Devolution is a failure. Scotland's problems will only be solved by London

'If Tony Blair pays any attention to Scotland, he must be asking himself what on earth went wrong'

Share

Labour and Scotland. It looked like the perfect match. After two decades of unconsummated passion John Major's departure from Downing Street in May 1997 brought the lovers together at last. The party of Keir Hardie was no longer restricted to just speaking up for Scotland. Now Labour could govern, too - and not as a remote overlord comfortably ensconced at Westminster. Scottish Labour was coming home to a brand new assembly in Edinburgh. Nirvana was nigh.

Labour and Scotland. It looked like the perfect match. After two decades of unconsummated passion John Major's departure from Downing Street in May 1997 brought the lovers together at last. The party of Keir Hardie was no longer restricted to just speaking up for Scotland. Now Labour could govern, too - and not as a remote overlord comfortably ensconced at Westminster. Scottish Labour was coming home to a brand new assembly in Edinburgh. Nirvana was nigh.

So how is it possible that just three and a bit years later, a mere one session into the new Scottish Parliament, it is Labour voters that are looking most despondent about what it has created? What alchemy explains the process whereby Conservatives now enthuse about a process they once condemned, and nationalists thrive in the "wee pretendy" parliament they used to deride?

The burden of governing provides a partial explanation. Year one of Donald Dewar's coalition has seen a depressing succession of errors, public blood-lettings, sloth and in-fighting. To increasing numbers on the left, Scotland is turning out an even bigger disappointment than Tony Blair. The reason? Well, Scots really wanted home-rule and their disappointment about just how little good it has done is thus commensurately greater.

Power was brought home so that it could be used. Or that was the conviction which drove many grassroots supporters of the Labour cause.

It hasn't happened. The only refreshing gesture of radicalism - abolition of Section 28 - provoked a barrage of vilification which horrified those who had taken the myth of Scottish liberalism at face value. Other first-term legislation was either dull, technical, trivial or all three.

Mr Dewar's return from extended sick-leave last week was supposed to put the whole project back on track. Instead, the First Minister returned to confront a full-blown crisis over the chaos surrounding school exam results. It is widely expected that he will lose his friend and education minister, Sam Galbraith, as a result.

And just as the exams crisis went critical, Mr Dewar was stabbed in the chest by one of his own officials. Details of the executives "Programme for Government" were leaked. They revealed that Labour's own team regard their strategy for devolution-year-two as deeply "uninspiring" and "unambitious". Mr Dewar's disastrous week ended when the Labour MSP, John McAllion, a passionate devolutionist, published an article openly considering the need for either a new political party based around Tommy Sheridan's Scottish Socialist Party, or a red/green alliance.

If Mr Blair pays any attention to Scotland these days, he must be asking himself what on earth has gone wrong. To understand he will need to come to terms with the reality of Scottish Labour Politics. He will not find it edifying. But he may begin to understand why so many of Labour's most radical Scottish intellects - Brian Wilson and Tam Dalyell among them - were very late converts to devolution or never converted at all.

In the mid Seventies when Labour was bullying, cajoling and block-voting devolution into its election manifesto, the issue had one crucial attraction. Unlike most controversial issues it did not fall on either side of Labour's internal left/right schism. This was not Clause Four. It was supported and opposed by approximately equal numbers on each wing of the party. In the days when Labour Conferences hosted thuggery on a par with Old Firm football derbies, the ideological neutrality of devolution was attractive. But it left a policy gap. Without the momentum created by either militant impossibilism or reform-minded social democracy, devolution became a pale and lifeless thing - a clever solution to a theoretical problem which also served as a convenient bulwark against nationalist advance.

Gradually this vacuum came to suit Scotland's real conservatives - the men leading the Labour Party. Newcomers to Scotland are often surprised by the extent to which the Scottish Establishment is a Labour Establishment. For those accustomed to London and the Home counties, it is mystifying to discover a judicial system, civil service and professional salariat who share the wealth and ambition of English suburban Tories but profess staunch Labour sympathies. The surprise often leads to the mistaken assumption that wealthy Scots are, nevertheless, conscience-driven radicals. It is complete tosh.

Scottish affluent-radicalism is a myth. The upper middle-class backs Labour because Labour is an upper-middle class party. It is as conservative about Scottish institutions and society as the Tory Party is about its English equivalents. Lord Irvine of Lairg is not a unique concoction. Scottish Labour is brimming over with men who would have been lifelong Tories if they lived anywhere else.

With Labour's great Scottish experiment now looking so shop-soiled, Mr Dalyell is not the only party grandee to feel nostalgic for Unionism. A coterie of junior ministers in the Westminster government has the same inclination. An old and dimly remembered argument is making new friends in Scotland. It recalls that Labour radicals three decades ago distrusted devolution because they regarded it as parochialism.

They harked back to ideas like internationalism and remembered that Scotland's social and economic development had been accelerated by the union with England. In theory the establishment of a Scottish parliament does not have to restrict cross-fertilisation between Scottish thinkers and those beyond her borders. But theory ignored the possibility that Holyrood would be stuffed full of the second rate.

The intellectual case for unionism is being heard again because almost all of Labour's thinking Scots still practise their politics in London. The Scottish parliament is such a disappointment that the few bright hopes who did become MSPs now acknowledge that even Mr Blair's Whitehall looks dynamic compared with Edinburgh. Some say that the luminously clever Donald Dewar knows it, too. That is why his friends fear he may be forced to linger longer than is good for him.

* Tim Luckhurst is a former editor of 'The Scotsman'

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

JavaScript Developer (Angular, Web Forms, HTML5, Ext JS,CSS3)

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: JavaScript Dev...

BC2

£50000 - £70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Business Analyst Consultant (Fina...

SAP Data Migration Consultant

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client, a FTSE 100 organisation are u...

Programme Support, Coms, Bristol, £300-350p/d

£300 - £350 per day + competitive: Orgtel: My client, a leading bank, is curre...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: The final instalment of our WW1 series

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
 

Simon Usborne: The more you watch pro cycling, the more you understand its social complexity

Simon Usborne
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice