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Scotland's Parliament: lessons for Northern Ireland


Gerry Hassan


This paper is based on a lecture given by Gerry Hassan for Democratic Dialogue in Belfast on June 15th 1998. The author is director of the Centre for Scottish Public Policy; he recently prepared a report for the Fabian Society, The New Scotland.

© Democratic Dialogue 1998

Executive summary

Scotland's politics have been shaped over the last 20 years by a conservative consensus in which the parties have differentiated themselves primarily on the constitutional question while converging on economic and social issues. This is similar to Northern Ireland and the process of devolution will demand that the parties in both address an economic and social agenda.

Scottish politics have been defined during 18 years of Tory government by an oppositionalist mentality and agenda which avoided hard choices. This matches the experience of Northern Ireland under direct rule, where politicians without power were able to see extra government spending as the solution to every problem.

Debate and discussion around the Scottish parliament has focused almost exclusively on institutional and political processes, to the exclusion of economic and social issues. If this remains so, there will be a growing prospect of the parliament changing very little and quickly disillusioning the high hopes of its supporters.

An internal status quo has defined both Scottish and Northern Ireland politics. In each, a defensive consensus characterised by stasis and inertia has become the political settlement. The conservatism of this has aided the divorcing of the language and values of politics from economic and social realities.

This politics without responsibility has had many repercussions. In Scotland, the old-Labour coalition has been held together long past its sell-by date, while in Northern Ireland both unionists and nationalists have defined their politics by defensiveness and the past.

Labour-SNP politics in Scotland, in a manner similar to unionist-nationalist politics in Northern Ireland, has become stuck in old certainties and mentalities which have prevented change and adaptation. Both have failed to develop what could be called, for all their limitations, 'middle-Scotland' and 'middle-Ulster' strategies.

Scottish unionism and nationalism overlap to a marked degree, unlike Northern Ireland. In both, however, unionism has become defeatist and apprehensive about the future: in Scotland in the 80s it became a cause that dared not speak its name. In both, we need a politics which includes a positive, pluralist unionism, articulating the sense of Britishness a majority of people feel in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Home rule: a brief history

Scotland is on the brink of historic and far-reaching change with the establishment of a Scottish parliament. Indeed, the process is already well under way, and Scottish politics is being redefined. Inefficient and corrupt Labour local authorities are being put under new scrutiny, and competition between Labour and the Scottish National Party for the first parliamentary elections is developing into the first serious political contest in Scotland for decades.

Scotland sits in this position after over a century of debate, discussion and failed campaigns. The struggle for Scottish home rule—to achieve a parliament within the United Kingdom—goes back to the 1880s when Gladstone began considering Irish home rule. Since then, more than 30 Scottish home-rule bills have been proposed at Westminster with only two—the Scotland Act 1978 and the Scotland Bill 1998—having succeeded in getting through Westminster.

Scotland's political parties have shifted their positions many times on the issue of a parliament, usually in relation to two issues: first, whether they were in power or close to power, and, secondly, whether they viewed Scottish nationalism as a threat to themselves electorally or to the union. The two primary factors in shaping the debate over home rule in the last 30 years have been the rise of the SNP and the existence of Thatcherism.

The SNP arrived in Scottish politics as a serious electoral force in the second Wilson government, winning Hamilton in 1967 and forcing the British parties to respond to its agenda. The Conservatives moved briefly to supporting devolution under Edward Heath. Labour set up a royal commission, and when the SNP broke through, in the 1974 general election, Scottish Labour moved back to a devolutionary position imposed by the London leadership.

To most Scots, Thatcherism pursued an agenda which was at odds with Scottish distinctiveness in the union and with the social-democratic settlement in Scotland. At every general election post-1979, a majority of Scots voted for parties supporting constitutional change, while the Conservatives insisted that the only options were the status quo or independence.

The 1987 election saw the Scots Tories lose over half their seats, while Mrs Thatcher won an overall majority of 102 based on English constituencies. In response, a distinguished group of the great and the good produced 'A Claim of Right for Scotland'— signed by all Scottish Labour MPs bar Tam Dalyell—which asserted the "sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of Government best suited to their needs".

This was Scottish Labour adopting the politics and language of Scottish nationalism. It led to the cross-party Scottish Constitutional Convention, through which Labour and the Liberal Democrats (with the SNP absent) produced a detailed plan for a parliament which formed the backdrop to the Scotland Bill.

Scottish unionisms and nationalisms

Scottish unionism and nationalism have changed themselves, what they represent and their agenda, many times in post-war politics. They have also changed in terms of their popularity, with unionism declining dramatically over the last 20 years.

All four main political parties currently relate in some way to a Scottish nationalist agenda. In the Thatcher-Major years, the Scottish Tories were seen as alien, English and un-Scottish, while the other three parties (Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the SNP) were seen as representative of a broad, inclusive Scottish nationalism. But the Tories began 'rebranding' themselves during Michael Forsyth's period as the last Conservative secretary of state, and in opposition they are continuing to reposition, with a 'Made in Scotland' identity.

The decline of Scottish unionism during the Tory years was associated with the hard-edged attitudes of Mrs Thatcher and Mr Major, but this concealed divisions within unionism and its continued majority support. Scottish Labour and the Liberal Democrats have both always been unionist parties, but during the 80s they chose to emphasise their nationalist credentials to differentiate themselves from the unionist Tories. When the Conservative era drew to a close, this caused problems for Scottish Labour as it repositioned itself, on a partly unionist, partly nationalist agenda.

What differentiates Scottish unionisms and nationalisms is more often matters of style, language and values than substance—and there is a changing but substantial degree of overlap between them. The simple distinction of unionists being anti-devolution and nationalists pro-devolution is a caricature of the complexity of Scottish politics.

Most unionists are also devolutionists. Both pro- and anti-devolutionists emphasise their unionist credentials by centring their policies on whether they will 'save the union'. The defining question between unionisms and nationalisms during the Tory years, and now under New Labour, is whether unionist devolutionists have more in common with unionist anti-devolutionists or with Scottish nationalists. In the 80s, unionist anti-devolutionists were marginalised, yet we may be about to see the rebuilding of a new majority-unionist alliance to defeat the SNP.

The home-rule consensus

The Scottish parliament has in part been brought about by a home-rule consensus which is based on a series of inter-connecting assumptions and 'myths'. These include: that Scotland is substantially different from England in ideas, values and policies supported; that Scottish nationalism is profoundly changed, and more confident, since the 70s; and that there is a long-term 'Scottishing' of Scottish politics which will see increasing autonomy for Scotland.

There are difficulties with all these assumptions. But, above all, the home-rule consensus is presented by its supporters as a given—as something that has always been there, as the logical expression of Scottish national identity and nationalism. Nothing could be further from the truth: it is a relatively recent development, coming out of the conjuncture of the 1979 devolution referendum débâcle and the subsequent Tory victory.

This consensus has in its over-emphasis on Scottish politics tended to ignore the way Scottish and wider British politics and nationalisms influence each other. Minority and majority nationalisms in multi-national states often have evolving inter-relationships, shaping and defining one another. The minority nationalism (Scots) is more shaped by the majority one (English) than vice versa, but both contribute significantly to multi-national British 'nationalism'.

Scottish nationalism is thus a very British phenomenon. Despite this, many Scots have a problem acknowledging the British part of Scottish politics, identity, culture and ourselves. Even if we now consider Britishness to be a marginal or secondary identity in Scotland, defined by past ties, it is an identity which has some relevance, irrespective of our political future.

An independent Scotland, for example, would still have to acknowledge a degree of British identity, geographically, as part of the British isles, and politically, via co-operation with the rest of the UK in something similar to the Nordic Council—the role anticipated for the British-Irish Council envisaged in the Belfast agreement. Separatism, in this sense, does not exist even in the politics of Scottish independence.

The home-rule consensus has tended to see Scotland as radical, egalitarian, community-minded and, above all, different from England. It has also become more and more linked to an anti-Tory consensus, developing during the 18 years of Conservative government, which saw Scotland as 'left-wing' and 'anti-Tory' and England as 'right-wing' and 'Tory'.

This allowed the Scots to see themselves as principled and virtuous in their opposition to Thatcherism, while the English were thought of as having sold their souls to the materialist and selfish agenda of the 80s. It is an outlook that lives on under New Labour, with many Scots dismissing the need for New Labour north of the border and equating its analysis with Thatcherism.

The Scottish political classes and the parliament

The campaign for Scottish self-government has tended to look almost exclusively at ways of achieving a parliament, to the exclusion of what it will do. This is due to the power of the home-rule consensus, which perceives the parliament as its living embodiment and so assumes it will automatically be a liberating, radical and relevant body.

Even when the Scottish political classes venture on to an agenda for the parliament, they concentrate almost entirely on institutional and political processes—such as the electoral system or standing orders—to the neglect of an economic and social agenda. This means that, with less than one year to the parliament, there is very little clear idea about what difference a parliament may bring to Scottish life, and very little ferment of ideas and debate beyond this narrow agenda.

Different social-policy scenarios for the parliament have been outlined by Richard Parry of Edinburgh University:

  • professionally based stasis—where the Scottish professional classes and vested interests use their influence to maintain their advantaged position;
  • innovative social policy—flexibility and client-led policies; and
  • conflict-ridden social policy—differences between expectations of a parliament and its actual policy agenda.

Unless we act urgently, the Scottish parliament will represent the administration of the internal status quo. This would allow the Scottish professional classes and vested interests to use their influence to maintain their cosy lives at the expense of the rest of us. It should be remembered that, the 'poll tax' excluded, Thatcherism never really happened in Scotland at a political level—a powerful alliance of the Scottish Office, the political parties and most of civil society maintaining the social-democratic settlement. These groups think that the arrival of a parliament represents a vindication of their opposition to any change during the last 18 years, and a green light to carry on as before.

Yet while it failed to change the language and values of Scotland's politics, Thatcherism presided over fundamental changes in its economy and society. A Scottish social democracy has survived, linked to the home-rule consensus, even though a combination of Mrs Thatcher and Mr Blair have finally killed it off at a British level. The prospects for rebuilding and revitalising Scottish social democracy on the back of the powers of the parliament are extremely low.

Thatcherism post-1979 aided and encouraged many changes—including limited government, low taxation, increased labour-market flexibility and wider personal choice. This framework and series of trends have to be accepted and worked within to develop policies to enhance opportunities and tackle social inequalities.

Many on the Scottish left seem to live in a time warp, assuming Thatcherism never happened in Scotland or that its consequences can be easily reversed. Many want to use the parliament as a bulwark against social change since 1979, and to try to roll the clock back.

The home-rule consensus has many strengths. It assisted the majority opposition to Thatcherism in 80s Scotland and aided the undoubted growth of self-confidence and diversity in certain parts of Scottish life. The demands of the 18 Tory years, however, represented an oppositional politics inappropriate to the current situation, where we have to face tough and critical decisions about the future of Scotland and the society in which we want to live.

The obsession with opposing every action of Thatcherism from 1979 has preserved Scottish politics in a kind of aspic. Scotland as an economy and society has been transformed, but politicians still talk and think in a world of 60s and 70s big government and parochial, small-time local government. A Scottish political class—in a way similar to Northern Ireland under direct rule—has grown up without responsibility for running things, setting priorities and making tough choices.

The politics of the parliament

The 'new-politics' perspective associated with the constitutional convention and the Claim of Right aimed to make sure a Scottish parliament would represent a fundamental break with Westminster and local-government practice. It sought to improve on the Scotland Act 1978, addressing concerns—such as of Labour one-party rule and central-belt domination—through proposals for electoral reform, gender balance and more open, accountable government.

Of the 129 members of the Scottish parliament or MSPs (21 more than for the Northern Ireland assembly), 73 will be elected on a first-past-the-post constituency basis, with the 56 additional members drawn from party lists to achieve a broadly proportional overall outcome. This will make it extremely unlikely that any party will win an overall majority: Scottish Labour has never won more than half the popular vote (whereas Welsh Labour has done so nine times out of 15 in post-war elections).

New-politics supporters assert that this absence of majority control will aid inter-party co-operation and dialogue—with the cross-party constitutional convention the most-cited instance. This, however, was a consensus formed to establish a detailed plan for a parliament, whereas the parliament in reality will be shaped by the very different pressures of competitive electoral politics.

Consensus politics will not be produced by the electoral system, as any comparative analysis shows. Germany, the Republic of Ireland and Israel may all have proportional systems, yet their political practices vary widely from consensual Germany to adversarial Israel. Consensus springs from deeper issues than electoral systems, such as political culture—as we should know in Scotland, where a style of consensus politics operates in an adversarial electoral system.

On gender balance, both Labour and the Liberal Democrats gave a commitment in 1995 to gender equality, but this has proved troublesome. The Liberal Democrats threw out gender-equality proposals at their latest Scottish conference, as did the SNP at its recent gathering. Labour has finally—after legal problems over all-women shortlists and in light of the opposition of the lord chancellor, Lord Irvine, to positive discrimination—supported twinning between constituencies. Under that plan, Edinburgh North and Leith and Edinburgh Central, for example, would choose between them one male and one female Labour candidate.

Let us assume that both Labour and the Liberal Democrats do succeed in selecting, and having elected, a significant number of female MSPs. This would mark a substantial shift in the male, exclusive ethos of Scottish politics, but would it actually change anything of substance? The election of 102 Labour women to Westminster last year has so far failed to dent the misogynist culture of the Commons—and we know that this macho culture is more embedded, and thus more difficult to dislodge, in Scotland.

I am not arguing against electoral reform, gender balance or the pursuit of open government. But the home-rule consensus has focused excessively on these institutional issues, to the exclusion of economic and social concerns. And the implementation of such proposals will not necessarily shift Scottish politics from its current perspective of social democracy and élite consensus politics.

Much of the debate and advocacy on the new politics has come from organisations outside the confines of political parties, including self-organised groups and agencies in Scottish civil society.

Scotland is a small country, whose occasionally unlimited aspirations meet a reality of limited resources and skills in intellectual activity, politics, culture and—obviously—sport. The forces of Scottish civil society—the voluntary sector, think tanks and other institutions—do not have the finance or infrastructure to develop major research departments or projects, and nor do the parties.

There is no Scottish equivalent of the Fabian Society, the Institute for Public Policy Research or Demos. The two centre-left think tanks—the Centre for Scottish Public Policy and the Scottish Council Foundation—both have very limited resources and personnel. Moreover, while the Fabians are clearly an established 'old-left' think tank, and IPPR and Demos draw from the newer strands of left thought, the Scottish think tanks do not come from these distinct perspectives—putting them at a disadvantage in terms of their range and radicalism.

The limited nature of Scottish civil society is indicated by the fact that the 'long march' through Scottish institutions is not that long: it is not very difficult to move from being an 'outsider' in Scotland to an 'insider', or to enjoy the appearance of being one. But this often carries a high price—incorporation into a conformist perspective in which it is well-nigh-impossible to secure the resources to advance a critique of the existing consensus.

The party system

The establishment of a parliament will have consequences for all the parties and the party system. It will make it possible to break with the conservative consensus which has shaped Scottish politics over the last 20 years, in which the parties have differentiated themselves primarily on the constitutional question while converging on economic and social issues.

While there is no guarantee that the new electoral system for the parliament will engender benign inter-party relationships, what is clear is that Scottish Labour will find that the additional member system will not only make an overall Labour majority extremely implausible, but will also subtly shift the balance of power in the party.

Since the 20s, Labour's outlook has shaped Scottish politics and the party has in turn been shaped by its dominance of the west of Scotland, which has become a one-party state in terms of both Westminster and municipal elections. The AMS system will reintroduce opposition representation into places like Glasgow, where with 60 per cent support in 1997 Labour won ten Westminster seats and the opposition none. Power will shift within Labour away from the west-of-Scotland focus.

The new electoral system will change the balance of party strengths profoundly. If the 1997 voting pattern—in which Labour triumphed in 56 out of 72 seats—was replicated in an election to the parliament, it would produce the much more diverse result of Labour 63, SNP 28, Conservatives 22 and Liberal Democrats 16. This means that, even on Labour's excellent showing in 1997, it would fall short of an overall majority in the parliament.

Several governing alliances are possible in Scotland's four-party system:

a Labour majority administration—although unlikely, Labour did win 49.9 per cent of the Scottish vote in 1966, which would be enough to win more than half the seats in the new parliament;

  • a Labour minority administration—this could be feasible on Labour's 1997 showing, where it would miss an overall majority by just two seats;
  • a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition—this would be viable on the basis of the 1992 and 1997 election results;
  • an SNP minority administration—on neither the 1992 nor 1997 results is this a runner, but on the latest and most favourable polls the SNP would be the largest party, so this is an outside possibility;
  • an SNP-Liberal Democrat coalition—not feasible on the 1992 or 1997 figures, but most polls show this to be a definite possibility;
  • an SNP-Conservative agreement—on a 1992 showing this would enjoy four more seats than Labour, and so if a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition was not possible it might have a chance; and
  • an anti-Labour front—as long as Labour fails to command an overall majority, this unlikely alliance would be able to do so.

Some will say some of these alliances are extremely unlikely. This makes the mistake of projecting Scottish politics from its current state, rather than imagining the new dynamics that could be unleashed by the parliament, reconfiguring Scottish politics in ways not yet conceivable.

An SNP-Conservative agreement or three-party anti-Labour front is unlikely at present as a governing coalition, but it could develop as an issue-based alliance and in the longer-term be viable when the Conservatives, at some point, re-establish their Scottish credentials. There is even the possibility raised by Tory and Labour spokespeople of the two parties co-operating in some unionist alliance against the SNP.

The only alliance that is not conceivable in the next 25 years or so is Labour-SNP, because conflict between these two parties and competition for voters defines Scottish politics. And the new electoral system will in some ways enhance this conflict, rather than aiding consensus.

The current SNP parliamentary group is entirely taken from ex-Tory rural seats outside the central belt, whereas in the Scottish parliament most SNP MSPs will come from the central belt and Labour strongholds. Labour's gut-instinct hatred of the SNP will be increased by the sizeable SNP representation in what much of Labour still sees paternalistically as 'our heartlands'. There will be no let up in the age-old Labour-SNP war of words and insult.

Labour is bemused by the SNP: it cannot understand a party which does not correspond to the simple class politics of most Labour activists. Epithets like George Robertson's 'snake-oil peddlers' or Donald Dewar's 'wreckers' show the confusion Labour feels about the SNP. And these remarks were made just months after Labour and the SNP had worked closely and successfully together in the 1997 home-rule referendum.

Shortly after this onslaught failed—the SNP drawing level with Labour in the polls—it was reversed with talk of 'positive, positive, positive'. And when that did not work—the SNP taking an opinion-poll lead—Labour formed a council of war to do battle with its rival once more.

It is a sad tale of a party without a strategy—no matter how many highly paid advisers Mr Dewar has around him. Scottish Labour appears completely unaware of the way most Scots tend to view the SNP, irrespective of whether they plan to vote for it. More than half of all Scots have for the last 20 years seen the SNP as good for Scotland and as a defender of Scottish interests. A recent poll in the Scotsman found 77 per cent perceiving the SNP as standing up for Scotland as against only 43 per cent thinking the same of Scottish Labour. Labour must pick this up from its extensive private polling and expensive focus groups, yet it chooses to ignore its strategic implications.

Labour has to respond to the SNP in a mature, measured and focused way, which does Labour credit as well as the Scottish people. It needs to present its record in government at Scottish and British levels and it needs to articulate a vision of a new Scotland—at which Mr Dewar and Gordon Brown have been spectacularly bad.

We need to talk about economic and social issues if we are to move Scotland away from the politics of the internal status quo. We do not need to continue the Scottish political classes' obsession with constitutional change by talking about the latest referendum.

In many ways the SNP is promoting the old Labour 'tax-and-spend' agenda and the Scottish consensus which has to be challenged. Its focus on constitutional politics hides the fact that its politics are about maintaining the internal status quo in a separate Scottish state. Most Scots see the SNP as a moderate, centre-left, social-democratic party, but for Labour to engage the SNP successfully, the former has to discard its old agenda itself.

The amount of invective flung between Labour and the SNP hides the fact that the parties agree with each other on so much. They converge on a social-democratic view, they dominate political debate and the way they manufacture phoney differences disfigures Scottish politics profoundly. The divisions between them drained the home-rule opposition to Thatcherism of the confidence it should have enjoyed throughout the 80s; it still has fundamental consequences today.

The disjunction between a dynamic Scottish society and culture on the one hand and a conservative politics owes a lot to Labour and the SNP. In their competition for the same left-of-centre urban vote, they both draw on a vision of Scotland which, from Red Clydeside to the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders 'work-in', is one of heroic causes and struggles. This invoking of a past Scotland prevents them addressing the new Scotland which has been emerging over the last 20 years: a growing female workforce, new service and financial sectors, and a new stratum of owner-occupiers.

The convergence of Labour and the SNP prevents them developing agendas for 'middle Scotland' in the way New Labour has done so successfully in England. This has similarities to the politics of Northern Ireland, where the 'peace process' and an Ulster Unionist-SDLP rapprochement might develop into a new vision of a 'middle Ulster'. For all the limitations in the politics of 'middle Scotland/Ulster' obvious in New Labour's 'middle England' strategy, such an approach would be a huge advance in both cases.

The SNP is slowly repositioning itself. Its leader, Alex Salmond, is in many ways the most believable New Labour politician in Scotland. He wants to define the SNP as pro-business, as aware of the limits of government and of the constraints of globalisation. But he leads a party that needs to maintain a 'catch-all' electoral strategy which makes as few enemies as possible, and this involves not rupturing the Scottish status quo and breaking with the old-Labour agenda.

The future of Scottish politics

With the establishment of a parliament, Scottish politics will witness the biggest changes and face the biggest challenges of recent times. The home-rule consensus has got us through many difficult times and aided us through the tortuous experience of Thatcherism, but it is not equipped for the new politics of the new Scotland.

The framework of Scottish politics and the home-rule consensus are defined by two characteristics: a social-democratic perspective and a nationalist dimension. Within this framework, four paradigms are possible:

a social democratic Britishness—this very old-Labour strategy, of Attlee and Gaitskell, is not viable today;

a post-social-democratic Britishness—this is the Blair strategy for the UK, which causes problems in Scotland on the national question;

a social-democratic Scottish nationalism—the view of old Labour, the SNP and the Scottish Trade Union Congress, this represents the politics of the Scottish status quo; and

a post-social-democratic Scottish nationalism—this is the potential ground for a Scottish Labour strategy which challenges the old Labour/SNP view.

The future shape of Scottish politics will be defined by what strategies Scottish Labour and the SNP adopt. At the moment, both articulate essentially old-Labour ideas of 'tax and spend' and big government as the solution to every problem, defining themselves in opposition to a very English New Labour seen as an external threat to the Scottish political order.

Scottish Labour has to shift its position to compete with the SNP and develop a constructive relationship with New Labour. This means developing a post-social-democratic Scottish nationalism—a Scottish Labour modernisation which acknowledges the changes Thatcherism brought about, the crisis of social democracy (including its Scottish variants) and the importance of the national dimension.

To many outside Scotland, in the English left or elsewhere in the world, the Scottish home-rule project is a radical, liberating and victorious cause. This is a moment for new avenues and routes at a Scottish and British level.

From a Scottish point of view, however, these changes can be seen very differently: defining the home-rule consensus in terms of a 'settled will' or 'unfinished business' evinces conservatism and caution rather than radicalism, and is linked to a very non-radical expression of Scottish identity. Home rule could, in this perspective, change very little in Scotland and the UK—bar introducing another layer of politicians.

In the early years of the parliament, with a Labour government in London, there will be a huge incentive to make devolution work, to prove that the new structures can work effectively and harmoniously. The onus will thus be on minimising conflict and this will help maintain the Scottish political consensus. Realistically, the parliament's early years will see only small, incremental changes.

Thus, in the short term, the parliament may change very little and will reinforce a Scottish political settlement long since past its sell-by date. In the medium-to-long term, however, it will allow for new possibilities and openings: of a reborn unionism, of a more pluralist sense of Scottishness and, on New Labour's terrain, a post-social democracy of Scottish sensibilities.

The future of the United Kingdom

Labour's asymmetrical devolution policies are undoubtedly the right set of priorities for the UK at the moment: Scottish and Welsh devolution, London regional government and the Northern Ireland peace agreement. Much more vision and thinking are needed, however, if Labour's policies are to develop into a stable, long-term constitutional settlement.

A central point here is to recognise that the UK has never—despite all protestations to the contrary—been a unitary state, but rather a union state. The distinction comes from Rokkan and Urwin and is profound: a unitary state is one of 'administrative standardisation', whereas a union state has many distinct and detailed local and regional arrangements, such as 'pre-union rights' and 'regional autonomy'.

The UK has never been a state with administrative standardisation, like the old French model. Instead, it has developed with different degrees of autonomy, showing one of the strengths of an unwritten constitution when it worked—allowing for flexibility and innovation.

The Labour leadership has to clear up ambiguities in its understanding of the UK, between unitary and union politics. In its first year of office, the government has shifted between the two concepts—regularly invoking an unambiguously unitary politics in its central control of communications, while its constitutional reform programme and the rhetoric of the 'New Britain' clearly imply a union politics of difference and decentralism.

Labour needs to link its immediate agenda to a longer-term vision if it is to avoid the danger, in asymmetrical devolution, of an English backlash. The means would be a constitutional inquiry—a Commission on the Governance of the United Kingdom. Headed by a senior constitutional figure, this would be a larger and bolder version of the Jenkins commission on electoral reform, with the remit to establish coherent rules and principles for the broader, post-devolution governance of the UK.

The commission could examine such issues as a framework for English regional devolution (whether 'rolling' or systematic), the powers of the UK parliament, and the feasibility of a federal settlement and written constitution. The timetable should be a minimum of two years, reporting before the next Westminster election. This could mean that not only would Labour by then have delivered devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but it would also have addressed the challenge of situating its reforms in a coherent framework for a new UK.

Such a leap requires boldness, imagination and vision, and it demands that New Labour break with the politics of old Labour more fully than it has so far managed. Yet the political opportunities the government enjoys are unprecedented for the British centre-left and have to be seized before they pass. The possibility of remaking the UK as a modern, vibrant country should not be squandered by short-termism.

This requires a new politics in the nations and regions of the UK as well as at the centre. In Scotland and Northern Ireland over the last two decades, unionism has become defeatist, defensive and apprehensive about the future. In Scotland in the 80s it became a cause that dared not speak its name, while in Northern Ireland it became synonymous with 'no surrender' and a 'siege mentality'.

A new politics of the UK requires that risks be taken at the periphery as well as the centre. Unionists in both Scotland and Northern Ireland must begin to develop a positive, vibrant vision, which articulates the sense of Britishness a majority of people still feel in both. That will require accommodation and compromise, but with that can come greater self-confidence and security.


  1. See James Mitchell, Strategies for Self-government: The Campaigns for a Scottish Parliament, Polygon, Edinburgh, 1996, for an overview and analysis of the different strategies of the Scottish home rule movement over the last century.
  2. A Claim of Right for Scotland Declaration, Scotsman, March 30th 1989
  3. For an appraisal of the impact of the convention see Peter Lynch, 'The Scottish Constitutional Convention 1992-95', Scottish Affairs, no 15, spring 1996, pp 1-16.
  4. Richard Parry, 'The Scottish parliament and social policy', Scottish Affairs no 21, summer 1997, p37
  5. For a deeper analysis of the electoral dynamics of the Scottish parliament see Gerry Hassan, The New Scotland, Fabian Society, London, 1998.
  6. Scotsman, June 5th 1998
  7. On 'middle Ulster' see Arthur Aughey, 'A pragmatic triumph', Fortnight 371, June 1998, pp 11-12
  8. Stein Rokkan and Derek Urwin, 'Introduction: centres and peripheries in western Europe', in Rokkan and Urwin eds, The Politics of Territorial Identity: Studies in European Regionalism, Sage 1982



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