Scottish Review of Books
August 15, 2009 by David Torrance
The latest issue of the Scottish Review of Books includes a review essay by me on two books published to mark the tenth anniversary of the Scottish Parliament, one a collection of essays by academics and commentators, the other a more straightforward history by the former Scotsman journalist Hamish Macdonell.
Since this isn’t available online you can read my article in this posting:
Constitutional reform, particularly in a Scottish context, seems to produce quixotic aspirations. In 1885 the much-lobbied for post of Scottish Secretary was created amid expectations of a national revival; in 1999 a Scottish Parliament was created with widespread anticipation that it would become a panacea for all the nation’s ills following 18 years of Tory “neglect”.
“Rarely can such high expectations have been invested in a political institution as the Scottish Parliament,” write Emma Megaughin and Charlie Jeffery in The Scottish Parliament 1999-2009: The First Decade, one of two books that use devolution’s tenth anniversary as a hook to analyse whether the institution has lived up to those lofty expectations. “The parliament was to become the fulcrum of a ‘new politics’,” continue Megaughin and Jeffery. A phrase, they say, that “has become tarnished and clichéd by its over-use”.
Instead, as James Mitchell (co-editor, with Charlie Jeffery, of The First Decade) has pointed out, devolution repatriated not only Scottish politics, but also contempt for politics, politicians and Parliament. It is telling aphorism. Having lived and worked with the Scottish Parliament – on and off – for the past ten years it is sobering to contrast my own impressions with those of the seasoned commentators gathered together by Messrs Jeffery and Mitchell.
In measuring outcome against expectation, what emerges from this engaging collection of essays is a sense that the Scottish Parliament’s founding fathers (and mothers) believed far too much of their own consensual “civic Scotland” hype. For example, the Consultative Steering Group’s (CSG) stipulation that “parliamentary questions should not be used for political point scoring” was fantasy, nor should it have been a stated aim: Holyrood in 2009 would be a poorer place with Alex Salmond’s combative brand of political point scoring.
The language of the CSG was, as Megaughin and Jeffery note, “idealistic and rather high-blown”. Ironies, therefore, abound. In attempting to craft a “fairer” electoral system we ended up with a regional list system which handed power over MSP life and death to party hierarchies; instead of Scottish solutions to Scottish problems MSPs often appeared astonishingly short of new ideas; while instead of a new era of political transparency, the scandal surrounding the new Parliament building appeared to demonstrate exactly the opposite.
On the last point I depart from the orthodoxy. The row (and, let’s face it, absurd public outrage) over the Holyrood building project actually demonstrated that devolution was delivering on some of the CSG’s expectations. Not only was the entire project subject to detailed Parliamentary (not to forget media) scrutiny from the beginning, but persistent calls for an inquiry from Independent MSP Margo MacDonald were answered by Jack McConnell as First Minister, an unthinkable response pre-1999. While Scots were held to account, those responsible for similar calamites in England (Portcullis House and the new Home Office building spring to mind) remained sheltered in bureaucratic obscurity.
There were other successes, although some were infuriatingly short-lived. Chris Carman and Mark Shephard, for example, shrewdly survey Holyrood’s much-vaunted committee system. I spent a lot of time sitting through committee meetings in the old Midlothian County Council chambers between 2001-2004 and I remember clearly how important they at first appeared, acting independently, criticising the Scottish Executive and occasionally tearing up shoddy legislation (most notably Mike Watson’s lamentably drafted fox hunting bill).
Over time, however, structural “reforms” moved power away from individual committee members and towards party leaderships, who wasted no time in using convenorships as a crude patronage tool. Again, not quite what the CSG had in mind. Committee-generated legislation was also thin on the ground. “Any hopes that the committees would be the vehicles of a ‘new politics’,” conclude Carman and Shephard, “have arguably been dashed.” The CSG fared a little better with its vision of greater public involvement with the legislative process, even though some aspects of this amounted to little more than participative window-dressing.
The Public Petitions Committee, for example, succumbed (with notable exceptions), to what Bill Thomson – in his chapter on “Access and Participation: Aiming High” – calls “serial participation by a small number of driven individuals”. Otherwise, Thomson paints a bafflingly utopian picture of Holyrood. The atmosphere of the main entrance hall is “lively”, rather than dark and poorly-designed; he lauds a Parliament website which is still impossible to use even after a relaunch; and depicts a well-oiled administrative machine with no mention of several well-publicised scandals concerning over-inflated pay and severance packages. Indeed, the culture of the Parliament itself is hardly a good advert for devolution: secretive to the point of evasion (especially over the building project) and imbued with a rather smug public-sector mentality which substitutes coffee drinking, target setting and endless meetings for actual activity.
What, then, of public opinion? As David McCrone observes: “Conundrums abound. Scots are content with a devolved parliament, but want it to have more powers. Independence is a minority taste, but they elect a nationalist government. They are critical of Holyrood, but much prefer to give it credit, and allot any blame to Westminster, regardless of the formal division of powers.” In other words, post-devolution Scots are all over the place, but then the same could be said of voters anywhere. That it is true north of the border shows the real strength of devolution. Dwelling on shortcomings also misses the point: to echo James Mitchell, democracy’s slings and arrows of outrageous fortune have been repatriated to Scotland, which can only be a good thing.
On one level, the second anniversary tome, Uncharted Territory: The story of Scottish devolution 1999-2009, nicely complements the first. More narrative than analytical, Hamish Macdonell’s book reads rather like a long Scotsman article, which comes as no surprise given his provenance, and although his prose is admirably lucid it’s also a little dry, lacking enough well-crafted turns of phrase to lighten the tale. But, as the only detailed account (so far) of what actually happened in Scottish politics (wisely, Macdonell does not confine himself to the Parliament, unlike the other book) over the past ten years, it is invaluable.
Macdonell is also scrupulously fair in his assessment of Donald Dewar’s two immediate successors as First Minister, both of whom are often unfairly derided. Noting that Henry McLeish had a populist and visionary touch lacked by Dewar, and rightly praising Jack McConnell’s boldness in introducing the smoking ban, there is also a balanced account of the former’s downfall, sensibly spreading the blame between disproportionate media scrutiny and McLeish’s own, purely administrative and presentational, errors.
In terms of forging the “new politics”, as envisaged by the CSG, I think McConnell turned out to be a fine practitioner, not least in terms of holding together a coalition government. He was also a skilled party manager (perhaps unsurprising for a former general-secretary of the Scottish Labour Party): STV for council elections went through with barely a murmur from Labour’s local government dinosaurs. Finally, McConnell had a talent for the fine political art of damage limitation, drawing a line under the Holyrood building saga (of which Macdonell provides the first coherent account I have read) by agreeing to an inquiry.
As ever in books of this kind, there are errors (not a criticism, more an occupational hazard). Macdonell claims David McLetchie was raised in Leith, but only if that ancient burgh extends to Meadowbank where the former Scottish Tory leader grew up in a tenement; McConnell did not “invite” David Cameron to meet him at the Scottish Parliament in 2005, rather the encounter was engineered by the Shadow Scottish Secretary David Mundell, catching McConnell’s advisers off-guard. Holyrood, meanwhile, can hardly be described as located “between the royal palace and the law courts” given that the latter are at least a 15-minute walk from Parliament. And Alex Salmond did not quit the Scottish Parliament in 2003, as Macdonell claims, but at the 2001 general election.
Beyond this pedantry the striking thing that emerges from Macdonell’s account is how seldom genuine policy debates have dominated Scottish politics in the last decade. Once the obvious issues of land reform, tuition fees, etc had been sorted out, there was a sense – certainly by 2009 – that there wasn’t anything left to legislate for. The SNP now believes making things free (or cheaper, such as the Council Tax freeze) is a substitute for public policy; the Liberal Democrats have simply run out of ideas, as evidenced by an embarrassingly thin 2007 manifesto; the Conservatives have lapsed into ideological confusion (privatising the Forestry Commission had, by 2008, become a bad thing); and Labour are obsessed with “apprenticeships” as a panacea for all Scotland’s economic ills.
So the story of devolution’s first ten years is more a tale of low politics, cock-ups and personalities than the brave new world of principle-led, well-executed public policy envisaged by the Parliament’s early champions. It would, of course, be churlish to pin the blame for specific failures on “civic Scotland”, but its proponents did help generate expectations that could only be disappointed. One of them, Joyce Macmillan, is generous enough to concede (in The First Decade) that the “perception of the strength and usefulness of civil society, as a concept and as a sustained representative voice, was slightly exaggerated by the special circumstances of the time”. Only slightly?
Another unfortunate side effect of devolution has been the tendency to treat 1999 as Year Zero; to malign everything perpetrated by the ancien regime at Westminster. Lindsay Paterson (again, in The First Decade) at least acknowledges that pre-devolution UK governments “achieved…a great deal, far more than it has become fashionable to credit them with”, but reading most late-20th century accounts of Scottish politics one could be forgiven for thinking that there was no government at all between 1979-97; no economic regeneration, no consensus and precious little creative policy-making. That, of course, is a nonsense. The old Scottish Office, just like the Scottish Parliament, had its share of triumph and tragedy.
So what, then, of the future? Hamish Macdonell rightly doubts that Donald Dewar ever referred to devolution as “a process not an event”, while Alan Trench (in The First Decade) correctly attributes the quote to the former Welsh Secretary Ron Davies, who was desperately trying to put a positive spin on the embarrassing lack of enthusiasm for devolution in Wales. Davies was certainly correct, although perhaps not for the right reasons. Ten years after the settled will of the Scottish people was supposedly put into effect, the constitutional debate lingers on like a tired old music hall refrain: repetitive and lacking any worth beyond a few potent phrases. One verse inevitably includes mention of the “democratic deficit” – a concept that was apparently resolved in 1999 but which the SNP is already preparing to dust off when, and if, David Cameron wins the next general election with only one or two MPs north of the border.
So if Unionist songsmiths (of whatever variety) are honest with themselves, Scotland’s seemingly interminable constitutional debate can logically only end with independence, an inconvenient truth that even creative compromises like the Calman Commission makes no less palatable. In that context, the arguments for and against independence fall by the wayside, as they did long ago, perhaps irretrievably. Macdonell’s view is that, by 2009, “the country was nearer to independence than at any time since 1707: the election of a Nationalist government – and a popular and successful administration as well – provided clear evidence of that.”
I think this is an overstatement. What two years of SNP minority Government has demonstrated is that the SNP can grow in popularity without necessarily increasing support for independence. Nevertheless, in choosing between the two oft-quoted soothsayers of Scottish devolution, George Robertson and Tam Dalyell, it seems clear that the latter’s analysis – the motorway to independence with no exits – is the most perceptive. It may be a long motorway along which is takes several decades to travel, but the destination – for good or ill – seems clear.