On the eve of the devolution referendum 1997

The Herald, September 10, 1997.

Those of us who remember the fiasco of 1979 approach tomorrow with nervousness.  In the last days of that referendum campaign the Yes majority dissolved and Scotland lost its nerve.  A generation that had worked for change felt disillusioned and betrayed.  The Thatcher years began and a political winter fell upon Scotland.

This time, I believe and hope, things are different.   A genuine consensus for change has developed, the No camp no longer frightens us with its prophecies of doom, and intense competition is already developing among party members to be nominated for the Edinburgh parliament.  At a conference in Edinburgh last week on the future of the voluntary sector – a vital source of community empowerment – I sensed an enthusiasm amounting to hunger for legislative competence in Edinburgh.

In another sense, 1997 is very different from 1979:  the English political establishment has largely swallowed its dislike of Scottish home rule, which it used to see as a sign of base Scottish ingratitude for the ineffable privileges of being part of Westminster governance.

English commentators still may not like what they see as Scotland’s preferential financial treatment but they realise that to end it would be to drive Scotland to Independence.  And although a few MPs from the shires might say good riddance, there is generally no desire at the heart of the political system to see Scotland sever herself from it.

Although Tony Blair this week promised the modernisation of the monarchy, the country’s parliamentary institutions are more urgently in need of treatment.  The House of Commons has been discredited by sleaze and its vapid confrontationalism.

Next week the Irish peace talks resume with Sinn Fein at the table and the prospect of a new constitutional settlement in Northern Ireland.  Scotland’s parliament has begun, to many English eyes, to look like the trigger for constitutional reform – or in the metaphor preferred by James Cornford, director of the Paul Hamlyn Foundation and former professor of politics at Edinburgh, an icebreaker for a more general change.

A weakening of Scotland’s resolution at the eleventh hour would thus be singularly damaging for our reputation within the British polity.  For years – since the days of Gladstone – we have been prosing on about the need for home rule.  Now we have the chance to make it happen.  To bottle out now would be to invite contempt and ridicule.

In the devolutionary cycle of this century, home rule has seemed close on several occasions.  Characteristically it has dissolved at the point of consummation.  Home Rule schemes fell with the First World War, and with the first Ramsay MacDonald administration.  The Scotland Act was the last banana skin for the Callaghan government in 1979.

After that disappointment I came to believe I should not see Home Rule in my lifetime.  But the late John Smith made sure that it remained a commitment of honour for the Labour Party.   Tony Blair and Donald Dewar have stood by that pledge.  The sinuous legal mind of Lord Irvine has taken much of the devil out of the detail.

Now it is down to us.  If we fail we shall for ever afterwards be regarded as a joke nation that toyed with Home Rule but never really meant it.   Our dance of the seven veils, having promised so much, will end in pathetic detumescence.

From time to time I have thought that for Scotland Home Rule was merely a tactic, never a strategy; that we maintained a demand for the principle, without ever pushing t to a conclusion, as a means of putting leverage on the British state.

And I suppose it worked.  Willie Ross used the nationalist card during the Wilson administrations to ratchet up Scotland’s share of public expenditure.  Scotland, unusually among stateless nations, has ever since the rise of the modern SNP had the opportunity of securing independence through the ballot box but has never chosen to exercise it.


fter tomorrow it is a card that never can be played again.  If, as I hope and pray, the principle is endorsed in a resounding double Yes tomorrow, our new parliamentaries will carry an enormous responsibility.   They will be expected not just to legislate and scrutinise with maturity and good sense, free of the childish rhetoric that has so damaged Westminster’s standing, but also to validate the general principle of diffusing power from the centre.

After Scottish Home Rule and a new settlement in Ireland must come reform of the upper chamber and the development of regional assemblies in England.  The mawkish soap opera of the royal family may continue to preoccupy us.  But the paradox is that the binding force of the constitutional monarchy itself is what makes it possible for us to embrace Home Rule without putting the Union at risk.