Reform for Scotland 'is political theatre'

Click to follow
Indy Politics
A STRATEGY enabling Scots to 'have more real decision-making power in their own hands' was claimed to be the result of the Government's eagerly awaited constitutional White Paper on Scotland and the Union, published yesterday. But critics claimed it was 'political theatre' that offered no new power.

Ordered by John Major after the general election, the 'taking stock' exercise, as it came to be known, was intended to improve what the Prime Minister referred to in the White Paper yesterday as 'a genuine if sometimes uninformed anxiety that the Union was in some way less relevant to Scotland and her aspirations.'

Although the principal authors of the White Paper - Ian Lang, the Secretary of State, and Lord Fraser of Carmyllie, the Scottish Office Minister of State - claim they have succeeded in strengthening the Union, it is more a blueprint for bureaucratic reorganisation than for improving political democracy.

As anticipated, there is strong focus on the Scottish Grand Committee, the parliamentary gathering of 72 Scottish MPs which meets at Westminster and in Edinburgh to debate Scottish issues. The White Paper proposes to increase the number of meetings to 12 per session, including some outside Edinburgh and increase the range of debates.

A new procedure unique to the Grand Committee will also see Scottish members of the House of Lords who hold government office being questioned before Scottish MPs. If successful, the move could be adapted for Westminster.

However, the increased profile of the Grand Committee does not mean increased power. Bill Miller, professor of politics at Glasgow University, said: 'This all means more political theatre. The committee will still not vote on anything.'

The White Paper states the Government is keen to 'encourage a distinctively Scottish approach to policy-making'. The Department of Trade and Industry will transfer responsibility to the Scottish Office for schemes encouraging innovation and technology; ownership of Highlands and Islands Airports will move from the Civil Aviation Authority to the Scottish Office; responsibility for the arts in Scotland will move from the heritage department to the Scottish Office.

There is also the promise of further policy and financial devolution on training. A new DTI oil and gas office will be established in Aberdeen, initially with 60 jobs.

With Scottish ministers and Scottish Office officials, according to the White Paper, set to take part in an increasing number of meetings of the EC Council of Ministers, Ian Lang has engineered changes that will make him potentially the most powerful Secretary of State for Scotland since the office was set up in 1745. The White Paper is unlikely to pacify critics who regard Mr Lang as a model colonial governor rather than an accountable MP.

The pressure group Charter 88 last night claimed that the 'stock- taking' proposals would do nothing to redress the democratic deficit in the government of Scotland. 'They treat the Scottish people as consumers of government services rather than citizens with the right to govern themselves,' it said.

Scotland and the UnION: Politics & Policy Pagea partnership for good; HMSO; pounds 4.95.