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The New Scotland - a Disunited Kingdom?

George REID

Notes de l’auteur

An oral presentation of this text was made at the “Reinventing the Kingdom” conference organised by Valérie Auda-André and Matthew Graves for LERMA at the University of Provence on 1-2 February 2008

Texte intégral

A new song for Scotland

1When the old Scots Parliament was ended in 1707, my predecessor the Lord Chancellor came forth to the mob in the street, the bells in the city were playing backwards, there was a new pop song for the day, “Why am I sorry on my wedding day?” and he addressed the mob held back by the militia by saying: “there’s an end to an auld sang”, that’s the end of an old song. And when the new Scottish Parliament in 1999 after an adjournment of some 300 years was reconvened, the person in the Chair said “here’s the start of a new song for a new Scotland”. I want to ask how true that is and what impact a new Scotland has on the structures of government inside the United Kingdom.

2As soon as the new Scottish Parliament was formed, constitutional relationships in the United Kingdom were radically changed: a parliament in Edinburgh is, along with our colleagues in Flanders, and in the Basque country and in Catalonia, one of what inside the European Union is called the constitutional regions, that is a legislature representing a nation, with significant sub-state powers; to give you an example, the budget being run through Edinburgh this year is in excess of 50,000 million euros, this is serious money. The areas in which there is now Scottish legislation, a distinctively Scottish legislation, run from agriculture though energy, through enterprise, through education, through the environment, through justice (separate supreme courts), through police, through transport to health, so virtually the full panoply of daily life in Scotland, with the exception of those issues which are reserved to London, and broadly these would be in the areas of foreign affairs, though in Edinburgh there is a distinctive external affairs dimension as well, in defence, in macroeconomic policy and in social welfare. These then are the powers in Edinburgh.

3Britain until 1999 was as centralized as France and suddenly the country has become decentralized and it is not just Scotland of course because in tandem with what has been happening constitutionally in Edinburgh, an assembly has been established, the Senedd, in Cardiff and after periods of suspension there is now an assembly back in Northern Ireland. And it is more than that politically, because the Government now in Edinburgh is Nationalist, committed to the independence of Scotland, the Government in Wales is a combination of the Labour Party and Plaid Cymru, the nationalist Party of Wales, dedicated to, if not exactly a separate state, a full range of devolved powers, and interestingly in Northern Ireland, the Government is a coalition between Ian Paisley of the Unionists and Sinn Fein, the Irish Nationalist Party, which seeks a united Ireland and the removal of Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom. So there are very real dimensions here of extreme political nature and it is interesting that only 9 years into this experiment the Unionists are not in government exclusively in the devolved assemblies but the Nationalists are.

4That then is the background so I am going to ask if we have a new Scotland does that mean the end of the old United Kingdom? I want to take you through why this has happened over a period of 9 years, I want to take you through what has happened in terms of the changing institutions in Edinburgh and then last of all I would like to address the real issue of what happens next.

5Firstly though, let me give you a flavour of what the country is like; those of you who have been to Scotland will have noticed a very different architecture from England, a different cuisine from England, a different music from England. Let us consider the Crown of Scotland that we carried into the Parliament, the oldest crown in the United Kingdom. It never goes anywhere near the Queen’s head, now isn’t that interesting compared to London, because the Queen in Scotland is not Queen of Scotland, she is Queen of England but she’s not Queen of Scotland. She is Queen of Scots and is so addressed. She is Queen not of right, not because she owns the place but by contract with the people and that goes back almost 600-700 years in Scotland’s constitutional story, it goes right back to the battle of Bannockburn in 1314 when we saw off the invader from the South and England recognized Scotland as a sovereign state. The great difference of course with Wales and Northern Ireland is that Scotland never experienced conquest. An what was important in Scots constitutional theory after 1314 is that the declaration of independence setting down the rights said this, said of Robert the Bruce who had just won this extraordinary victory: firstly, for so long as a hundred of us remain alive, we shall never in any circumstances accept the domination of the English and secondly, that if Robert the Bruce, having won the victory should betray the trust of the people, he would be removed by the people and we would find a new king. So there is a tradition which is profoundly different from that you’ll find taught at Westminster.

6Scotland has been a nation for a thousand years, by which I mean we have lived under common institutions and more or less inside the same territory for that period of time. There are days when I think that Scotland became a nation too soon, because when we look at the rediscovery of peoples, the invention of nations in 1848 and onwards, when the Slovaks, and the Slovenes, and the Croats, and the Czechs were trying to feel their way to a new national identity and institutions, we’d had that from almost the year 1000 and that makes our history rather different. In November 2007, the Scotsman newspaper went to 100 sages in Scotland, writers, academics, business leaders and they asked a simple question: what was the most important moment for you personally in Scottish history? And I thought they might have talked about the expansion of Empire, they might have talked about the Enlightenment which marked the universities in Scotland in the 18th century, but 83 of the sages said the most important moment were the wars of independence in the 13th century because without these wars being won Scotland would have become simply north Britain.

7When you are a state, you develop institutions, when you are a state, you develop a foreign policy, so you have of course the long connection of Scotland and France, la vieille alliance, Marie Stuart Queen of France, Queen of the Scots, you have the garde écossaise at the Royal court in France, you have many of Napoleon’s marshals of Scottish origin, you even have today in Scotland the way we butcher meat is in the French tradition and not in the English tradition, so if you go to a butcher in Scotland and ask for a lamb chop it’s a gigot, un gigot in French, even haggis, our Scottish national delicacy, if you so think, is no more than “steak hâché” . So the traditions go back over a very, very long period of time.

8The second major change in Scottish history was the end of “la vieille alliance and the adoption of Presbyterian forms of government in Scotland at the Reformation. John Knox, French connexion through language, worked with Calvin and came back rather like Ayatollah Khomeini and pulled down everything that was beautiful and lovely but did establish a system of Church governance which was profoundly democratic. No bishops, everyone equal, the Church electing its own Minister, the Minister electing the Synod, everyone coming together in a General Assembly once a year. A very, very different tradition from that of England. And to this day you will find that the Church which in these days looked after social welfare, looked after to a large extent education, these distinctive traditions run on and through. So what I am trying to do here is to discover the roots of national identity.

9In 1603 the King of Scotland, the King of Scots, James VI, became the King of England; it was a personal union, the two states remained separate; in the 1690s, a Scotsman, John Law, who gave you the Bank of France, came back to Scotland with a money-making wheeze, what he was going to do was capture Panama and control for Scotland the trade between the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans, and for three years the Scots took on the French, the Spanish, the English, with a small colony based in Panama. It bankrupted the country and then led to the Union of 1707 when the two Parliaments came together.

10What was in it for the English? Their backdoor was protected, funny Scots not making common cause with the French anymore. What was in it for the Scots? Access to the trade of the English Empire and so the Treaty of Union, which was not an Act of Union, it was a treaty between two sovereign states, was formed. But something very important in the carriers of national identity was saved in that treaty, that the Church in Scotland would remain a Presbyterian, democratic, popular Church for all time; that the Scottish system of education which is markedly different and broader from the system of education practised in England would be retained: four universities in Scotland from the Middle Ages for example, only two in England; and thirdly that the administration of the country which had developed in a more localized way would continue. So the two Parliaments came together in one new Parliament but the carriers of institutional identity in the country remained and remain to this day.

11We talked a little earlier about the British Empire: the Scots did extraordinarily well in the British Empire, they were as I said earlier, the jurists, the lawyers, the administrators, the engineers and Scotland was into the industrial revolution very, very early: shipbuilding, engineering, bridges: in 1900, the wage rates of a working man in Glasgow were the highest in the world. We were not very nice in terms of pushing the Empire, we retained a dual identity - in those days it ran like this, Burns Clubs/Rule Britannia - but we benefited economically from it.

12So what went wrong? What went wrong was two world wars, the slaughter of a whole generation of young Scots in the first world war; we are about 8% of the population of the United Kingdom, but in the First World War of the British army we were 22% of the infantry and in the battles of the trenches it was the infantry which got slaughtered. If you take my mother’s family, one of 9 sisters, only two married, all the young men had been killed and that doesn’t do much for self-confidence.

13The economic slump of the 1920s and ‘30s, heavy industry no longer absolutely appropriate, World War II, Britain and Scotland utterly exhausted in the fight, economic troubles thereafter and the answers being given from London to the economic and social problems in the country, centralization, economic centralization, political decision-making centralized, staved off the problem but didn’t solve it.

14Now, I came into politics and went to the House of Commons as a young M.P. for the first time in 1974, and I have never been a 100% politician, because I think there is life outside politics, but I went for one specific reason and that was the Labour Party in response to the Nationalists who were small at that time indicated they would rather have a Conservative government in London for the next ten years than a Socialist government in Edinburgh. They were thinking of Baggins turn, they were thinking that somewhere in the natural turning over of politics, it would become their issue, they would get their hands on the levers of power and so the state would be transformed. I believed that in Scotland, as a social-democrat, please remember the Nationalist Party in Scotland is left-of-centre, unlike large parts of nationalism in Europe, I believed that we had to control many of these mechanisms within Scotland because our traditions were different and the solutions might be different too.

15But this does not explain how we made the jump from that situation in the 1970s to Parliament being established in the 1990s. In the elections from the 1980s onwards, Scotland voted in election after election left-of-centre and had a government imposed on it by English votes which was exceedingly Atlanticist, neo-liberal, right-wing. So while Mrs Thatcher may in large parts of Europe be seen as a heroin, she was never so seen in Scotland. I remember one profound moment when that occurred to me: she invited herself to address the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland; she wasn’t asked by them, she just came as was her habit, and in the course of her speech she said there is no such thing as society. This was rampant Methodism, rampant individualism, rampant neo-liberal politics and she left without a single flutter of applause. She also imposed some forms of taxation in Scotland before she started them in England, so there was an extraordinary democratic deficit. The country votes one way, Scotland gets a government which votes the other way and that produced a broad alliance of two interest groups.

16The first alliance was all the opposition parties, for the first time the Labour Party, which had been the dominant party in Scotland, the Scottish National Party, the Liberal-Democratic Party, what Greens and what Socialists there were, made common cause for a Scottish parliament to address the democratic deficit. But there was a second interest group pressing for a parliament and these were the carriers of the old Scots tradition of the community of the realm, the Churches, the trade-unions, academics, university teachers, writers and all made common cause in a new model for a Scots government.

17It was a success, 75% of the Scottish people voted yes and it did not vote yes just once, uniquely in Western Europe they voted yes a second time, which would allow the Scots Parliament to tax them further if they so wished in the interest of projects of communal benefit.

181999 therefore, the Parliament was set up. I was brought on to a government steering group called the Consultative Steering Group to try and decide what sort of parliament it would be, and remember the history of asymmetrical devolution inside the United Kingdom, what runs in Scotland, does not necessarily run in Wales or in Northern Ireland.

19There has been a turn off from democratic governance everywhere in Western Europe, people have become much more individualized, the old ideological certainties have gone and the net result is that people don’t vote anymore. We therefore drew on the old traditions of Scots participatory governance to try and build something which was not the representative governance of Westminster. If you go to the House of Commons, what is the most immediate thing you see in the Chamber? That the Opposition sit opposite the Government and do you know they sit two swords lengths apart from the 17th century and by and large they shout abuse at each other, and the only thing that a backbencher, a non-minister, is there to do, is to cheer on his side for victory the next time round. If you look at the model adopted in Scotland, for the first time in the United Kingdom, proportional government, proportional voting, so that no one was ever going to have a majority in government. If you look at the building in Edinburgh, members sit not facing each other but sit in a hemicycle as would be commonplace anywhere in Europe and we drew therefore on the traditions of Europe, the traditions of other small countries like Ireland and Norway and the tradition of devolved legislatures throughout the British Commonwealth.

20Look at the architecture of the building and try to get to the “racines” of nationality. You know what Westminster looks like: it is potent, it radiates power, power top down, it is set apart from the people. If you look at the Scots Parliament, it is part of the daily life of the high street of Edinburgh, a thousand years of history there, it is participative in its structures, and that goes back to the roots which I discussed historically earlier. In the 19th-century industrial revolution, of course governance had to be representative, you get the votes and go to Westminster, because you are going in a horse and carriage, because there is no telephone and therefore you have got to take decisions on our behalf. In a new age of knowledge, digital age, all information is available instantaneously and therefore it is right and proper that the people themselves can be engaged in the process, and indeed politics is far too important these days to be left just to the politicians.

21The voting system is an Additional Member System (AMS); Scotland is a country of 5m people. 73 members are elected of the 129, first-past-the-post, winner-takes-all, in a constituency which would normally represent around 45,000 people. In addition to that 56 members are added up on regional lists so you have proportionality: very broadly what you do is you look at the number of seats a party has inside the region, you look at the number of votes cast for that party and because you will get an imbalance after first-past-the-post, you balance it out by nominating people from party lists; it is accurate to within about 3% of proportionality, the net result there is that no one ever has a majority and all governments will have to be coalitions.

22The second major change in terms of governance was to stress that committee work is as important as chamber work. Unlike Westminster our sixteen committees can initiate legislation themselves and can hold investigations and they have to do so in conjunction with the people. Anybody in Scotland when a draft bill is put forward can put in their own comment and that of course is much easier in an electronic age. This is carried in Scotland to its most logical conclusion. In a petitionic system which I think is probably unique in the world today and is getting very close to the Swiss power of popular initiative. If a group of people come to the Parliament with a right to be wronged, they are bound to be listened to; if it is within the remit of the Scottish Parliament their petition goes though the committees and then the law or the regulations can be changed. I’ll give you an example: we were not very good in the Thatcher years at managing our sewage and our water systems; the European Union stops the dumping of sewage at sea, it is then in a triumph of advertising art turned into beneficial bio-solids and it is spread about six inches thick in the fields; not very nice if you are living in these areas. Three tiny villages, population 80, 120 and 175, bring a petition to the Parliament, the Parliament’s committees sit, not in Edinburgh, they sit in the tiny villages, they take evidence and the whole practice was banned and the law changed: popular initiative. If you take a tiny example of mothers last year of children being scalded in the bath, normally what happens, two-year old in the bath with the baby, phone rings, mother turns away, two-year old turns on the hot tap, baby is scalded; they brought a petition to the Scottish Parliament, all building regulations were changed so all baths in new builds now have thermostats fitted. Important in the great scheme of events? Not terribly. Important if you are a scalded baby? Yes, and important in terms of showing that popular initiative and participation actually work.

23I’ll give you the alternative view of petitioning from Westminster in terms of New Labour. Tony Blair thought this was a good wheeze in terms of connecting with the people, so on the Downing Street website he too had a petition and he got on one subject over 1m petitions. A problem was that no structure had been built in to deal with it, so that between aspiration and procedure there was nothing particularly there.

24Another example of the communities of the realm, the participatory approach, compared to the representative approach, is to know, if you are a member in the House of Commons the only way you can get a seat, because there’s only room for about 30% of members, the only way you can get a seat is to go and pray, an you get a little pink card, and more than that you can only pray according to the rituals of the Church of England, and what’s more you have got to pray by turning your face to the wall because otherwise you might prompt somebody on the other side of you with a sword. Exclusive.

25In the Scottish Parliament we set out something called time for reflexion, where the entire community prays or reflects proportionally, so with notification from the census we will have atheists leading time for reflexion, humanists leading time for reflexion, Imams from the Muslim world leading time for reflexion, Buddhists from the big Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the Borders leading time for reflexion, a very different, more inclusive, participatory approach than south of the border. In terms of gender, 33% of the Members of the Scottish Parliament are women, which is not enough, it should be 50%, but it is the highest percentage of Parliaments in the British Commonwealth and that was done quite deliberately through the politics of equality of opportunity. I could go on and on and we could ask more questions but it was a very Scottish, non-Demos approach, to building a new constitutional machinery. It was based on something called the ‘Claim of Right’ which is a hark back to 17th-century Scotland and the following principles: in all our work we shall be accessible (Parliament should be open to the people); in all our work we shall be accountable, the people should know where every penny is spent, for example if I spend £3 on a taxi as a parliamentary expense it will be digitised and placed on a website so everybody can see exactly what I have spent; it will be equal opportunities, in terms of women and disabled and the minorities in Scotland of whom there are few but they are proportionally represented and there will be a balanced sharing of power between government, between people and between the Parliament itself. A different model therefore of elections.

26Just to give you some idea of the working week before I move on to what exactly happened. The Parliament will always meet in committees anywhere in Scotland on Tuesday, it will meet in committees on the Wednesday morning, sometimes it will meet in committees on a Monday, Wednesday afternoon will be a full plenary session, all day Thursday will be a full plenary session and unlike Westminster voting is electronic which means we can do all the votes in 8 minutes, whereas a single vote in Westminster, because you have got to get out of your seat and walk round the building to vote, all the votes can be done in a short period of time. Friday people are back in their constituencies because we do of course have this strong tradition that you will have an office in the area which represented you, you will have two staff in that office, and at the end of the week most members go back to becoming frankly social workers; they will deal with people who are in jail, they will deal with holes in the roads, they will deal with environmental methods and so on and so forth. The Presiding Officer or President probably has significantly more powers than the Speaker at Westminster, one because you are Chairman of the Board, you are individually responsible for all financial decisions, and number 2, to a large extent you are Leader of the House because you chair the committee which will decide the business of the Parliament.

27That then is the structure which we set up. You don’t change the culture of a country overnight. People have to learn a trade, and a large number of the members who were elected to the first Parliament in 1999 had never sat in a legislature before, there were only 17 of us out of 129, a lot came from a social work background or from a local government background and it takes time frankly for members to learn their trade as politicians. The second problem was that there was a great hoo-ha and crisis over the cost of this new Parliament which, in an interesting Scots tradition, was built not by a Scots architect but in an international competition by a Catalan architect, Enrique Morales. It is a wonderful building, it won an extraordinary number of prizes but it cost significantly more, as these grand ventures always do, than planned and it took two to three years longer to finish than was expected and this was played to a large extent as new politicians don’t know what they are doing and they are wasting our money and one of the main jobs I had to do when I was in the Chair was to try and sort this out.

28Has it worked? There has been a vast corpus of law which is basically good. Previously Scots legislation which always had to be separate legislation because when you have got a supreme court and a Roman-Dutch form of law in Scotland compared to Common law in England, any measure going through in the United Kingdom from 1707 onwards which dealt with the areas of law had to have a separate Scots bill, normally which the assembly stuck on the backhand of an English bill, so in the whole area of social work and housing and education and health vast effort has been spent in that direction. A dream of Scots for hundred of years that the land belonged to all the people was put through in radical land reform so that you can go anywhere in Scotland now, in the hills, the mountains, the valleys and it also gave the right to small communities to buy their own land so what has been extremely interesting in terms of some of the latifundia of the great estates owned by foreigners or islands is that people have been able to buy their own island, to put in their own electricity, to put in their own schooling and so on and so forth.

29Moreover, in the United Kingdom, England, modernization of the public services has been driven to a large extent by “efficiency” and by freedom of choice, which has meant privatizing large sections of what were classically enterprises belonging to all the people. This is particularly true in the health service. In Scotland we have deliberately kept the universally-funded, universally-available, National Health Service. In education, because education is the future, we reversed that significantly and there is no fee for students in Scotland whereas fees have been increased significantly at universities in England.

30In terms of human rights legislation, significant changes particularly in the practice of Westminster of deporting asylum seekers and above all imprisoning children. There was a natural Scots reaction to that, and finally, there is nothing in the legislation to stop the Scottish Parliament discussing any subject whatsoever, whether it has legal statutory responsibility for that or not. This is not unimportant in terms of the coalition which was formed for the May election last year which brought in the Nationalist government, because there was universal opposition, when I say universal it was about 70%, to the war in Iraq and to the engagement of forces in Iraq and in the Bush-supportive agenda being followed by Tony Blair.

31All of that then indicates general advance, learning your trade, but nothing of a wildly radical nature. Why then was there such a change between “Parliament II”, a Labour majority in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, and the Nationalist government being formed? And the target for the Nationalists was not easy. They had to win 20 seats, that’s quite a win in a Parliament of 129 and they did it, they did it just, the arithmetic today is: the Scottish National Party 47 seats, the Labour Party 46 seats, then a big drop to the Conservatives 17 seats, the Liberal Democrats 16 seats, 2 Greens and 1 Independent. The Greens and the Independent are for independence also so in fact the figures are something like 50 to 46. What were the reasons for that? One was a dissatisfaction in the Scottish psyche with what Mr Blair had done to the Labour Party; the Labour Party had been the party of the underdog, the party of social justice and north of the border he was seen as having turned it into something much more centre-right and posters throughout the country would regularly show a transmogrification, picture n#1 Mrs Thatcher, picture n#2 half Mrs Thatcher-Tony Blair, picture n#3 Tony Blair. So there was that feeling that the communitarian social values of the Labour Party had been lost. The second reason was the Iraq war and Blair himself. The third reason going right back to my opening remarks was how the Labour Party was going to manage this monster which it had created of Parliaments and Assemblies in Edinburgh and Cardiff and in Belfast, and not at the same time cope with the English issue. How do you deal with the English issue? You must remember the arithmetic of the UK: the Labour Party can generally win at Westminster only when it has Labour Party votes from Scotland and from Wales. Here now is a terrific problem : if the heartlands are disappearing, how does Mr. Brown, having succeeded Mr. Blair, manage the direction of the United Kingdom? Which is why you have had the attempts by Mr. Brown to reinvent Britain and put people back into what, to a large extent, I see as an “étatiste” 19th-century box. The net result was the Labour Party in Scotland prior to the May election were told to campaign exclusively on the basis that everything was fine, this was a perfect constitutional settlement, and that all the Nationalists would do is rip the country apart, plunge it into chaos, ruin the economy and it was a campaign based on fear. That campaign worked in 1999, it did not work in 2007. Why was that? For some of the political reasons I have given you but also quite frankly eight years down the road, when an Assembly, a Parliament, has gained the confidence of the people, fear campaigns of this type do not work. And so the transformation has happened. The Nationalists are in power in Edinburgh. There is incidentally one enormous opinion poll twice a year, with a very large base, which asks some simple questions and for the sixth year running people have put 70% trust in the Scottish Parliament to look after the people of Scotland. Do you know what trust they put in Westminster to do that? 20%. And the same number have always said there must be further accretion of powers. So now you have a Nationalist administration attempting to be helpful, being undoubtedly difficult for the United Kingdom government on issues like fishing policy in the European Union, terribly important to Scotland, not terribly important to Westminster. Interestingly, responding immediately to the announcement of the British government a few weeks ago that Britain would go nuclear and we would commit to a new generation of nuclear reactors, not in Scotland, it will not happen in Scotland they said and the reason for that, given the complexity of the situation, is that while energy in that respect nuclear is reserved to London, planning permission for the construction of nuclear generators and for the disposal of nuclear waste belongs to Scotland, so that they can’t do it unless they have got agreement.

32The biggest change is in the relationship of the other parties. The Nationalist administration have announced they will hold a referendum on independence on 2010. I don’t think they will because I don’t think they have got the votes for it but it is a declaration of where they want to go and all the other parties have formed their own convention and the interesting thing about that is that they have all committed to further extension of powers in Scotland, particularly in the fiscal field. So the one thing I am utterly clear about, I am not clear about independence, the one thing I am clear about is that this is a process which rolls forward. It is not an event fixed in time for all time and that there will be significant further constitutional change.

33Where I started in terms of identity and roots was in the culture of a people who have been different, who were always conscious of their difference and who continue that into the current age.

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George REID, « The New Scotland - a Disunited Kingdom? », E-rea [En ligne], 7.1 | 2009, mis en ligne le 15 juillet 2009, consulté le 14 décembre 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.918

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George REID

George Reid is a Scottish politician, former SNP MP and MSP, journalist and academic. He was Deputy Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament 1999-2003 and Presiding Officer (non-party) 2003-2007. He was appointed Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in January 2008.

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