Republican News · Thursday 4 September 1997

[An Phoblacht]

No one ever celebrated Devolution Day

Next week the people of Scotland decide whether to have a devolved parliament. David Hewitt looks at why they aren't terribly excited about it all

The Scottish referendum on Thursday 11 September will have two parts. The first will ask the Scottish people if they want a devolved parliament. The second will ask if they want that parliament to have limited tax-raising powers.
Thursday 11 September will, arguably, be the most momentous day in Scottish politics since 1979 - the date of the last referendum on Scottish `Home Rule'. Then the Scots voted narrowly in favour of a devolved Assembly, but were denied it due to the infamous 40% rule, which determined that an acceptable majority must include a minimum of 40% of the electorate - the vote was narrowly short of that mark.

The bill and the government fell, the rest is history. But throughout 18 years of Tory government the embers of home rule sentiment burned dimly. Perhaps as a reaction to seemingly interminable Thatcherite rule, the Labour Party and most of civic society in the form of the Constitutional Convention worked diligently to resurrect the `project'.

It is, therefore, a little surprising that just a few days away from what is widely predicted to be an endorsement of the government's white paper on a Scottish Parliament, the campaign to secure a Yes-Yes vote in the referendum that will deliver home rule is lacklustre and flat. What has been called the `settled will of the Scottish people' - that is, a devolved parliament within the Union - seems incapable of gripping the imagination of the people.

The reasons for this may lie in the nature of the forces that produced this initiative, and more importantly, the underlying reasons for it.

Historically, Labour have advanced nationalist policies in order to outflank the perceived threat from the Scottish National Party. Many in the Labour Party believe a Scottish Parliament will inevitably lead to the demise of nationalism and will therefore strengthen the Union. The makeup of the Constitutional Convention, on whose blueprint the current proposals are based, lends weight to that view. The Labour Party, Trades Unions, the churches, Local Authorities and the political parties (with the exception of the SNP and the Tories) - comprise the Scottish establishment, whose interests have been well served by the Union throughout the 300 years of its existence and who would be reluctant, therefore, to see it go.

The SNP, who shunned the Constitutional Convention, only recently joined Scotland Forward, the cross party campaign for a double yes vote in the referendum. This decision - to accept a constitutional set-up that falls well short of their declared aim of Independence - was made inevitable by the scale of Labour's General Election win and the failure of the SNP to make substantial advances. For the pragmatic SNP there was no other game in town and Labour's Parliament would be better than the status quo.

In addition, an imperfect Parliament will not answer the West Lothian question - why should Scottish MPs be able to make decisions on issues that affect England, such as education, while English MPs will have no influence over Scottish education because it will be controlled by the Scottish Parliament? Nor will it meet the aspirations of the Scottish people for a sovereign Parliament that has the power to tackle fundamental issues, such as poverty, homelessness or removing nuclear weapons from Scottish soil. Therefore, the nationalists say, the scene is set for conflict between such a Parliament and Westminster, which they hope will make independence an evermore attractive option.

This is precisely the scenario predicted by the Tories and other assorted Unionists in Think Twice - the No No campaign in the referendum.

This campaign has been even more ineffectual than the Yes Yes campaign. This is not surprising given that it is a poorly concealed front for the Tories, who were annihilated at the General Election. To handicap them further, their main spokesperson is Glasgow Rangers FC director and eccentric Advocate Donald Findlay. Their main tactic has been to talk up the dangers of the proposed tax raising powers of a new parliament, weak through they are. They have been aided in this by some of Scotland's most prominent businessmen, which may possibly lead to the electorate voting Yes No and rejecting tax raising powers. However, senior Tories privately have conceded defeat in the referendum and at least one has gone public and declared his interest in standing for election to the Parliament. They see it as a saviour for the decimated Tories, as the proportional voting system that will be employed for elections will guarantee Tory representation in the first sitting of the Parliament.

If Scotland Forward has had any successes they have been in bringing together the normally ferociously opposed activists from SNP and Labour, in limited campaign working. This, for the electorate, is a welcome departure from the normal political situation. But the campaign will struggle to deliver a convincing result unless the final few days sees the injection of some energy and unless the campaigners can convince people, particularly the working class, that this Scottish parliament can make a real difference to their lives.

The campaign has been thrown into some confusion with the recent royal accident. All campaigning, with the exception of leafletting, has been postponed until after the funeral. This will leave a five day, and somewhat toned-down, campaign. In the unprecedented media onslaught - which is almost an act of atonement - over the death of the Princess of Wales the strength of the lingering feelings of `Britishness' amongst Scots will truly be tested. If the electorate votes to change the nature of the Union at this time, then this Parliament may well be the `slippery road' to independence and British Unionism will have seen its day.


David Hewitt, is a member of the editorial collective of Liberation, a Scottish left-nationalist magazine.

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