New offer of trust may be enough to win over the sceptical Scots

This White Paper is trying, after 300 years, to turn a unitary state into a genuine union
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Here we go again! White Papers, devolution bills, referendums... it all brings back to me the hopes and battles and despairings of the "Devo Seventies", when Labour set out on its first, unsuccessful attempt to bring Parliaments to Scotland and Wales. Donald Dewar, Secretary of State for Scotland, talks ruefully of the scars he still carries from those days. He is not the only one.

Back in November 1975, I was one of the Scottish journalists frantically trying to summarise advance copies of Our Changing Democracy, the White Paper on devolution to Scotland and Wales. In my diary, I recorded two things that struck us at first sight. The first was how short it was. The second surprise was "the timidity: an ultra-minimalist deal, full of grotesque and unnecessary provisions for overriding or bypassing the Assembly's rights. Great powers are conferred on the Secretary of State, impossible to exercise over Assembly legislation without provoking uproar".

Even so, we did not expect such a hostile public reaction. "In Edinburgh, a landslip of furious declarations. The scale, unanimity and speed of this shook us all. Something even repellent about it: a fury of ingratitude, even though there was no cause to praise the White Paper. "

Did all that happen in another country, and not just in another era? This time - in Scotland at least - the White Paper is being launched with all the cheers and champagne that used to greet a new Cunarder. "Blueprint for parliament unveiled to great acclaim" says the Scotsman. It is a mere 43 pages long, but its proposals are bold, forceful and lucid. Politicians do not often learn from their mistakes. But Scotland's Parliament shows that most of the bitter lessons provided by the muddle, hesitation and over-caution of 1970s devolution have been taken on board.

There are two White Papers now instead of one, and the differences between them are blatant. The Welsh plan is fussy and feeble in the old 1970s manner. The Secretary of State for Wales remains as an interfering, meddling presence, constantly jerking at the tight reins attached to the Welsh Parliament. This will be a bad relationship, even when Labour is dominant both at Westminster and Cardiff. When there is a Tory government of Britain and a non-Tory administration in Wales, "cohabitation" will become collision.

The Scottish plan, by contrast, is an astonishing act of faith. In the most un-British way imaginable, it actually trusts the Scottish legislators to behave responsibly, to know better than Whitehall what is good for Scotland. Instead of spelling out in gruesome detail which paragraphs of what statute the Scots may change without being spanked, the White Paper simply leaves it to British and Scottish departments to work out the frontiers of competence between them. The Bill, when it appears, will in effect list what Edinburgh is not allowed to do and leave the rest to Scottish discretion. As for the Secretary of State, he will be little more than a sort of ambassador - not even an umpire - whose job is to lubricate the cog-wheels connecting London to Edinburgh.

Perfect the White Paper isn't, however. It was an act of rare political guts to admit that there are too many Scottish MPs at Westminster - a situation which strongly favours Labour - and to offer to reduce them. But the other imbalance, the formula which decides the allocation of money for Scotland, stays as it is. The "Barnett formula", based on a 20-year- old assessment of needs, says that Scotland requires 16 per cent more money to achieve the service levels of the rest of Britain. But Scotland is as prosperous as the rest of the UK now, and everyone knows that the formula is out of date.

When the English and Scottish parliaments signed the Union Treaty in 1707, two kingdoms agreed to have a common government. In practice, the English political system absorbed the Scottish one, renamed itself "British" and carried on much as before. This White Paper is trying, after nearly 300 years, to turn a unitary state into a genuine Union.

This is a huge break with tradition. The document is stuffed with reverential mentions of "the United Kingdom" and statements of the ultimate sovereignty (or absolutism) of the Westminster Parliament. But the fact is that this document presents our old "Ukania" as a multinational state whose union is based on an informal principle of contract between its parts. It talks, in other words, as if Britain had a constitution. There is a remarkable section which explains that "the constitution of the United Kingdom" is reserved for Westminster; the Scots may not change it. But, of course, the staggering thing about that clause is the admission that something like a constitution, an internal balance of rights between head and limbs, exists at all. For all the dead lawyers who have defined the British state, for most Tories and all traditionalists, this is utter blasphemy.

Now the cheers die down and the referendum campaign begins. There is a tendency in London to assume that on 11 September the Scots are certain to give a rousing "Yes" to both questions: do they want a parliament, and do they want it to have modest tax powers? Opinion polls predict a double Yes. But Scottish voters are a cautious, evasive lot. My hunch is that victory is by no means in the bag.

When I was an 18-year-old National Serviceman, I trailed round Scottish rubber planters and tin miners in Malaya inviting them to sign "The Covenant". This was a petition for a Scottish Parliament within the UK. Two million people signed it, over a third of the entire population. But the Labour government decided to ignore them and nothing happened. Throughout the Thatcher decades, polls showed that four out of five Scots wanted devolution or independence. Pundits warned that if the Scots went on voting overwhelmingly Labour but getting Tory governments, there would be a "Domesday scenario". But again, nothing happened.

As Andrew Marr wrote in his book The Battle for Scotland, "what the polls did not show was how much they wanted these changes". The wish for self- government is widespread and long-standing - but it's a low-intensity wish none the less. Very occasionally, and unpredictably, large numbers of people are prepared to come out onto the street and demonstrate for it. But for the most part, the Scots are reluctant to risk public commitment on this matter. The door to Home Rule has been unlocked for a long time. But - it's not unfair to say - most people would prefer to be pushed through it than to walk through it.

No Braveheart onrush here. This unheroic caution has many reasons: anxiety about jobs, fear that Scotland might be governed by a clique of old Glasgow councillors, the endemic hatred between Labour and the Nationalists, sheer scepticism about the power of politics to change anything. Most important, perhaps, is lack of national self-confidence - the secret terror of disappointment and failure in a society which has not taken a collective initiative for centuries.

If that is true, the message for the Yes campaigners is plain. They have to look like winners. They have to stay united and radiate confidence. So far, a mere two days into the battle, they are doing all those things, while the White Paper has all the gleaming self-assurance of a racing favourite.

So far, so good. I have hoped and worked for a Scottish parliament all my life, now rather a long one, and - like Donald Dewar - I also carry the scars of past failures. They will hurt until it happens. But this time, in spite of all the head's mistrust, the heart says that it will.

Comments