The SNP and devolution

In my last post I wrote that the SNP opposed moves both in the 1990s and in 2009-12 to establish, and then to enhance, devolution in Scotland.

This comment has attracted vehement denials from a small number of folk, so I thought I’d explain more fully what I meant and justify the comment, lest there be any lingering doubt about the matter.

A later post (not too much later, I hope) will deal in detail with the various u-turns of the SNP over the Bill that became the Scotland Act 2012.

Here I deal with the 1990s. Let us start with the SNP’s manifesto for the 1997 general election. This was the election, you will recall, won by a landslide by Tony Blair’s New Labour, after 18 years of Conservative rule. It was the incoming Blair Government, with Donald Dewar as Secretary of State for Scotland and Lord Irvine of Lairg as Lord Chancellor, that delivered the constitutional reform package of devolution on the one hand and human rights legislation on the other.

Did the SNP’s 1997 manifesto endorse or welcome or approve of devolution? No it did not. Did it condemn Labour’s plans for devolution? Yes it did. These are the SNP’s words, taken from page 9 of that manifesto:

New Labour’s scheme for a Scottish Assembly [sic] is fatally flawed, and will deliver no real power.

Not just flawed, you’ll note; fatally flawed. If that isn’t opposition to devolution, I don’t know what is.

And now let us look at what had happened in Scotland in the run-up to the famous 1997 election. What had happened was the establishment of the Scottish Constitutional Convention. This was supposed to be an all-party affair, involving not only professional politicians but also a broad range of Scottish civil society. It undertook a great deal of truly remarkable work, paving the way for the smooth delivery of devolution at the end of the decade. And what was the SNP’s contribution to the Scottish Constitutional Convention? Zero. They walked out of it in a great huff, displeased that what the people wanted (devolution) was on the menu but that what the people didn’t want (independence) was not. Great democrats, these Nationalists …

In 1998 I published an obscure book called Devolution and the British Constitution, long since out-of-print, a collection of essays that I edited. One of the essays was written by the late Professor Neil MacCormick, later an SNP Member of the European Parliament, and a lifelong Scottish Nationalist. MacCormick wrote in his essay in my volume that the SNP decided to boycott the Scottish Constitutional Convention “by a substantial majority”. Again, is this evidence of the SNP supporting devolution? Of course it isn’t. It’s evidence of the opposite and of the truth of the position, which is that the SNP resisted moves to build a system of devolution for Scotland within the United Kingdom. (I do not know, because I never asked him, but I always suspected that MacCormick himself thought this a mistake on the SNP’s part.)

As MacCormick goes on to explain in the same essay, the work of the Scottish Constitutional Convention (“SCC”) proved to be authoritative in shaping significant aspects of the devolution settlement for Scotland. It was the SCC that insisted that the Scottish Parliament should have powers over the public revenue (powers which it has today). It was the SCC that conceived of the voting system that is used for elections to the Scottish Parliament. And it was the SCC, later supported by the Constitution Unit think-tank, that led the way in designing the technical but vital matter of how legislative powers should be devolved in Scotland.

These contributions were — and remain — invaluable. And they were contributions made by a body that was boycotted by the SNP.