20 Years of Devolution

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:58 pm on 11th July 2019.

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Photo of Ronnie Cowan Ronnie Cowan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Infrastructure) 1:58 pm, 11th July 2019

George Robertson, Labour’s shadow Scottish Secretary in 1997, told Brian Taylor of the BBC that devolution would

“kill the SNP stone dead”,

and it was imagined that the consequences would surely be that Labour would continue to return a substantial number of MPs from Scotland to Westminster. Labour accepted that the new Parliament should be elected by proportional representation, and with that Labour might not be able to win an overall majority, and that would involve sharing power with the Liberal Democrats. However, the attraction was that Labour thought it would be impossible for the SNP to win an overall majority. Devolution was meant to kill the SNP. But as we know —as every Scottish schoolchild knows—

“The best-laid schemes o’
mice an’

Gang aft agley”.

Instead, we have now had 12 years of SNP-led government, and we have shown that even with limited powers, we do not just talk the talk, we can and we do walk the walk.

What has happened during 20 years of devolution? As the trust and understanding has grown, the Scottish electorate have come to the decision that the Scottish Government have more influence over them than Westminster does. As a result, turnouts at Holyrood elections are higher than Westminster elections. When asked how Scotland should be governed, the response over a 20-year period has shown that independence is now favoured over devolution. This does not happen by accident: it is the result of considerate and compassionate governance.

Most recently, Holyrood has not been paralysed by the Brexit process. It has continued to legislate, passing nine Bills in the past two months. These include Bills to tackle fuel poverty; to create a new social security system with dignity and respect at its heart; to reform our justice system, raising the age of criminal responsibility and extending the presumption against short sentences; to extend social care to under-65s who need it, through Frank’s law; and to enshrine safe NHS staffing in law. All this has happened while Westminster has ground to a halt and the SNP Government at Holyrood have been getting on with the day job.

Now that the United Kingdom is, against Scotland’s wishes, leaving the European Union, the UK will have to change its constitutional arrangements. As the UK Government have made clear,

“the current devolution settlements were created in the context of the UK’s membership of the EU”.

This is what has prompted the power grab. While the UK Government continue to distrust the devolved Parliaments, a constructive relationship is extremely difficult to maintain. The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee’s report, “Devolution and Exiting the EU: reconciling differences and building strong relationships”, states that

“the shifting of Wales from a conferred to a reserved powers model indicates that the reserved powers model is now the constitutionally preferred model for devolution within the UK. Powers are not conferred by the UK Parliament onto the devolved legislatures, rather particular matters are reserved to the UK Parliament and all other areas devolved.”

It is time for the UK Government to recognise that.

As my hon. Friend Pete Wishart mentioned, Winnie Ewing celebrated her 90th birthday yesterday. She said at the opening of the Scottish Parliament:

The Scottish Parliament adjourned on the 25th day of March in the year 1707 is hereby reconvened.”

If you are Scottish and a democrat, that should make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, because those are far more than just words. They are words dripping with purposeful intentions, because devolution is not just about a building or the Government within it: it is a spirit, a belief, a self-belief. It is about power. It is about who has the power to define the present and the future of a nation. What we are really asking is, who gets to decide what is best for Scotland, and why should the people of Scotland settle for a supporting role in that when we are big enough, rich enough and smart enough to play the lead? The intention of devolution may have been to satisfy the hunger, but instead it has fed the beast—and across Scotland, that glorious beast is roaring once again.