy of public action, they held to the values of a vibrant civil society, and they consistently rejected any significant role for aggressive competition as a regulating principle of social life. Even where Tory reforms proved popular, Scots turned them to their own ends. Thus the new governing bodies for schools - with parents in a majority - became a focus for resistance to other government education policies. GP fund-holding was used to further collaboration among practices and with hospitals. The decline in local authority housing stimulated housing cooperatives.

The current movement for a parliament grew out of this civil-society resistance. So the first important context for the new body will be these roots. Its legitimacy will come, not solely from Westminster or from the quality of its own members, but from what it does to strengthen civil society.

Underpinning Scottish civil society has been a cultural renaissance - the second key point. Partly in reaction to the failure of the devolution project in the 1970s, a generation of writers, artists and academics have worked to create a new Scottish culture. They have challenged some of the old national stereotypes - the socialist icon of the male industrial worker as much as the romantic escapism of tartan fantasies in the Highlands. They have insisted on Scotland's being an international country having a history of cultural links with the rest of Europe and North America. And they have developed the Scottish myth of democratic intellectualism - of an educated nation in which learning is communal.

It does not matter that these stories about Scotland are highly selective, as all social myths are. The point is their political effects. The parliament will emerge into a Scotland that wants to renew itself, that is warming to an international perspective, and that believes in the capacity that an educated citizenry has for enlightened debate about social purposes. The challenge for the parliament, of course, will be to turn these favourable myths into the realities of policy.

In having the self-confidence to do that, thirdly, the parliament will draw on the declining status of Britain and of the Union itself, whose attractions have waned and become more selective. In education, for example, Scots now seem to agree that England has nothing to teach them - a reversal of the attitudes of just 30 years ago. In numerous areas of educational policy, models have been sought abroad - in Denmark for school governance or school examinations, in the United States for universities and their relationship to community colleges, in training policy from continental Europe.

The Union, in short, has lost any progressive ability to renew itself. In contrast to the 1970s, the opponents of a parliament this time have remarkably little to say positively about the status quo. They cannot point to any significant recent achievements of the Scottish Office - nothing to rival the memories of postwar reconstruction which were still alive in 1979. After the political failure of the reforms to the Scottish Office instigated by the Tory secretaries of state, Michael Forsyth and Ian Lang, they cannot suggest any further changes that could bring clear benefits. And they cannot plausibly suggest that an alternative type of parliament would be available if the referendum rejects Labour's proposals.

So that is the legacy. Can the parliament do enough to allay the dissatisfaction and satisfy the aspirations? After all, some of the dissatisfaction is already dissipated by a Labour government at Westminster, and some of the aspirations are bound to be thwarted by the restrictions on the parliament's powers.

In different circumstances, the decisive vote in England for Labour in May could have eroded the support for a Scottish parliament. If a sizable faction of the Scottish Labour party had opposed the parliament on the grounds that it was no longer necessary, then some Labour supporters could have been enticed away. In fact, though, the Labour party is almost completely united, so that the Labour MP Tam Daylell, in his opposition to the proposals, appears more as a useful gadfly for stimulating debate than as the leader of a significant social movement as he was in 1979. Indeed, the conjunction of a Labour government at Westminster lasting (probably) a decade or more and a Labour-dominated Scottish parliament could be valuable, because it would allow the parliament to bed down without too much acrimony.

Nevertheless, given a United Kingdom Labour government, and given also the retention of macro-economic policy at Westminster, questions do arise as to whether the parliament will be able to be radical enough to match the expectations placed in it. I think it might be. Despite its lack of major economic powers, it will be able to influence the distribution of public resources in potentially radical ways. Student fees are a good case in point. The parliament could not afford to abolish these if they are introduced next autumn by the Government. But it would have the legislative competence to insist that the new income be spent by universities and colleges on widening access. In other words, the parliament could go further than Blair and his colleagues might contemplate, and thus could take forward the radical political legacy which Thatcherism consolidated in Scotland.

The parliament could also have an impact on Scottish culture, building on another legacy of the Tory years. An interesting debate is developing in Scotland on how this could be done, with parallels being drawn with the Republic of Ireland. A monolithic national culture is now seen in Eire as out of date - as a product of 19th-century ethnic nationalism. In recent years, Ireland has promoted its culture in different ways, notably by policies and an infrastructure that enable artists and writers to do their own thing; no longer does government tell them what that thing should be. Scotland could learn from that - enabling the autonomous culture of the last two decades to flourish further.

The parliament could also make significant changes to the ways in which policy is developed. A consensus has emerged that the policy process needs to be more open, that consultation should be genuine, and that the executive needs to be held to account in detail and not just in principle. Proportional representation should help here, as should an imaginative use of new technology.

Also relevant is the agreement between the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats that half their members in the parliament should be female; the Scottish National Party is likely to seek that, too. Evidence from Scandinavia suggests that the policy process does change once the proportion of women in a legislature rises above 30 per cent.

The parliament will have enough to do with all this without seeking more powers immediately. So the question of whether it will lead ultimately to Scottish independence will remain open for some time. The powers of the parliament will, undoubtedly, evolve. If good working relationships are established with Westminster in the early years, and if the parliament can indeed make itself a model of democratic openness, then incremental extensions of its role will happen without much fuss.

And, in a Europe where even the big states have their independence increasingly constrained, the outcome of that evolution cannot be predicted at all. Autonomy, as the SNP's Alex Salmond is fond of saying, is a process, not an end-point. Scotland knows the truth of that because it has always enjoyed some degree of evolving autonomy within the British Union. The significance of a parliament is that it will allow that autonomy to move firmly in the direction of democracy.

Lindsay Paterson is professor of educational policy at Moray House Institute of Education, Edinburgh.

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments