Richard Ritchie is the author of a recent history of a secretive group of Conservative MPs called The Progress Trust (Without Hindsight: A History of the Progress Trust 1943-2005). He is Enoch Powell’s archivist and is a former Conservative Parliamentary Candidate. He was BP’s director of UK Political Affairs.
The appearances by Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister, at her regular Covid-19 press conferences are a reminder of how skilful politicians never waste a crisis.
One should not be surprised at her zeal in presenting herself as a Prime Minister of an independent nation, with a distinct approach from the British Government’s. All this will be very useful when normal politics is resumed, and Scottish independence is restored to its primary place on the UK political agenda.
If anyone doubts this, or is surprised by her behaviour, they need only turn to the historic Parliamentary debates on Scottish devolution, which commenced on the floor of the House of Commons in the late 1970s when a Labour Government with a very small majority sought to establish legislative devolution for Scotland and Wales.
Always, the crucial difference of opinion has been between those who believed offering devolution would discourage nationalism, and those who believed precisely the opposite. And although the jury is still out, a reading of past Hansard debates suggests that those holding the latter view are most likely to be vindicated.
Both parties had woken up to the threat posed by Scottish nationalism some ten years before. In opposition, Edward Heath established a Scottish Constitutional Conference which, under the leadership of Sir Alec Douglas-Home, the former Prime Minister, recommended in 1970 “a directly elected Scottish Assembly with legislative responsibility and powers of debate and supervision.” But once in government, the Tories did nothing.
In October 1973, a Royal Commission established by the previous Labour Government under the chairmanship of Lord Kilbrandon advocated the creation of directly elected Scottish and Welsh Assemblies. Within months of its return to office in 1974, the Labour Government committed itself in a White Paper to directly elected Assemblies; a further White paper in October 1975 discussed the detailed schemes for doing so, which were the subject of important Parliamentary debates in January 1976. These culminated, on 13th December 1976, with a four-day Second Reading debate of the Scotland and Wales Bill.
But Parliament’s first substantial discussion took the form of a two-day adjournment debate on 3rd February 1975, concentrating on the Labour Government’s White Paper of the previous September.
These were the days when the economic policies of both parties were interventionist, and neither front bench wished to be regarded as unsympathetic to Scotland so long as Westminster maintained “overall management of the economy” and avoided what Edward Short, Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons, called “the fragmentation of the UK which could be the consequence of an unwise, ill-planned scheme”.
For the Opposition, William Whitelaw at least posed the possibility that “response to demands for self-government in Scotland and the maintenance of the unitary character of the state are ultimately capable only in the realm of rhetoric.” But it was left to backbenchers to confront the issues directly. Robin Cook referred to the White Paper as a “stalking horse” for the SNP. John Biffen argued that devolution “provides an unreal resting place between union and separation” and Tam Dalyell – who was destined to be the leading opponent of any attempt to establish a Scottish Assembly or Parliament – warned that “there is conflict in the situation by its very nature.”
Enoch Powell concentrated on “the problem of England which is central to whatever conclusions are going to be reached” and in particular the implications that a Scottish Assembly would have for “representation in this House.”
The next significant parliamentary occasion was a four day debate which started on 13th January 1976, when Harold Wilson set out his Government’s detailed proposals for the legislation planned later in the year as outlined in the White Paper Our Changing Democracy.
The Government hoped the consultative approach embodied in the White Papers would encourage cross-party support, which was essential given its tiny majority and internal divisions. Prominent Labour MPs – notably Eric Heffer and Neil Kinnock – disputed that the Labour Party was democratically committed to devolution of the kind envisaged. Both saw the proposals as incompatible with socialist state planning of the economy, and Heffer argued that “if we allow these matters to get out of hand and if we go too far, the risk that we run is that eventually we shall see the break-up of the United Kingdom.”
Edward Heath on the other hand, who had just been removed as leader of the Conservative Party, became a leading advocate of the opposite view: “The Union is in danger…I do not believe that the complaint is about over-government (which was precisely the belief of Thatcherites) … we have to decide whether we are dealing with a passing whim or a settled conviction of the people.” He concluded: “I can foresee a situation at Westminster in which both major parties suffer great losses in Scotland, in which there is a large nationalist representation pledged to separation.”
He was right, but for the wrong reasons. Heath’s belief was that pressure for separation would be strengthened by a failure to provide devolution. In fact it has grown, despite the creation of a Scottish Parliament and Government (which amounts to a much more substantial measure of devolution than Heath or others were pressing for at the time).
This would not have surprised Powell, Dalyell and the many Conservative critics of the Bill. Powell predicted that the establishment of directly elected Assemblies “will confront us with the choice of separation, of conversion to a federal state with all its implications, or an attempt to reverse the process and somehow subordinate the new Assemblies to the sovereignty of this House.” The high Tory Julian Amery put it even more starkly:
“But my advice to the House, for what it is worth, after experience of several devolved constitutions under the Colonial Office and the Commonwealth Relations Office, is that it is difficult to find a single foothold on which we can stand. It did not happen in Australia, nor did it happen in Canada. I do not believe it has happened in any other instance. They all went on to demand full executive control…An assembly that will not slide into total independence…I do not believe that is possible.”
In the end, because it was a debate on a White Paper designed to reach a wider consensus, only 37 MPs forced a division against the Government. But this disguised the latent principled opposition to the proposals. It was only because Margaret Thatcher lacked sufficient political strength within her own party to oppose outright what she instinctively detested.
These were but opening skirmishes. On 13th December 1976, James Callaghan as Prime Minister introduced his Scotland and Wales Bill, promising as many as 30 sitting days on the floor of the House to consider its details and leaving open the possibility of a referendum. The Government’s principal case was that the status quo had become untenable; that the SNP would never be satisfied; but proper devolution would remove their support.
No direct tax-raising powers were on offer. The “block fund must remain the main source of revenue for the devolved services” and what was to be devolved had to be laid out in detail, with everything else reserved to Westminster. But, Callaghan argued, nothing short of a legislative Parliament would suffice.
The Conservative Party remained divided. Unlike her former leader, Thatcher indeed believed the problem was ‘over-government’, but some of her MPs were more sympathetic to Heath’s position and a few – including Alick Buchanan-Smith and Malcolm Rifkind – disobeyed their whip and supported the Bill on Second Reading (when the Government achieved a majority of 45).
Indeed, Buchanan Smith had resigned as Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland five days before, arguing that “the worst course of all is to do nothing. Opinion in Scotland cannot be ignored… If we in the House appear to frustrate the genuine aspirations of the Scottish people, this is the very thing which turns moderates into extremists.”
Under David Steel, the Liberals were in favour of going even further than the Government and their support was vital to the Government’s survival. More crucial and uncertain were the Ulster Unionists, who under Powell’s influence were indirectly sustaining the Labour Government on issues of confidence. Stormont was often cited, by the Bill’s advocates, as a precedent for Parliaments in Scotland and Wales. However, as James Molyneaux, the Ulster Unionist leader, argued: “the devolution which matters and has always mattered in Ulster is not legislative but administrative devolution.” This might have been the view of Unionists in Westminster, but not necessarily in Ulster itself.
Once the Bill began its Committee stage, Parliament’s lack of enthusiasm became apparent. Most of the credit for the Bill’s demolition lay with Dalyell, the Scottish Labour MP who represented West Lothian from 1962-1983, and thereafter Linlithgow until 2005. It was Powell who, on 14th November 1977, coined the phrase the ‘West Lothian Question’, and justifiably so because, from the start, Dalyell had been the most assiduous and relentless in asking how it could be justified for Scottish MPs at Westminster to influence English legislation, while lacking the power to do the same in Scotland.
As Dalyell explained in Committee, under the Bill’s proposals:
“I can vote on policy and money for the Arts in Alnwick, but not in Armadale, West Lothian. I can vote on aerodromes at Heathrow and Gatwick, but not Edinburgh, Turn house. I can vote on buildings in Bath but not in Bathgate in my constituency. I can vote on the burial laws in Blackpool but not in Blackridge. I can vote on betting, bookies and gaming in Blackburn, Lancashire. But I cannot touch the bookies or the gaming laws in Blackburn, West Lothian. Etc. etc.”
These lists became a common feature of Dalyell’s contributions to these Committee debates, exasperating his front bench and providing delight to the Bill’s critics.
The West Lothian question raised further difficulties. First, there was the over-representation of Scotland in the House of Commons. As an answer, some proposed a reduction in the number of Scottish MPs, as well as restricting their right to vote on ‘English’ matters. But Dalyell countered:
“In no way would reduced representation solve the problem of irresponsible participation in other People’s business. The principle remains the same. It makes it no better whether 50, 57, 35 or ten. Hon. Members can vote on matters for which literally they have no responsibility whatever.”
Powell supported Dalyell, reminding the House that the idea of “in and out” members had been raised and rejected in the past when dealing with Irish Home Rule, and that “there is no logical reason and no logical ground which underlies the proposition that representation should be proportionately reduced.”
Even today, when the number of Scottish MPs has been reduced to 59 and a change in Standing Orders facilitates “English votes for English Laws”, the objections of Dalyell and Powell remain valid. As Powell explained on 24th February 1977, “if we were to attempt something in between (i.e. the situation today)…the Scots would be under-represented when deciding upon Imperial matters (i.e. all those matters not devolved) and over-represented when deciding upon all other matters”, not to mention the difficulties of classification.
In 1977, however, such questions remained academic since the Bill could not be carried without a timetable motion, which Michael Foot, contrary to all his past beliefs and arguments, was embarrassingly forced to introduce on 22nd February. He reminded the House that the Bill had already received a four-day debate on Second Reading and ten days in Committee (involving all-night sittings).
He proposed a further 20 days of debate, but the House of Commons was having none of it. The Government’s guillotine was defeated by 29 votes, and from that moment this Bill was dead.
But not the arguments. Labour’s first attempts to create devolved legislative assembles had marked out a divide.
Either one agreed with Heath’s conviction “that neither the people of Scotland nor Wales want separation. I do not believe they will move in that direction, provided they get meaningful and viable devolution”; or with Teddy Taylor, who claimed twenty years later: “Those who think that devolution will knock the SNP on the head are living in cloud cuckoo land. Those who think the move to devolution will lead to the collapse of the SNP will be subject to a brutal shock.”
It was another twenty years before fresh legislation was introduced. Callaghan had made a second attempt in November 1977 by introducing separate bills for Scotland and Wales, and promising a referendum before their enactment.
In response to the objections which had killed the previous legislation, the Scottish Bill sought in various ways to reduce “the scope for dispute between the United Kingdom Government and the Scottish Executive” and, in particular, by limiting the UK Government’s rights of intervention to defence, trade, the economy and industrial relations (but leaving out health and education which had previously been included).
But no concessions were made in response to the West Lothian question. Moreover, the Assembly would continue to be funded by a block-grant from Westminster, always regarded by critics as another source of conflict. This time, the Government managed to guillotine the Bill from the outset, thus denying Dalyell, Powell and other opponents of the Bill their opportunity to renew their detailed onslaught.
Both Dalyell and Powell were now clear that ‘independence’ was preferable to the Government’s proposals. But that should be up to Scotland since, in Powell’s words:
“…none of us has the means of knowing whether Scotland is to be a nation. What is quite certain is that we cannot answer that by passing legislation which is itself incoherent… this is a constitution which, being inherently unstable, will force those who live under it in one direction or the other; and there is all too great reason to guess in what direction they will be forced.”
In this, Powell had the support of the SNP. Its leader, Gordon Wilson, made it clear that: “My party regards the Bill as the first step along the road to self-government.” Or, as Dalyell had said first time round:
“Many electors want an independent Scotland and will continue to want that. Jolly few people, the more they know about it, want devolution… those who want devolution want it as a stepping-stone, a launching pad for a separate Scottish state.”
But finally, what killed this Bill was a change in the proposed referendum rules. Through the Cunningham amendment, the Act could only come into force if it gained the support of 40 per cent of the registered electorate. In a referendum on 1st March 1979, it gained only 32.9 per cent. thus putting to an end any chance of creating a Scottish legislative assembly in time for the next election.
Thatcher was never tempted down a similar path. It was not until Labour’s landslide victory in 1997 that a fresh attempt was made – and by this time the Labour Party had learnt a lot, at least from its former tactical mistakes.
For a start, in 1997 a pre-legislative referendum was held before the House of Commons had the opportunity of debating the legislation. The referendum posed two questions i.e.
- I agree/do not agree there should be a Scottish Parliament
- I agree/do not agree that a Scottish Parliament should have tax varying powers
On 11th September 1997, the first question was agreed by 74 per cent of those who voted, and the second by 63 per cent. A government with a massive majority and the authority of a referendum was clearly not to be obstructed, even by die-hard opponents such as Dalyell, who remained an MP.
Moreover, instead of listing devolved subjects, the Scotland Bill 1998 merely specified matters which were reserved to the UK Parliament, not those which were to be devolved. In addition, the new Scottish Parliament was promised a limited power to vary the basic rate of UK income tax in Scotland by up to 3p.
This power was never used, but in April 2016 the Conservative Government gave Scotland a range of new tax and financial powers (including Scottish Income Pax paid directly to the Scottish Government), which went much further than ever would have been contemplated by even the most fervent devolutionists of twenty years earlier.
This new bill reached the statute book in 1998 without difficulty but to no avail since, on 16th May 2007, Alex Salmond formed the first SNP Minority Government in Edinburgh. Four years later, he rubbed salt into the wound by winning an overall majority – the very result which Labour had hoped to prevent by granting such a significant amount of devolution in the first place.
Some say this was because too much was devolved; others too little. But whatever the cause, Dalyell had predicted thirty years earlier “if a majority of Scots voted for the SNP, it would be a separate state. There is no question about that.” Except the Union still stands.
True, those who said it would satisfy nobody have been vindicated. But those who claimed a Scottish legislative Parliament was a logical impossibility within a unitary political system haven’t yet been proved right. Attempts have also been made to address the West Lothian question, although not to the satisfaction of those who posed it originally and who still believe it’s unanswerable.
During debates on the Scotland Bill 1998, Liam Fox put it thus: “An answer to the West Lothian question requires either a federalist solution, providing a balanced solution constitutionally within the UK, or independence, which would remove the question altogether.” Powell would have agreed with the latter, but not the former:
“The reason why federation is only a logical reduction ad absurdum and not a practical possibility is that we do not want it. The House and the vast majority of people behind Members are not prepared to consider the notion of resolving ourselves into a federal state.”
But perhaps they are now, given the quantity and complexity of modern legislation which threatens to overwhelm Parliament and which a federalist approach is designed to mitigate. It wouldn’t, however, placate the SNP, at least not while they have 48 members of the House of Commons. In the late 1890s, there were over 80 Irish Nationalists in the House of Commons and history tells us what happened next.
Exactly the same situation is faced today. Once a separatist element is represented significantly in the House of Commons, only two things are possible. Either it is removed via the ballot box; or independence is granted, and it departs voluntarily. As Powell had put it as early as 27th September 1968 in a speech at Prestatyn: “England will never again consent to live through the long and harrowing episode of the coercion of the Irish. We have learnt, and learnt once for all, that enforced unity is a curse, to which almost any other consequence or condition is preferable.”
Renewed calls for independence are now portrayed as Brexit’s fault. But past Hansards show how there were always only three choices – unionism, federation, or independence. Unionism could embrace extensive administrative devolution, including special laws for Scotland if passed at Westminster. Federation would necessitate English participation. If neither is an option, then independence becomes the least harmful. As concluded by Powell:
“I have always said that if it be the preponderant and settled wish of the inhabitants of any part of this Kingdom no longer to remain part of this Kingdom, that preponderant and settled will should not and could not be resisted.”
But how does one know this “wish” exists?
“Some hard and unfair things have been said about those who sit in the House as members of the Scottish National Party or of Plaid Cymru. They sit in the House by the same right as the rest of us. If we are looking for the answer to the question “Is it or is it not true that there are nations in this kingdom which will not abide the present constitution of the United Kingdom?”, they are a way whereby we can find out.”
“We can identify a nation, as it were, only after the event. We cannot identify a nation by historical, sociological and cultural studies. A nation is a people who have made good the right to be a nation, not necessarily by force but, according to our institutions, by proving overwhelmingly that they are not content to remain part of another State, in our case the Kingdom as it is at present constituted.”
Such “overwhelming” proof is not yet forthcoming, but we may be close to it. Ironically, by accepting this reality and remaining neutral, England has the best chance of averting it.
England’s love of Scotland has made her zealous in her opposition to independence. An understandable mistake, but a tactical error. If both Scotland and England are united in believing the current settlement unstable, then maybe this will concentrate minds on the real choice. The best hope of maintaining the Union lies with England remaining neutral in any further independence referendum.
But what England cannot be neutral about is the prospect of Scottish MPs determining the political composition of a Westminster government which has transferred power to Scotland. Had Jeremy Corbyn been able to form an administration last December following the General Election, it is almost certain that he could have done so only through the support of SNP MPs with the power to influence English issues but no power to shape legislation directly affecting Scotland.
The fact that this danger was averted does not mean that it won’t arise again. It almost certainly will, unless and until Scotland becomes an independent nation, is governed once again as an integral part of the United Kingdom; or the UK breaks up into a federation.
That is the lesson from Hansard. What will be the lesson from Covid-19 we shall also know soon.