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Discovering a New Scotland

In this article reprinted from British Council News, Don Watson explores the mood of national renewal which devolution has brought to Scotland.

As one of the 740,000 Scots now resident in England, I felt a certain upswelling of national pride on climbing into a taxi at Edinburgh Station and saying 'Take me to the Parliament'. This was diminished only slightly by the fact that my particular driver took me to the wrong place, dropping me at Parliament House, where the previous Scottish Assembly last met in 1707. Its last vote was to approve the Treaty of Union, forming a United Parliament for Great Britain.

The entrance to the temporary premises of the new executive, in the Church of Scotland's Assembly Hall, is a couple of hundred yards down the street. Making my way down the unprepossessing alleyway between two darkstone Edinburgh buildings, I join the small gathering already queuing for entrance to the public gallery.

Three hundred years seems like a long time to take to move a few hundred yards up the road. To some Scots, like my taxi driver perhaps, the opening of the new Parliament is no doubt a matter of limited significance - after all it is still full of politicians. But, even if the elections for the Assembly hardly had them queuing down the streets at the polling booths, the turnout for the original referendum on devolution, and the scale of the Yes vote, both for a devolved assembly and for one with tax-raising powers, shows that the fact of a Scottish parliament is a matter of some importance, even if the political make-up of its MPs is rather less so.

There is a mood of national renewal about Scotland these days. The two national broadsheets, the Herald and the Scotsman, are full of references to 'the new Scotland'. The opening of the new body was a tremendous piece of theatre, full of symbolic significance. Much of the press, particularly in England, revolved around the fact that the Queen did not wear her crown, electing instead to have it with her symbolising a less remote monarchy. The reception, in which Sir David Steel, the Presiding Officer of the Assembly, welcomed the Queen by saying 'We are pleased to have you amongst us today', was similarly intended to set the new body on a non-hierarchical footing.

The choice of Robert Burns' 'A man's a man for a' that' as the song with which the Parliament was opened, was equivalently loaded. Burns is of course the national Bard. But the song in question shows him in particularly radical mood. It is difficult to miss the significance of the lines 'Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine... The honest man, tho'e'er sae poor/Is King o'man for a'that'.

The ceremony exposed a little known historical fact, that the Scots are not, as the English are, subjects of the Queen. The Scottish monarchy was created by Act of Acclamation, the Scottish nobles inviting Robert the Bruce to become King. This situation, which was not changed by the Union of the Crowns in 1603, or by the subsequent Act of Union in 1707, means that the monarchy in Scotland rules at the request of the people. It also means that where the English are subjects, the Scots are citizens. A fine distinction, but one that seems significant when the English person's status as subject is often used as a symbol of Britain's lack of social progressiveness.

As the MORI poll conducted for the British Council indicates, (see our feature in these pages), young people around the world see Britain as being bound by tradition. Creating a new Parliament has provided an opportunity to examine some of the principles of British democracy. It could be that the example provided by the Scottish Parliament could drive a move to a more modern constitution in the UK as a whole.

Inside the Parliament's temporary accommodation, the benches are, as they will be in the new purpose-built premises in Holyrood, set in a horseshoe shape. Whether it is because of this deliberate avoidance of the confrontational architecture of Westminster, the smaller forum (only 129 SMPs as against 658 MPs in Westminster), or the higher percentage of women (thirty-seven per cent compared to eighteen), the First Minister's question time is a dignified affair, far removed from the puerile baying and waving of briefing papers that the debate in Westminster frequently descends to.

Already in the short life of the Parliament it has become apparent that the Scottish Parliament is capable of generating debates, which are taken up by Britain as a whole. For the first time there is a feeling that Scotland can set a British agenda.

The most striking example of this is when the Scottish Executive instructed an independent committee, under the leadership of Andrew Cubie, to look at student finance. The recommendations of what became known as the Cubie report was that Scottish students should pay back only a proportion of their further education fees and only then after their earnings exceeded 25,000 pound per year. This contrasts with the situation facing English students who are expected to pay their full fees in advance. When it came to legislation the recommendations were bargained down, with the future income threshold falling significantly. However, it was enough to re-open the issue of student fees, with significant calls for Westminster to revise its own policy.

With the left of centre Scottish National Party providing the opposition, and with the Government a coalition between Labour and the Liberal Democratic Party, who themselves are increasingly to the left of the Labour Government in Westminster, it is not likely to be the last time that Scotland takes a more radical line, hence exerting a pull to the left on the Government in Westminster. Such a scenario begs the question as to how irreversible the process of devolution is. Would a future Conservative government in Westminster really tolerate a government of a different colour in Scotland, and the conflicts that this would bring?

It is in fact constitutionally possible for the devolved powers to be reclaimed by Westminster, but it is considered to be unlikely. 'First Minister Donald Dewar compares this to the likelihood of Westminster reclaiming control of Canada,' says Joan Barry, the British Council's Public Affairs Manager in Scotland, 'which is also a constitutional possibility, but a rather unlikely one.'

Professors Alice Brown and David McCrone in their pamphlet A New Parliament and Scotland's Future (published by the Governance of Scotland Forum) refer to the 'variable geometry of power in the next century'. As is implied by the debate on Englishness, this 'variable geometry' may in the long term bring about the break-up of the United Kingdom. Or it could mean a Britain reinvented, as a modern, federal state, with substantial power devolved, not only to Wales and to Scotland, but to the English regions.

It may also, as some suggest, open the way to a closer relationship between the governments of the island of Ireland and those of England, Scotland and Wales - one that does not raise the hackles of the Nationalist community of Ireland in the way that the established notion of Britain does. The Irish Government, as Joan Barry points out, was quick to take advantage of the possibilities of devolution by opening consulates in Cardiff and Edinburgh. Although there are historical antipathies between Ireland and Scotland, much of this has been swept away by the emergence of a feeling of common Celtic identity.

The British-Irish Council, set out in the Good Friday agreement on peace in Northern Ireland, involves the Republic of Ireland together with the devolved governments of Northern Ireland and Scotland as well as England. With the Northern Irish Assembly now re-instated after it's suspension, the development of the British-Irish Council body could be very interesting indeed.

Provision exists for English regional assemblies to take part in the British-Irish Council 'if appropriate'. There is a distinct possibility that this will develop into a much more multilateral body than its name suggests.

The possibilities of this variable geometry of power mean that, from the point of view of ideas of governance, Britain is likely to be one of the most fascinating places in the world in the next few years.

This article was produced with invaluable input from Joan Barry of British Council Scotland.


Produced in Poland by British Council 2003. The United Kingdom's international organisation for educational opportunities and cultural relations. We are registered in England as a charity.