20 Years of Devolution

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:08 pm on 11th July 2019.

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Photo of Martin Whitfield Martin Whitfield Labour, East Lothian 2:08 pm, 11th July 2019

It is a pleasure to follow Christine Jardine and, indeed, the many contributions in this debate. I compliment the Chairs of both Committees for securing it.

Devolution, in its modern context, started with the Tony Blair Government’s confirmation of their first act in bringing together the referendum and the creation in 1999 of the Scottish Parliament. It is worth remembering that, in that first period, between 1999 and 2007, under Donald Dewar, Henry McLeish, and, of course, Jack McConnell, we saw the introduction of the smoking ban and of proportional representation in local elections. Schools were built, teachers were recruited, and there were smaller class sizes. Nursery places were secured for every three and four-year-old. Free personal care was brought in. Radical land reforms were introduced, which ensured that we conserved and enhanced our national parks and wild camping.

Crucially, devolution has ensured that lawmaking reflects the traditions of Scotland’s distinct and separate legal system. We required a Parliament because the cultural norms within both our legal and education system differ from those in England and Wales. Pre-devolution, most laws—bar a handful each year that were Scotland-orientated—were created here in Westminster and applicable to Scotland but fashioned in the framework and legal spirit of England and Wales.

I am extremely fortunate that one of my predecessors was John P. Mackintosh, the former MP for Berwick and East Lothian. With the greatest respect to my hon. Friend Ian Murray, I feel that J.P. Mackintosh is the true father of devolution in Scotland. From the outset, he recognised the imperative to form institutions that met Scotland’s demands. Mackintosh was one of the finest politicians never to hold public office, but his writings and ideas were arguably far more transformative than those of many of his peers who served in Government.

Mackintosh’s central argument was that devolution is about empowerment, not the glorification of a nation state. In the 1970s, he spoke of a settlement that was remarkably similar to the one forged through the convention in 1999 and that was receptive to citizens’ concerns and empowered Scottish communities. When making the case for a devolved Parliament, Mackintosh spoke of holding a “dual identity”—that of being Scottish and British. I stand here today proud to represent the seat of East Lothian in a UK Parliament, as a member of the European Union, embodying that tradition. I can argue without contradiction that I believe in a union of nations working together and staying together, whether that be the UK or the European Union. Neither the Conservatives nor the nationalists who sit in this place can make that commitment.

Recognising multifaceted identities has never been more important. We live in divisive times, with the unhealthy prospect of nationalist and nativist movements strangling UK and global politics. In that context, devolution is still crucial to the UK’s political landscape. We face international policy challenges such as climate change, surging global inequality and a changing face of work that will undoubtably impact on jobs. Never before have we required more the forces of interdependence, collective action and solidarity among the nations of the UK.

The devolution settlement keeps the constitutional bond intact. As Gordon Brown said in 2016:

“If we are to meet and master the global challenges ahead, we need to get the balance right between the autonomy people desire and the co-operation we need…
we should help the nations and regions realise it and give them the power to do so. The alternative is a Britain that looks in on itself without the means to bridge its divisions and to bring people together.”

Devolution was the greatest achievement of the last Labour Government. It is forged on confirming the identity of individuals, not as a step to independence, but so that a child born in my constituency can see themselves as being Lothian, Scottish, British and European. Long may that continue.