Blair's Scotland: Excitement and Uncertainty

Article excerpt

Neither Scotland nor the United Kingdom can ever be the same again after the collapse of the Conservative Government last May, when the Tories lost all their Scottish seats. In the post-election mood it was an all but foregone conclusion that Tony Blair's Government would win the rushed referendum on its plans for a Scottish Parliament, not only for the main proposal but on the 'second question' of limited tax-raising powers for the Edinburgh Assembly. It was so sure of victory that it was even able to time the Scottish referendum to help squeeze a favourable vote at the Welsh one a week later, when a far more limited scheme of devolution won a tiny majority.

In several other areas of policy the 'New Labour' Government scarcely conceals continuity with the Conservatism of John Major and even Margaret Thatcher. Nor can it conceal the uncertainty or vagueness of much of its thinking on what 'modernisation' means in constitutional reforms for the United Kingdom as a whole and English government in particular. In Wales the Labour Party itself remains divided about the proposed Assembly. But in Scotland the departure from Conservative policy is dramatic in its style and unpredictable in its consequences. The uncertainties are now not about what Labour will do but where its policies will lead.

The Conservatives, in the Major years as well as the Thatcher ones, gambled on being able to hold power long enough for Labour to become bored with its comparatively recent enthusiasm for devolution, or frightened by the risks in encouraging a nationalism which it might be unable to control. The Conservatives lost the gamble and Labour now has to face the risks - including the risk that the expectations aroused among many Scots are not those which can be fulfilled by the kind of Parliament now to be provided. Labour has stimulated hopes and, with much media help, has created excitement. Whether it can provide satisfaction remains uncertain.

The many uncertainties and difficulties which Blair's plans now face are those of the long-term evolution of institutions and opinions, not of short-term political practicality. The overwhelming majority which Labour commands in the House of Commons would make Conservative opposition irrelevant and ineffective, even if its force were not reduced by the admission that the next Conservative Government would not abolish what the last one felt bound to resist.

That majority also limits the immediate opportunities for the Scottish National Party to extract more concessions and even for Blair's Liberal allies to protest if Labour has second thoughts about the small print of their concordat on devolution.

The longer-term problems are of four distinct though sometimes interrelated kinds.

The first concerns the effectiveness, even when Labour's White Paper proposals are defined in a Bill and refined during its committee stage, of the proposed division of power between the sovereign United Kingdom Parliament at Westminster and the Edinburgh one, which will have control of matters at present handled through the administratively devolved Scottish Office and the Scottish law officers, as well as bits and pieces acquired from other U.K. Ministries. However the decision that devolution will extend to all powers not specifically reserved inevitably creates uncertainty.

The second arises from uncertainty about whether the political conditions in which the legislative and executive devolution experiment is attempted will encourage the new Parliament to make the most of opportunities and minimise the difficulties.

The third reflects the difficulty of predicting how Scottish opinion, which so clearly favoured devolution at the referendum, evolves after aspirations differing greatly among supporters of a Scottish Parliament in emphasis, coherence, and longer-term intention have been expressed in a defined political system.

The fourth, as difficult to predict, depends on the impact of Scottish devolution on the working of United Kingdom institutions - and on the sense of identity of the English. …