Lord George Foulkes is a backbench Labour Peer in the Lords and a former Minister at the Scotland Office
Some media and some politicians alike seem preoccupied by the mechanism rather than the principles of Scotland’s devolution debate. It does no harm therefore to start with some historical perspective.
For nearly two hundred years, the government of the UK, indeed of the British Empire, was one of the most centralised bureaucracies in history – one that would have done credit to Napoleon or any of the Roman Emperors. Whitehall and Westminster housed those rulers, including the many that were Scots. And it was only in 1885 that the embryonic Scottish Office was set up, slowly expanding and developing until devolution in 1999 (when what remained of its duties were taken forward by the newly named Scotland Office).
Yet, one of the most remarkable things about those centuries is that distinct Scottish education, culture, local government and, above all, law did not just survive the Union but prospered under it. As those of us who ran the devolution campaigns in the 1960’s and 70’s, and again in the 90’s, kept pointing out, the one thing lacking was appropriate democratic control of the separate Scottish structures.
That case was best and most forcefully articulated by the Labour MP and Professor of Politics at Edinburgh University, John P Mackintosh in his 1966 book The Devolution of Power.
John Mackintosh was also the first and greatest advocate of the concept of dual nationality, that Scots could be both Scottish and British. I have always believed and have written in ‘A Claim of Right for Scotland’ that had John not died prematurely at the age of 48 (in 1978), we would have achieved the 40% threshold in the 1979 Referendum because of his eloquent advocacy and we would have had a Scottish Parliament almost twenty years earlier than we did.
Nevertheless we regrouped after that disappointment. The democratic body needed to oversee the administrative power already devolved to the Scottish Office was thus finally achieved in 1999 following on from the Claim of Right, signed by all Labour MPs except Tam Dalyell.
The SNP conveniently forget that they boycotted the Scottish Constitutional Convention which produced the blueprint for devolution based on the Claim of Right. However they have cleverly achieved a majority in the Scottish Parliament and now have a mandate to have a referendum on independence. Note: on independence!
Although the UK government still retains power on constitutional matters it cannot deny the Scottish Parliament a referendum on independence. But equally it has a duty to see that it is fairly conducted.
The idea of a second question is a deliberate ploy by the SNP leadership, unsure that they can obtain a majority for independence, to have a fall back. But this is illegitimate because they have no mandate for it and either way there is no one to formulate and articulate the option on which we would vote in the mythical second question.
In the referendum, people in Scotland will be voting for or against independence. If there is a ‘Yes’ majority then the negotiations begin but if it is rejected there is nothing to prevent further devolution of powers. There is no doubt however that the case against independence will be enhanced if there is at least some consensus on the way forward if it is rejected.
I have been a long time supporter of a more federal UK with greater powers devolved to the constituent countries and a reformed second chamber at Westminster elected to reflect the nations and regions of the UK. And we are indeed, better together.
A Constitutional Convention should look at reform of the Lords, not just in relation to the Commons but taking account of the devolved parliaments and governments. For too long we have had piecemeal constitutional change and it is now time to recognise the urgency of a coherent and consistent review of the constitution of the whole UK.