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Report Card – Scottish Review of Books
by Owen Dudley Edwards

Report Card

October 14, 2009 | by Owen Dudley Edwards

SIR KENNETH CALMAN introduced his 15-member Commission’s ‘Final Report’ with no misgivings as to its claim to discuss ‘Scotland and the United Kingdom in the 21st century’. Yet any realistic student of 21st century Scottish politics will find the subject incomprehensible without considering Scottish independence as one option of the Scot-land which will exist between 2009 and 2100. Sir Kenneth’s answer would seem that his Commission was formed to ‘recommend’, not to comprehend.

In July 1917 there convened the Irish Convention, told by Lloyd George to find a constitutional formula for Ireland and the United Kingdom. It wound up in April 1918. It had tried to work despite the absence of Sinn Féin and the Labour Party. Nine months later Sinn Féin won the majority of Irish seats in the General Election.

We may safely doubt if Sir Kenneth Cal-man and his associates had this example in mind, since their knowledge of Irish history is abysmal. The fact that they are missing an analogy is less important than their inability to know of its existence, however applicable it may be. The two Convention/Commissions(s) excited more attention by their creation than by their report(s). Above all they are both best known for the political parties they did not represent.

The Calman Commission has less reason for survival than the 1917 Convention, chaired by Sir Horace Plunkett, whose services to this day eclipse Sir Kenneth’s. But there is always the risk that the UK Government may salvage something from the wreckage, notably the Commission’s supremely ridiculous demand for the return of Charities back to their unwieldy British supervision. Charity control in Scotland works very well right now; but the Calmanics, true to the days of Thatcher, follow their principle that if it isn’t broken, mend it anyway.

It would be wise to assess the Commission’s intellectual credentials, taking obvious yardsticks. Geographically, Sir Kenneth blinkers himself and his colleagues ruthlessly. Scotland is part of an archipelago once called the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom began in 1536 with the passage through the English Parliament of ‘An Act for laws and justice to be ministered in Wales in like form as it is in this realm’, thereafter known as the Act of Union. The Scottish Parliament had nothing to do with this, serving a separate Kingdom. Nor did the Irish Parliament, however subservient to that at Westminster. In due course this United Kingdom took in the Scots, in one sense and perhaps in others, 1603 for King, 1707 for Kingdom. In the twentieth century the United Kingdom was declared to consist of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, oddly enough not formally until Queen Elizabeth’s proclamation on 29 May 1953. Sir Kenneth knows 1603 and 1707 but otherwise bids goodbye to all that.

Yet to a Martian, a study of one part of the archipelago in relation to its wider (if oscillating) contours of political designation, must surely look at the one part’s former and future relations with the rest of the archipelago.

The uncomprehended present and former parts of the UK flicker momentarily in the ‘Final report’. For one thing, the Commission recommends actions by the UK Government are simply silly unless they also apply to Wales and Northern Ireland:

e.g. Recommendation 4.4:

“The UK Parliament should end its self-

denying ordinance of not debating devolved matters as they affect Scotland, and the House of Commons should establish a regular ‘state of Scotland’ debate”.

‘An Executive Summary’ (Item 16) announced:

“The United Kingdom is an asymmetrical Union. Not only are the four nations very different in size, but devolution in Wales and Northern Ireland is [sic] different from devolution in Scotland, and there is no devolution for England. It is not our job to say whether this should change, or to make recommendations about how England is governed….”

It is as though the Commission had had its mental maps of these islands whited out except for Scotland and England. The sanctimonious denial of powers to recommend a governmental recipe for England may be Sir Kenneth’s idea of a joke (though, of course, so may his entire report). But the total inability to recognise a Scottish relationship with the other devolved territories, even to disclaim a remit, tells us we are dealing with two-dimensional analysis unable to recognise third and fourth dimensions. It would seem the first devolution made by the Commission was to devolve its intelligence to no fixed address. It doesn’t know what it means by ‘nation’: Northern Ireland is a nation? Dr Ian Paisley and Mr Peter Robinson were leaders of a Nationalist party? And the tell-tale ‘is’ informs us that the Commission takes devolution in Wales and Northern Ireland to be the same thing. If a student in first-year politics in the University of Glasgow were to show him or herself as ignorant as Sir Kenneth, the University’s Chancellor, academic standards would require a fail mark.

His history is, if possible, worse.

“13. There have always been two threads

to Scotland’s constitutional life. It has neither been absorbed into England, nor has it sought to cut itself off from the mainstream of British economic and social life”.

Not for just an hour, not for just a day, not for just a year, but always, always. Calgacus at Mons Graupius, Columba on Iona, Ken-neth MacAlpine where he was, Macbeth visiting the Pope in Rome, the Vikings in the Hebridean, Orcadian and Shetland lordships were twitching on “these two threads”?

A reviewer’s first Recommendation for this document would be to keep it out of the hands of schoolchildren.

Or try this:

“1.68. ….from the late 19th century, there

were moves to promote what was then normally referred to as ‘home rule’.”

A footnote (1.20) follows:

“Whilst we refer to home rule in the

Scottish context, in the late 18th and early 19th century there were also Irish home rule proposals, as well as the Liberal Party’s proposals for ‘home rule all around’.”

‘Home Rule’ as a term is first known to have been used in 1860 (see New Oxford Dictionary). From 1782 to 1800 the Irish Parliament was nominally independent (which meant it had to be bribed more than bullied). In the early nineteenth century Daniel O’Connell led a movement for Repeal of the Union of Great Britain and Ireland, a very different matter from the much more restricted (Irish) demands and ultimate (Liberal Party) proposals for Home Rule (1886, 1893, 1912). ‘Home Rule all round’ (meaning for Ireland, Scotland and Wales) was hinted at by dissident Liberals but never enjoyed official sanction. God knows what Sir Kenneth means by ‘Home Rule all around’: I doubt if he knows, although the term originates with him. Granted that his ignorance is a delicate exotic fruit whose bloom would be gone were we to touch it, do Lord Wallace of Tankerness and Audrey Findlay CBE wish to go on record as knowing as little about their party, being as they the Liberal Democrats on the Commission? Do they think, as footnote 1.20 clearly does, that the Liberal party existed in the eighteenth century? (Proposing ‘Home Rule all round’ – to the American colonies, maybe, or to the Australian convicts?)

Back to 1.67, last sentence:

“The Labour Party was formally com

mitted to home rule during the 1920s, but growing ambivalence in the party led to the formation of a strongly devolutionist Independent Labour Party in 1932 and Scottish National Party (SNP) in 1934.”

The Independent Labour Party was formed in 1893. The Calman Commission included as one of its two Labour stalwarts Lord Elder, famous as a friend of Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Evidently the friendship does not extend to reading the Prime Minister’s books such as his life of ILP leader Jimmy Maxton: either that, or Lord Elder has not bothered to read the document he signed (which tells us much about how seriously the Labour Party takes it). Since there is no SNP member of the Commission, Sir Kenneth must takes all the credit for the implication that the SNP was merely a ‘strongly devolutionist’ party: but if that is what he thinks it is, why refuse seats to members of it? Perhaps because it has nobody in the House of Lords?

But who really chose these Commissionaires? For all of Sir Kenneth’s truly awesome ignorance, there is a slick salesmanship in the wrapping of his ‘Final Report’. The title Serving Scotland Better delicately implies that its sole interest lies in self-sacrificing but superior vassalage to Scotland, the vassals in question being perhaps (a) the United Kingdom, (b) the Commission, (c) the Commission’s members, or, (d) as a long shot, Mr Andy Murray? (Perhaps given the Commission’s numbers and unforced errors we could name it Love-15.)

‘An Executive Summary’ then tells us: “The Commission on Scottish Devolution

was established by the Scottish Parliament and the United Kingdom Government. The remit was agreed by the Scottish Parliament….”

This is disingenuous enough to raise suspicion of the Commission’s bona fides, since it coyly invites the reader to miss its non-establishment by the Scottish Government and the United Kingdom Parliament. This might appear perfectly normal commercial practice to, say, the Director of CBI Scotland, or to the Chief Executive, Telegraph Media Group (who really selected these people as Better Scottish Servants?) but it is sad to see a distinguished judge late of the European Court of Justice lending his name to such a sleight of hand. The Big Six from the Scottish Unionist parties must be taken to know and flourish on such usages.

As for the UK Government’s role, it could hardly have been more derisive, elegantly turning its own Second Chamber into a Servant’s Entrance (having previously turned it into practically everything else):

“Part 1 – 1.4 The UK Government first indicated its support for the Commission in a Written Answer in the House of Lords on 31 January 2008. It is then pledged to provide resources to support the Commission’s work in a Written Ministerial Statement on 25 March 2008”.

The ‘resources’ in question were no doubt financial, the ultimate emptor being our old friend the taxpayer, and perhaps oral and written evidence (or, as the Commission likes to put it, ‘submissions’) but as to whether the Commission’s Recommendations win Government support, time will tell. In any case the nature of evidence used by the Commission is curious. Some witnesses are personal, notably ‘Alex [surname withheld]’ which raises an awful suspicion, given the ribald humour of the First Minister of Scotland. And some baffle anyone’s comprehension, e.g. ‘BBC’, ‘Children in Scotland’, ‘Faculty of Advocates’. ‘Glasgow Caledonian University’. How can such enormous and mutually rebarbative collections of persons give common evidence? And if it is merely a matter of executive committees or the like putting in documents purporting to be from underlings never (or hardly ever) actually polled, our Commission is on morally thin ice. As for its disclaimer ‘The Commission is independent of any political party’ when it owes its existence to three, and includes two members from each, the Commission would seem to have a remarkably low estimate of the collective intelligence of its readers, Scottish or otherwise.

The three parties of whom the Commission claims independence have decreed that any real meaning of that word may not be applied to Scotland. To aid in this evasion the Report publishes as Box 2.1 graphs of public opinion showing ribbons running across a time chart, from 1997 to early 2007; the ribbons are light brown, purple, red and blue, under which are explanations preceded by purple, light brown, red and green, explaining these are choices for independence. devolution with some taxation powers (as demanded by a majority in the referendum), devolution with no taxation powers (as we have), and no Parliament. Whoever passed it must be colour-blind, or didn’t give a damn.

These polls, however badly presented, dominate the Report’s vision. Realities of operation of the relationships are shunned. For instance the discussion of Scotland’s role in the European Union ignores the shattering difference in European elections (recent and previous) between Scotland and England. The Scots reject anti-Euro-pean candidates; the English elect them. Scotland’s relationship with the Parliaments of Dublin, Belfast and Cardiff has been made a reality by Alex Salmond. Hence presumably the topic becomes the Thing-Not-To-Be-Named.

As for the Recommendations, intelligible or otherwise, the three Unionist parties will wrangle about their meaning as it suits them. The Scottish government will continue to govern. And the UK Government will allude to them in a Written Answer in the House of Lords.

Serving Scotland Better: Scotland and the United Kingdom in the 21st Century
By Kenneth Calman, &c.
Produced by the Commission on Scottish Devolution.

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