I’VE BEEN HERE BEFORE” I kept muttering to myself all the way through the week’s election campaign. The feeling of déjà vu was strong. There was the same excitement in the Scottish press as the opinion polls suggested that the SNP were about to break through and topple Labour. There was the same sharpening of interest in the London media who felt that something might be happening. There was the same litany of woe from Labour about the catastrophe that ‘separatism’ would bring down on the heads of Scottish innocents. There was the same slump in the shoulders of the Tories who knew they were in for a drubbing. The now familiar calculation in the eyes of the Lib-Dems as they watched and waited to see what kind of deal – if any – was possible.
Nor was it confined to the political chat-terati and the media. There were the usual trills of panic from Scotland’s business suits about the ‘uncertainty’ that would ensue from an SNP advance, a concern that other Scottish suits promptly pooh-poohed as nonsense. The same showbiz faces lined up to add their cultural weight for or against the union. A coterie of Scotland-based scientific egg-heads declared that any constitutional change would be a calamity for scientific research an argument that was promptly rubbished by fellow egg-heads in the letter pages of the Scottish press.
As ever, Labour propagandists and candidates refused to use the ‘I’ word. Independence had been extirpated from the Labour vocabulary. Instead they conjured up the horrors of ‘separatism’ presumably hoping that everyone would reach for Chambers dictionary which defines the meaning as “to divide: to part: to sunder: to sever: to disconnect: to disunite: to remove: to isolate: to keep apart: to seclude: to set apart for a purpose: to shut off from cohabitation… to part: to withdraw: to secede: to come out of combination or contact: to become disunited.”
And there was the usual wailing from the London-based Scots most of whom seem to loathe the idea of any kind of constitutional change in the old country. This time the most vocal of England’s Union Jocks was the writer Andrew O’Hagan. “The Scottish ‘cause’ is nothing but a romantic fantasy” he bleated in the Daily Telegraph two days before the election. “It is a piece of self-pitying nonsense costumed as a matter of destiny.” He then went to denounce Burns as a drunk, John Knox as black-hearted sixteenth-century Taliban, and the SNP as a “parcel of rogues for today…”
At which point I decided that Scottish politics was not so much a treadmill as a kind of long-distance roller-coaster. About once every decade the nationalists take us up to scary heights only to let us down with a bit of a bump. Ever since the party sprang to oil-fired life in the 1970s we’ve been anticipating – or dreading – the day the nationalists would break through and lead us to the sunlit uplands – or dank swamps – of an independent Scotland. For that to happen the SNP would have to find a way of unlocking some of the pro-independence vote that is stored away in the Labour Party’s lockers. Could they do it this time? Frankly, I had no idea.
By midday on Friday, the day after polling day, I still had no idea. So I wandered up to The Hub in the High Street in Edinburgh where Mhairi Stuart of BBC Radio Scotland was trying help us through the confusion induced by the new voting system. It seemed to me that converted church that was once a hot-bed of nineteenth-century Presbyterian schism was an appropriate venue in which to try to make sense of the election of 2007. Particularly as it had been partly designed by Augustus Welby Pugin, that fanatical Roman Catholic who went insane after designing the innards of the Palace of Westminster. The symbolism was just too hard to resist. And there was free coffee and sandwiches.
A trio of pundits – Lorraine Davidson, Stu-art Cosgrove, Gerry Hassan – with Stuart as moderator did their best to make sense of the results which, the BBC kept telling us, “were too close to call”. A giant screen at one end of the room kept us up to date, more or less. What surprised me – although it shouldn’t have – was the level of indignation voiced by the phone-in listeners. Speaker after speaker weighed in to denounce the bungling of the election count as a shambles, a disgrace and an embarrassment made worse by the presence of so many foreign reporters. One man opined that “we’ve made a hanging chad o’ this whole thing.”
When the BBC girl with the microphone came my way I contented myself with a (slightly tongue in cheek) remark that as the new electoral system had been engineered by Douglas Alexander’s Scotland Office it followed that Douglas Alexander was responsible, and that he should resign. And, what’s more, we should be told just how much of our tax money was being paid to DRS Solutions of Milton Keynes for what seemed to be a flawed vote-tracking system. Nobody seemed to take the idea very seriously.
But later I was confronted by a Labour Party supporter who’d taken exception to my remarks. He pointed out that it was not Douglas Alexander’s fault that the voting system had gone awry. “I didn’t say it was his fault,” I told him “I said it was his responsibility. Does New Labour not do responsibility?” It was an argument that seemed to puzzle him. The notion of a cabinet minister being responsible for the failings of his department seemed outrageous. He walked away muttering leaving me feeling slightly depressed.
A few hours later we were told that the SNP had done the business. Sort of. They were the biggest party – but by one seat. They had the moral authority but no clear majority. They were 19 seats short of the number they needed to run Scotland. So coalition was in the air, but with who? With the LibDems, who’d sworn never to sup with the SNP devil? With the Tories, those adamantine unionists? With the remaining two Greens Patrick Harvie and Robin Harper of the rainbow scarf? With that spirited SNP renegade Margo Macdonald? Or would Alex’s Army go it alone and try to run Scotland with a (very) minority government.
In an eerie kind of way it was reminiscent of the confusion that reigned the first time the SNP made a serious breakthrough. That was in the (British) general election of February 1974 when they won six Westminster seats after which Harold Wilson’s minority Labour government tried to hammer out a coalition with the Liberals. When that failed Wilson called a second election in October that year. The SNP did even better with eleven seats. At that point political London grew seriously nervous and began to look around for ways to “dish the nats”. So they dusted down an idea which had been around for a few years – devolution, or home rule lite.
I’m still of the opinion that Westminster and Whitehall wouldn’t have bothered so much about the SNP and the threat to the sacred Union of 1707 if it hadn’t been for the advent of North Sea oil. In 1972 the SNP had come up with the slogan ‘It’s Scotland’s Oil’ and by 1973 it was common currency. It popped up all over, from the stair wells of council flats and bill posters by the side of the road to the hard hats of the roustabouts working out on the North Sea. It seemed to undermine a notion much cherished by Unionists (left and right) that Scotland was far too poor to ‘go it alone’. It had a lot to do with Margo Macdonald – then one of the SNP’s rising stars – taking the seat at Govan from Labour in 1973.
For media folk like myself the 1970s were heady days. As a reporter working for the Sunday Times I had the time of my journalistic life. There were stories galore. Scotland was in a state of industrial as well as political turmoil. Big Oil was having a huge impact. It seemed that every harbour and piece of flat land on the coast of Scotland had been earmarked for some ‘oil-related’ project: pipe-coating yards, platform yards, tanker terminals, petrochemical plants, supply-ship bases, oil refineries even airports. It was a frenzy of industrial activity the like of which I’d never seen before and I’ve certainly never seen since.
Almost overnight journalists like myself who could just about tell the difference between a spanner and a screwdriver had to explain to readers the differences between production platforms and drilling rigs, how a semi-submersible was kept on station and the arcane mysteries of saturation diving and sub-sea completion systems. We all became familiar with names like Brown and Root, J. Ray McDermott, the Halliburton Company. Many of us acquired a passing acquaintance with oil-industry focal points like Houston, New Orleans and Stavanger.
All of which generated a confidence and an optimism in which the SNP seemed to flourish. The argument that Scotland would be a better, happier land if it laid claim to these new oil-fired riches had obvious attractions. And they rattled the other parties, particularly Labour. It offended that combination of class solidarity and hairshirt puritanism (Catholic as much as Presbyter-ian) that runs through the Labour Party in Scotland.
I recall being lectured by one activist in a dismal West Lothian pub set on a bleak housing scheme. We Scots, he told me, should eschew greed and remember that we had a “political and moral duty” (his words) to share our oil riches with the toiling masses south of the border. It was an argument that certainly appealed to the toiling masses in the City of London and the upper reaches of the Conservative Party which in 1975 elected the abrasive Margaret Thatcher as their new leader. Edward Heath was left to sulk on the back benches for the rest of his political life.
By the middle of the 1970s the Labour Government of Harold Wilson (and later Jim Callaghan) had decided that the best way to stop the SNP from getting their hands on the oil revenues was to give the Scots a measure of home rule. Devolution, became the order of the day and Westminster went into a long spasm of acrimonious debate. Eventually it came up with the Scotland Bill, a plan for an ‘assembly’ (the word parliament was never used) with limited powers, subject to approval by a referendum of the Scottish people.
But buried inside the bill was a wrecking device inserted by George Cunningham, a Scots-born MP who represented a London constituency. The ‘Cunningham amendment’ stipulated that – for the first time in British political history – a straight-forward majority would not suffice. For the assembly to be approved no less than 40% of the Scottish electorate had to vote in favour. Not 40% of the vote, but 40% of the total electorate. Which meant that anyone who abstained (or who happened to be on holiday or in bed with flu) was effectively voting against.
Not surprisingly, the pro-assembly forces were outraged. They saw the 40% rule as a piece of blatant election rigging. “A farce,” one exasperated SNP worker told me. “No government in British history has ever persuaded 40% of the electorate to vote for them. The only thing that would get that kind of result is a referendum for public hanging. And I can think of a few folk I’d like to see at the end of a rope.”
Meanwhile, the government had purchased the old Royal High School in Edin-burgh from the Edinburgh District Council and spent millions converting it into a debating chamber and offices for the new Scottish Assembly. I thought then that the choice of Thomas Hamilton’s neo-classical masterpiece on the Calton Hill was an inspired one. The building has a style and historic resonance with which the Spanish-designed, granite-clad, stick-bedecked, botch-up down at Holyrood cannot compare. I remain baffled by the enthusiasm of London’s architectural pundits for the Miralles building.
The 1979 referendum campaign was messy and occasionally bitter. The Scottish Assembly may have been government policy but the Scottish Labour Party split on the issue. We were treated to the sight and sound of yes-men like Gordon Brown and John Smith slugging it out with no-men like Robin Cook and Brian Wilson while Tam Dalyell warned endlessly that devolution was the road to constitutional perdition. The SNP was supportive but wary, fearing a constitutional trap. For their part the Liberals were in favour while the Scottish Tories were against. When the votes were counted it was clear that George Cunningham’s amendment had done its job. The Scots voted yes but only by 32.5% of the electorate. It was a long way short of the required 40%. Labour’s home rule plans had run into the sand.
In the political turbulence that followed the SNP joined the Tories and Liberals in a vote of confidence which toppled the Callaghan government by one vote and the ensuing general election ushered in Margaret Thatcher and her Tory zealots. It also almost wiped out the SNP at Westminster. Only Gor-don Wilson in Dundee East and Donald Stewart in the Western Isles held onto their seats. One of the first things Thatcher did was tear up the Scotland Act and make it plain that on her watch there would be no change. By 1980 any kind of home rule for Scotland looked like the deadest of dead ducks.
One of my memories of those post-refer endum days was a rather glum lunch with the late Arnold Kemp, then deputy editor of The Scotsman. In my political innocence (or maybe it was optimism) I believed that the game was not yet over and that the pro-devolution forces could somehow come out fighting. Arnold shook his head. “Scottish politics is going to go into shock over this debacle,” he told me. “It will be ten years at least before they come back to life. Maybe even longer.”
Arnold was right about that. If the 1970s were years of hope, the 1980s were years of despair. Thatcher’s reforms created an economic blizzard in which the Scottish economy hit the skids. One by one the heavy industries that had served Scotland so well for so long went under. Shipbuilding, heavy engineering, vehicle manufacture, aerospace, aluminium smelting, steel making, deep-coal mining, they were all either wiped out or reduced to shadows of their former selves. And the oil revenues which seemed to promise Scotland so much were used to pay dole money to Britain’s huge reservoirs of unemployed men and women.
I seemed to spend most of the 1980s either standing outside the gates of factories that were about to close or being told by company suits why they had to be closed. If I was not doing that, I was reporting on trade union marches and rallies where one of the speakers would almost invariably say “Let the word go out from this great meeting that the people of Scotland will no longer tolerate job losses on this scale.” In fact, the people of Scotland were in no position to do anything but tolerate them. There was no defence against the sovereignty of the Westminster parliament.
The 1980s was a decade in which Scotland haemhorraged not only jobs but power and influence. There were three strands to this baleful phenomenon. One was hostile takeovers. Another was ‘friendly’ mergers agreed to by Scots directors who were happy to take the money. The third strand was nationalisation. The Labour government’s nationalisations of the 1940s, 60s and 70s stripped Scotland of ownership of its heavy industries; coal, railways, steel, gas, shipbuilding, and much else all went south.
It’s something the Left never talks about. Goes against the political grain, I suppose. But Labour did more than any stone-faced capitalist to turn Scotland into a vulnerable branch-factory economy. But when these sectors were re-privatised the Scots could never muster the cash (or the bottle) to buy back the industries we’d lost. Which suggested to me that we’d lost the talent for enterprise and capitalism with which we’d careered across the planet in the 19th century. I began to wonder if the SNP ever scaled the ‘commanding heights’ of the Scottish economy would there be anything left for them to command?
And when power goes the money follows and talent follows the money. The result is what the Scottish economist Neil Buxton brilliantly describes as “the neutered cat syndrome”. There is no visible deterioration. The cat looks just the same. It’s coat is sleek, it purrs, it wags its tail. But “..it just ceases to grow, adapt, innovate, reproduce.” Which seems a fair description of the Scottish economy circa 2007 – apparently affluent but chronically short of business start-ups and alarmingly dependent on a bloated public sector. We’re paying the price now for what we lost in the 1980s and early 1990s.
But for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction, even in politics. The Thatcher years were a calamity for the Scottish Tories. The feeling grew that the Scots had been cheated. We’d been denied a parliament we’d voted for and were being ruled by a government we’d voted against. Thatcher’s strident Englishness was interpreted (wrongly I think) as a visceral dislike of the Scots – although she could never understand why the land that spawned Adam Smith should find her own ideas so alien. She began to represent everything about England that irritated the Scots.
So it came as no surprise that in the general election of 1987 the Tory vote slumped leaving the party with 10 of the 72 Scottish seats. The independence/home rule movement stirred and began to breathe again. The Campaign for a Scottish Assembly (CSA) which had been quietly beavering away since the devolution debacle of 1979 was making its presence felt. In July 1988 the CSA produce a ‘Claim of Right’ which called for a constitutional convention to come up with a scheme for a directly-elected Scottish parliament. That convention was duly called although the SNP stayed away, something some in the party saw as a big mistake.
At the end of 1988 Jim Sillars of the SNP upped the ante by taking Govan away from Labour. By the early 1990s it looked as if the SNP was poised, once again, to do serious damage to the unionist parties. One opinion poll even had support for an independent Scotland standing at more than 50%. A crowded public meeting in the Usher Hall (moderated by Kirsty Wark) had most of Scot-land believing that the SNP were about to surge. We learned later that the Usher Hall event had been skilfully packed with the SNP’s young zealots.
But I was wary. I didn’t believe that the nationalists were about to sweep the polling booths. Nor did I think that the Labour Party would be able to deliver their plans for a Scottish Parliament with tax-raising muscle. It seemed clear to me that Scotland’s political fate lay with the voters of England. I recall irritating that ardent nationalist Paul Scott by telling him that if the English voted Labour we’d get our parliament. If they didn’t, we wouldn’t. It was all in the hands of the English.
This time, and unusually, I was right. When the votes were tallied we learned that John Major and his Tory band were still esconced in Downing Street, the Labour Party remained in the wilderness while the SNP were left with only three seats. Once again, any kind of home rule was firmly on the back burner. John Major’s only nod in our direction was to give the job of Secretary of State for Scotland to the Thatcherite and unpopular Michael Forsyth and promise to “take stock” of the situation north of the border. The mood in Scotland was almost as sour as it had been in the wake of the devolution referendum of 1979.
My own response was to pen a one-act political satire which I titled ‘Taking Stock’. The play imagined a Cabinet sub-committee setting out to solve the ‘Scottish Question’ by getting rid of all the institutions that make Scotland unique (Scots law, the Kirk, education etc.) and putting in place a new, and even more incorporating Union. It was fun to write in a gloomy sort of way and went down well at two or three readings. At one stage BBC television expressed an interest in screening my satire but in the end didn’t.
Thankfully, that theatrical prophesy was never realised. By the middle of the 1990s Britain had grown weary of John Major’s scandal-ridden Tory government and in the general election of 1997 Tony Blair’s New Labour swept into power with a huge majority. That and a firm promise to create a Scottish Parliament complete with tax-raising powers – providing that it got the thumbs up from the Scottish people in a referendum to be held in September (the 11th as it happened) that year.
Once again political Scotland held its breath as the pro and anti devolution forces swung into action. I’ve always believed (although it’s never been proved) that the SNP advance of the mid 1970s was halted by the weeks of Union-Jack waving and British patriotism that surrounded the Queen’s 25th jubilee celebrations in the summer of 1977. I feared that the same thing was about to happen when Diana met her end in Paris and much of Britain became a huge, maudlin, mob. I began to fret that this wave of strange, hysterical, hyper-royalism would scupper the September devolution referendum.
I needn’t have worried. When the results were announced from the platform of the shiny new conference centre in Edinburgh (a very New Labour choice of venue) the ‘yes’ campaign had won easily. It was no contest. I couldn’t help smirking as I watched Donald Finlay QC and the leaders of the ‘Scotland Says No’ campaign stalk out of the hall, heads down, disappointed men. The people of Scotland had voted – in no uncertain terms – that they wanted a parliament in Edinburgh. And one with modest tax-varying powers.
With the energetic Donald Dewar in the driving seat (as Secretary of State for Scot-land) things moved quickly. A white paper entitled ‘Scotland’s Parliament’ was produced in July 1997 followed by the Scotland Bill in December of the same year. By the end of 1998 the bill had become the Scotland Act complete with royal assent. In May 1999 Labour emerged from the first elections as the biggest party with 56 seats and in July that year the proceedings were opened by the Queen with a modest amount of royal flummery. They were held in the parliament’s temporary digs, the Kirk’s assembly building at the top of the Mound in Edinburgh.
As someone who’d been supporting the idea of a Scottish parliament for more than thirty years I was happy to see it coming together. But I had misgivings about the Scotland Act of 1998. Schedule Five of the act consists of 17 pages of the things that are ‘reserved’ for Westminster and are beyond the reach of Holyrood: oil and gas, nuclear power, defence, the civil service, fiscal and monetary policy, firearms, immigration, phone-tapping, electricity generation and much more besides. If the Holyrood gave Scotland a voice then Schedule Five gave that voice reason to complain. (Which it has been doing, particularly in recent years.)
Meanwhile Donald Dewar, the original First Minister, had set up a small committee to find a site and an architect for the new parliament building. For reasons that are still not clear Dewar and the committee rejected the Royal High School (on which the previous Labour government had spent millions) and settled on the site of an old brewery next door to the Palace of Holyrood House. They then kicked out all the home-grown designs and opted for a vague, grandiose scheme by the Spanish architect Enric Miralles to be built on a contract that was generous to the contractors.
Nothing did more to discredit the new parliament than the building of it. The project was jinxed. Originally (and stupidly) costed in ‘a range between £10 million and £40 million’ month after month the costs soared. Before the building was complete Donald Dewar was dead of a heart attack and the architect Enric Miralles had been killed by a brain tumour. By the time it opened for business in October 2004 the bill for the parliament was a whopping ten times the original cost and had been subjected to a public inquiry overseen by the Tory peer Lord Fraser of Carmylie. I sat through a few days of that lengthy affair. It was almost painful to watch senior civil servants and luminaries of the construction industry squirm under the questioning.
In the end, Fraser pinned most of the blame on the late Donald Dewar who, he concluded “was determined to provide a site and a building for the new Parliament as soon as possible. The timetable for construction dictated the adoption of a ‘fast track’ procurement method entailing relatively high risk.” The fanciful Miralles design had not helped. Fraser concluded that “Not until it was too late to change was there any real appreciation of the complexity of the Architect’s evolving design and its inevitable cost.”
But none of the mud seemed to stick to the Scottish Labour Party. They are without doubt the Teflon team of British politics. In the Holyrood elections of 2003 they emerged yet again as the largest party with 50 seats which they topped up to a working majority by yet again coalescing with the Lib Dems. Which is how it remained until last week when, for the first time in almost 50 years, the Labour Party lost its grip on Scotland.
All of which left me and everyone else asking what now? Where do we go from here? In his book The Battle for Scotland that engaging pundit Andy Marr wrote that “The aftermath of an election is a bad time for predictions and conclusions. It would be a foolish observer who used the despair of politicians, only months after their defeat, as a pointer for years ahead.” If that’s true for months after an election it’s even more true a few days after. The only thing that’s certain is uncertainty.
But like everyone else I cannot help speculating. Will the SNP manage to do some kind of fudging deal with the Lib Dems and the Greens to give them the 65 seats they need? Will they ‘park’ their promise of a referendum on independence in favour of another constitutional convention? Will Jack McConnell’s troops regroup, put together a unionist alliance, and bludgeon their way back into government? Or will the wily Salmond find some way of decoupling Scot-land from the rest of the UK? It was Donald Dewar, after all, who described devolution as “a process not an event”.
It may be that the issue will be decided by the English. I’ve never subscribed to the notion that the English have no sense of national identity. English identity is very powerful. That was brought home to me a few years ago when I helped make a television documentary we called “Our Friends in the South”. We asked everyone at whom we pointed the camera whether they felt English or British. With the exception of a few older folk – the Word War Two generation, I suppose – everyone we asked regarded themselves as English first, British second. Alan Shearer, then captain of the England football team, was particularly adamant.
That Englishness raised its head during last week’s election campaign and produced some withering commentary. “We do not wish to keep anyone in our constitutional family against his will,” wrote Simon Heffer in the Daily Telegraph “but we also have the right to take some initiative in this matter, rather than always cowering at the whim of the small minority of British subjects who live in Scotland.” Heffer doesn’t say what that ‘initiative’ might be, but the clear implication is that the English might someday opt for an independent England.
One letter-writer to The Independent (one Henry Lawson of Reading) couldn’t help concluding that “independence for Scotland could well turn out to be a win-win scenario, with Scotland and England both reborn as modern, democratic European nations. As an Englishman, it saddens me that the Scots may have to rescue us from ourselves. But such are the ironies of life.”
And at the left(ish) end of the political spectrum David Clark in The Guardian warned his readers that the SNP’s aim “… is to provoke an English backlash that would force Scotland’s exit from the UK. Alex Salmond can barely contain his excitement at polls suggesting that support for dissolving the union is higher in England than in Scot-land. It is a bizarre paradox but middle Eng-land is now the SNP’s real revolutionary vanguard.”
Which sounds strange, and so it is. But then if the people of England hadn’t voted Labour ten years ago we’d never have had the Holyrood parliament and last week’s electoral fun and games. It might be that, in the end, the Bravehearts of Chislehurt, Esher and Dulwich Village will achieve what Alex’s Army never could – an independent Scotland.
Who says constitutional politics are dull? Not me. Not when we’ve got a political roller-coaster to climb on to every ten years or so. So welcome aboard. And hold on tight. It looks like being a bumpy ride.