Consensus is the key to a successful scheme of devolution

THE Queen is dead, long live the King. As far as the Scots are concerned John Major will promise nothing but a change of style and perhaps the end of the poll tax. Scotland has barely been mentioned in the contest and none of the contenders has been ready to contemplate any change of policy. Mr Major has specifically rejected a parliament with tax-raising powers and all three evidently assumed that Mrs Thatcher's departure and a review of the community charge would have a sufficiently tonic effect on the party's fortunes north of the Border.

They may be mistaken. It is true that many Scots found Mrs Thatcher’s personality rebarbative because of her lecturing, hectoring approach. Nor is her deep unpopularity surprising in areas which have seen rapid economic decline and change.

The almost total disappearance of the Scots mining industry and the imminent collapse of the steel industry north of the Border will always be associated in the Scottish mind with the Thatcher years. So too will be the attack on local authorities as the providers of social housing and other services.

But Scotland’s disenchantment with Westminster Government is not associated only with the Thatcher years. Evidence of dissatisfaction not just with the people who have been governing it, but with the way it has been governed, has been a strong and consistent feature of opinion polls for the past two decades.

The new System Three poll commissioned by the Glasgow Herald and published this week confirms that there has been remarkably little change over the years (see table). Indeed, Mr Heath’s flirtation with devolution and Labour’s abortive Scotland Act in the seventies arose out of similar sentiments reported by the pollsters and publicised in the media.

It is true that this sentiment is liable to recede when confronted with either the prospect of separation from England or of higher taxation. Polls conducted by System Three for the Glasgow Herald in 1987 and 1988 suggested that support for an Assembly would drop significantly — to around 45% — if it resulted in higher taxation.

Scottish Ministers have been playing the tax card strenuously in their attempts to discredit the Scottish Constitutional Convention, whose proposals will be published this Friday. They have also revived the ”West Lothian” question and implied that a Scottish parliament would mean the end of the office of Secretary of State for Scotland in Cabinet and a cut in the number of Scottish MPs at Westminster.

Why, they ask, should a Scottish parliament be able to administer funds voted it by the UK Parliament but over whose disposal English and Welsh MPs had no say while Scots MPs continued to influence decisions south of the Border?

A reduction in the number of Scottish MPs at Westminster holds no particular terrors for me, though it does for the Labour Party. The loss of the office of Secretary of State in Cabinet would be a much more serious matter.

But neither of these changes, nor a cut in central funding for Scotland, would be acceptable unless there were a real transfer of sovereignty. Were we to move towards a federal system, in which sovereignty between Scotland and London were shared, then it would be perfectly acceptable to take the fiscal and representational consequences.

If a Scottish parliament were simply to be a subordinate body, then no case could arise for changing Scotland’s representation at Westminster since the UK Parliament could at all times modify or reject the Scottish parliament’s programmes. At Westminster similar decisions about the use of funds in England could be taken by an English Grand Committee. On the precedent of the past few years (when English MPs were added to Scottish committees) there could be no objection to adding to it sufficient Scottish MPs to ensure that it reflected the general political balance in the UK Parliament.

However, if a Scottish parliament were to be created by Westminster in a vindictive spirit, with a loss of revenue and a cut in the number of MPs, then the consequence would be that Scotland would have to grab for independence and a share of the oil revenues. A parliament set up in this spirit would become a locomotive for schism and Scotland would be, in the metaphor much used during the devolution debate of the seventies, on the ”slippery slope” to independence.

The only tenable option between the status quo and independence is a Scottish parliament funded more or less on the present scale and terms. The problem is that it can hardly be created without general goodwill at Westminster. And that means that the Conservatives must play their part in its creation, if for no other purpose than to safeguard the interests of their own constituency in Scotland.

Scotland’s need for a parliament is partly emotional and partly pragmatic. On emotional grounds we need it because we have no means of expressing our own national sentiments or even of debating sensibly major national issues such as housing. The standard of debate contrived by the confrontational political system at Westminster is abysmal, consisting of charge and counter-charge, of incrimination and exculpation. Scotland needs its own rational debating chamber elected by proportional representation.

The pragmatic reason arises from the development of Europe. Scotland’s interests in Brussels are represented by the UK Government; Scottish Office Ministers play their part in that process, and Mr Rifkind claimed last week that this system had been successful, for example in securing funds for regional aid (coming from the representative of a Government which has dismantled regional policy, that was a bit rich).

But direct representation for Scotland in Europe could hardly do us any harm; and if we are indeed at the beginning of a process in which the sovereignty of the nation states is beginning to shift, we want to make sure that it not only passes upwards to the new European centres of gravity but that some of it also moves downwards.

A successful scheme of devolution can arise only out of consensus. Let us hope that Mr Major will come to see the need for it.


Sep 85Mar 86Aug 88Mar 89Nov 90