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

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: AV Installation Engineer

£27000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to business growth, this is...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Care Support Workers

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Due to expansion, this care company base...

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

£21000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Refugees try to cross the border from Greece into Macedonia, near Gevgelija, on Wednesday. The town sits on the ‘Balkan corridor’ used by refugees, mostly from Syria, to travel from Turkey to Hungary, the gateway to the EU  

The UK response to the plight of Syrian refugees is a national embarrassment

Kevin Watkins
The provincial capital of Idlib, Syria, which fell to al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra last week  

'I was sure I’d be raped or killed. I was terrified': My life as a gay Syrian refugee who had to flee Isis

Subhi Nahas
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent