It is, perhaps, only to be expected that the First Minister should note that the Scottish Parliament has become the locus of Scotland’s politics. More interesting is the fact that the British head of state concurred; making it rather difficult for British Nationalists to denounce the idea of that locus being anywhere other than Westminster – the self-styled mother of all parliaments. Of course, nothing will deter the most bitter, angry and fervent adherents to ‘One Nation’ British Nationalism; not even a chastening pronouncement from their monarch. They will continue to insist that the Scottish Parliament is, and ever shall be, what it was always intended to be – a mere inconsequential adjunct to their parliament. These ideologues are adept at denying even the most glaringly evident reality should it clash with their prejudices and pretensions.
Other than the shrill and deluded British Nationalist bigots, pretty much everybody accepts that Holyrood is the beating heart of a Scottish politics which is increasingly distinct from the British politics that those zealots would impose on us. It is to Holyrood that we look for solutions. Westminster is regarded as irrelevant, if not as a hindrance to progress and an impediment to finding solutions. More and more, Westminster and the edifice of British politics is seen to be the problem. The structures of power, privilege and patronage to which Scotland is tethered by the Union are alien to the distinctive political culture which has developed at an accelerating pace in Scotland over the twenty years since our Scottish Parliament reconvened.
Accepting, as sane, sober and sensible people surely must, the distinctiveness of Scotland’s political culture and the centrality of Holyrood to that culture, we might well ask how and why this has come about. We might examine the processes involved, not simply as an academic exercise, but as a potential guide to how a more progressive politics might be enabled elsewhere.
It was certainly never the intention that Scotland’s political culture should be allowed to diverge so significantly from that of the rest of the UK. Or maybe we should say England. Because other parts of what British Nationalists are pleased to think of as the periphery of the British state have also been transformed to some extent by devolution. But it may be informative that Wales has not developed a distinctive political culture to anything like the same extent as Scotland. (Northern Ireland is something of a ‘special case’ and not useful for comparison.)
From the outset, devolution was less about constitutional reform for the purpose of enhancing democracy and improving governance and more about political manoeuvring for the purpose of partisan advantage and preservation of those structures of power, privilege and patronage. The arguments in the devolution debate revolved, not around whether and to what extent Scotland would be improved, but whether and to what extent the Union would be put at risk. And that was true of both sides of that debate. To this day, you will still find Scottish nationalists who insist that devolution was a mistake and that it should never have been accepted. Unsurprisingly, they are outnumbered by the British Nationalists who insist that devolution was a mistake and should never have been allowed. But it was the impact of devolution on the Union which was the main preoccupation of both those who wanted the Union ended, and those determined that it should be preserved at any cost.
Devolution only happened because the British establishment reckoned an arrangement had been devised which would allow them to keep the devolved parliaments on a tight leash. This is where comparisons between Scotland and Wales become interesting. While the former succeeded in slipping that leash, the latter remains under in the grip of the British establishment as represented by the British Labour Party. A fact which cannot be thought irrelevant when considering Wales’s relatively poor performance in key policy areas and the fact that Wales hasn’t developed a distinctive political culture to anything like the same extent as Scotland. Certainly, that alternative political culture hasn’t come to replace British politics to the same degree.
Not that Wales lacks an alternative. Plaid Cymru and Welsh Greens offer this in much the same way as the Scottish National Party (SNP) and Scottish Greens have in Scotland. I’m sure there are people in both the Welsh parties looking very closely at the matter of why they have been less successful than their Scottish counterparts in terms of making the Welsh Assembly as central to a more progressive politics as Holyrood is. But at this point factors come into play which are particular to each nation and comparisons become less meaningful.
Before leaving the broad comparison, however, we should note that it demonstrates how crucial the SNP is to any account of how the Scottish Parliament came to be the locus of Scotland’s politics. But for the SNP, Scotland would be where Wales is now. Scotland may be said to be beating a path for Wales to follow. And if Wales, why not England? Why should England not also take the path to a more progressive politics?
Perhaps because England lacks an equivalent of Plaid Cymru and the SNP. England doesn’t have a progressive, civic nationalist political party. More importantly, England doesn’t have a party which stands outside the British political system. It is this separation from the British political system which explains both the electoral success of the SNP and the development of a distinctive political culture with its locus in the Scottish Parliament.
Because the SNP is not, never has been, and never could be part of the structures of power, privilege and patronage which constitute the British state, it has been able to more effectively adapt to take advantage of Scotland’s proportional electoral system. While the British parties in Scotland continue to do their politicking in the manner of British parties – with consequences which are painfully evident in the chamber of the Scottish Parliament – the SNP has been more responsive to the priorities, needs and aspirations of Scotland’s electorate. Being more responsive, the party won a mandate from voters. Carrying that responsiveness into government, the SNP has won mandates repeatedly. Because the British parties are incapable of matching this responsiveness, they cannot challenge the SNP electorally. They simply aren’t doing the same kind of politics as the SNP. And the people have let it be known which kind of politics they prefer.
It stands to reason that a different kind of politics – a distinctive political culture – requires a parliament which accommodates the difference and distinctiveness. When the SNP formed its first administration in 2007, the Scottish Parliament didn’t just slip the leash of British politics, it broke that leash. With the suffocating influence of the British parties removed, Holyrood was able to become more than it was meant be. It was able to become what British Labour, in particular, had been charged with ensuring it never became. It became, not just the Scottish Parliament, but Scotland’s Parliament. The Parliament of Scotland’s people.
The Scottish Parliament has, indeed, come a long way in only two decades. But that progress is fragile. Notwithstanding the properly protocol-conscious rhetoric of the British head of state, it is impossible to overstate how much the Scottish Parliament is loathed and detested by the British establishment. A Parliament of Scotland’s People represents popular sovereignty. A functioning, if not fully developed, model of popular sovereignty stands as a challenge and a threat to the principle of Westminster parliamentary sovereignty which underpins the British state’s structures of power, privilege and patronage. From a British perspective, the Scottish Parliament must be reined-in, or closed down.
Whether Holyrood can survive as a Parliament of Scotland’s People; whether it can survive at all, absolutely depends on ending the Union. And doing so as a matter of the utmost urgency.
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