Difficult though it is to believe, Scottish nationalists used to support devolution. Don’t believe me? Look it up, it’s all on the record. Led by Alex Salmond in 1998, SNP MPs trooped through the lobbies in support of the Scotland Act, having campaigned for a double “Yes” vote (in favour of both the principle of setting up a Scottish parliament and giving it tax-raising powers) the previous year.
True, the party’s support was entirely cynical and opportunist; its plan was always to exploit Home Rule in order to use it as a stepping stone towards independence. Still, given their behaviour since they won power at Holyrood, given the countless times they have since sought to devalue and undermine the Scotland Act, it’s fascinating to remember an era when devolution was actually supported by all Scotland’s parties other than the Conservatives. Today it’s supported by all the major parties other than the SNP. Life comes at you fast here in Caledonia.
The latest tensions over the devolution settlement – and it is always nationalists who manufacture such “tensions” – is over the prospective appointment of a new Advocate General to replace Lord Keen who resigned earlier this week. The appointment is entirely a matter for the UK government – as set out in the Scotland Act that the SNP supported – but already there are signs that any appointment will be seen as an “imposition” by the UK government on Scotland’s sovereignty.
The SNP have done a first class job, it has to be admitted, in undermining Home Rule while at the same time persuading most observers that they are in fact its stoutest defenders. Were the UK government to appoint a minister with responsibility for a matter that was explicitly devolved – say, a Minister of State for Scottish universities – it would be rightly decried. Yet Nicola Sturgeon has appointed a minister for international aid, another for European affairs and another to handle the constitution – all of which areas are explicitly reserved to Westminster by the Scotland Act (which the SNP supported). But no, it’s the hated Tories who are trying to undermine devolution…
This cynical and dishonest sleight of hand should be a gift for Scotland’s opposition parties. Labour in particular, as the architect of Home Rule, should be all over this, daily exposing Scottish ministers’ flagrant attacks on devolution and their ultimate aim of abolishing it altogether. Alas, having its fingers badly burned in the aftermath of the 2014 independence referendum has left it with the political equivalent of post-traumatic stress disorder, unable to function as a normal party and eager to talk about anything – absolutely anything at all – other than the constitution.
And yet, as in 2014 and 2015, it is the constitution that is going to be Scottish Labour’s downfall again (if you can even have a downfall from their current position representing a handful of Holyrood seats and only one Westminster one). Desperate to attract back into the Labour fold at least some of those voters who abandoned it after the referendum, Richard Leonard’s party has arrived at the unsatisfactory position of being neither a Unionist nor (yet) a nationalist party. Both Leonard and his UK leader, Keir Starmer, have repeatedly insisted they oppose independence and will do so during the campaign for next year’s Scottish parliament elections. But very significantly, neither man has explained what the party’s view will be on whether a second independence referendum should be held if, as polls predict, the SNP win an overall majority.
It’s endearing and cute to see them talk as if they actually believe such an issue can be avoided until after polls close next May. That they would wish to is perfectly understandable: however they answer, they would lose a chunk of their already tiny voter base, either to the SNP or to the pro-Union Conservatives. The problem is that so long as they insist on keeping their view to themselves, they will incur the distrust of both groups.
Another factor that threatens to damage the party is that it’s likely that Leonard and Starmer, if pressed, would provide different answers. Leonard hails from the Left of the party and the vast majority of Labour members who flirted with a Yes vote in 2014 were from that wing. Starmer is more likely to entertain the view that “once in a lifetime” cannot be redefined as “every few years” just to accommodate the ambitions of the nationalists.
The SNP’s greatest political success has been to persuade the public, the media and even the opposition parties that enforcing and respecting the terms of the Act which set up Holyrood in the first place, an Act supported by the SNP themselves, is somehow contrary to the principles of devolution. Meanwhile Labour, the party that campaigned for Home Rule and finally achieved it in the face of nationalist scorn and scepticism, is too frit to defend even its own legacy.
With opponents like that, it’s no wonder that under her tartan facemask, Nicola Sturgeon can’t stop smiling.