20 Years of Devolution

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:31 pm on 11th July 2019.

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Photo of Tommy Sheppard Tommy Sheppard Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Scotland), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (House of Lords) 2:31 pm, 11th July 2019

It is a pleasure, as ever, to follow Hugh Gaffney.

I want to look forward in this debate, but to do that I first have to look backwards. The Act of Union of 1707 gave protection to many aspects of Scottish life. In our churches, classrooms and courts, things were preserved. That aside, that Act of Union led to the creation of a single unitary state with a centralised government apparatus. It was not a federation or a partnership or even, in the proper sense, a union at all, but the creation of a single polity into which Scotland was subsumed. That represents a central weakness and fragility of the United Kingdom, which has been exposed in the time since. Everything that has transpired in this debate about devolution and decentralisation should be seen in the context of the United Kingdom’s imperfections and the ability to compensate for them to enable the state to represent the aspirations and needs of the people in Scotland.

That did not matter so much in the early days, but government expanded rapidly throughout the 19th century, so that by the end of the century there was a demand for decentralisation. In 1885 we saw the creation of the Scottish Office and the position of Secretary of State for Scotland, but not until the 20th century did the demand arise for political decentralisation, devolution and constitutional change. The Home Rule movement at the beginning of the 20th century was widely reflected in Scotland, leading in 1913, more than 100 years ago, to the passing through this House of the Government of Scotland Bill, in which some elements of Home Rule for Scotland were embodied.

That legislation was not enacted because of the advent of the first world war, and economic disruption and a further world war meant that the debate was not re-joined until the 1950s. Then we were in a completely new world. The old order had changed utterly. Empires were disintegrating and almost every couple of months a new nation state was formed somewhere on the globe, such that the demands of Scottish nationalism—the demands for Scottish self-government—were not cast in terms of the past or romantic notions of pre-Union days, but were a contemporary proposition very much in touch with the modern world. That was typified in the 1967 Hamilton by-election, when Winnie Ewing said:

“Stop the world, Scotland wants to get on”.

The 50 years since have seen a series of reports, from Kilbrandon and Smith, and a series of Bills, which have all tried to dissipate and placate the demands for self-government from the people of Scotland. The central paradox is that despite all that has happened, that placation does not seem to have worked. I can understand why Unionists must be frustrated. The old dictum of Enoch Powell—that power devolved is power retained— does not appear to hold. Unionists must be tearing their hair out, thinking, “What more do we have to do for these rebellious Scots to be satisfied?” The Scottish social attitudes survey shows that about 8% to 10% of people think that there should be no Scottish Parliament at all, yet once we discount that small minority, a clear majority of the remainder believe that the Scottish Parliament should be independent rather than part of the constitutional arrangements of the United Kingdom.

Why has that happened? I think it has happened for two reasons. The first is that devolution has been a resounding success. It has led to perceptible benefits for the people of Scotland and changes in how lives are lived that people really appreciate. Other Members from across the Chamber have talked about the achievements of the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government, so I will not repeat them. However, I want to make it clear that I do not regard those achievements as the preserve of any one political party. I am proud of the last 12 years of the SNP Scottish Government, but I acknowledge fully the progress made by the Labour and Liberal Democrat coalition in the first two terms of the Scottish Parliament. However, many people are now open to the idea that if some devolution can make positive changes to their lives, why not just devolve everything and take all the powers that we need to run our affairs in Scotland?

The second reason why the demand for self-government has not been dissipated is that the exercise of power throws into sharp relief the powers that we do not have. This is now a raging argument in Scotland. People say that there are things that could be made better, but we do not have the competence and capacity to do it. To give a few brief examples, we want to reduce carbon emissions in Scotland. The Scottish Government are now committed to having an all-electric road system, with charging points throughout the entire country, but are powerless to shift the transition to electric vehicles because they have no control over vehicle excise duty. We might want to give incentives to small businesses in Scotland and start-ups in key sectors of the economy, but we have no power at all over corporate taxation. From drugs to broadcasting, food standards to employment law, there are many aspects of life that could be improved, but we do not have the powers to improve them.

Now, that adumbration is not by itself a compelling argument for independence, because we could respond to that lack of competence with further devolution. However, it is a mystery to me why many proponents of devolution, who in many ways brought us to this point, now seem to think that it is time to pull up the drawbridge—to say that devolution is complete, that the process is over and that nothing can possibly be added to it. They therefore vote against every amendment that we table to legislation to try to increase the powers of the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government. That obstinacy and refusal to see devolution as a process that is still continuing is fuelling the appetite for independence, because people wonder whether that is the only way to take these powers to ourselves.

When we talk about the devolution of powers, there is another role for the state to play: to represent the character and intention of the people who live within its boundaries. In that respect, independence provides an answer that devolution cannot. There are many, many people in Scotland now—more every day—who question whether the British state is able to articulate their views and their character, either in this country or abroad. That change has been turbo-charged by Brexit and the growth of right-wing English nationalism, so that many more people than before are now open to the prospect of Scottish independence.

There is much more that I want to say, Mr Speaker, but I appreciate that you want us to be brief. Let me finish with this point. It will be for history to judge whether devolution has succeeded in sustaining the British state and the United Kingdom as a constitutional set of arrangements by trying to remove its imperfections, or whether, in fact, it will be seen in history as a step along the way to full self-government. We have to wait and see what the outcome is. The important thing is that that decision is not a matter for me or for you, Mr Speaker. It is a decision for the people who live in Scotland to take. My party’s pledge to the people of Scotland is that we will take on all comers and meet all resistance in order to allow the people of Scotland to make that decision. I believe they will get the opportunity to do that in a very short space of time.