Today marks the fifteenth anniversary of what I regard as a highly significant day in Scotland’s history. 15 years ago today, Scotland got its first government of the democratic era. On Monday 3 September 2007 the Scottish Executive became the Scottish Government ─ officially even if not legally. Some dismiss this as a mere cosmetic exercise. At the time, many did. But presentation is important. As is language.
Alex Salmond, the then First Minister, was well aware of just how important this change was. He realised that the way people think about things is powerfully influenced by the way we represent them and talk about them. He knew that the British political elite didn’t want the people of Scotland to perceive the devolved administration as a real government. It was important that they think of the Scottish Parliament as a real parliament. This was, after all, what was supposed to kill the independence campaign ‘stone dead’. But the people had to be given a constant reminder that the administration was less than a real government. There could be only one government ─ the British government. In one of his first acts as First Minister, Alex Salmond transformed Scotland’s perception of the minority administration he led after the 2007 Holyrood elections. Overnight, it became a government.
Legally, it’s still the Scottish Executive. The fact that only the most fanatical British Nationalists now use this term as a pejorative amply demonstrates what the purpose was in naming the devolved administration thus. It was always intended as a slight.
The change of title has had a transformative effect on Scotland’s politics. Not that alone, of course. But it is unlikely that the Scottish Parliament would have come to be generally regarded as the locus of our politics quite as quickly or as completely had Salmond not had the nous to recognise the need to alter the way people thought about the administration. If the administration was seen as something less than a real government then the parliament would surely be perceived as less than a real parliament. A real parliament such as might cast doubt on the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty. Westminster can only be sovereign if in people’s minds, it is the only real parliament. If the sovereignty of Scotland’s people was to be affirmed then it must be possible for them to imagine Scotland’s democratic institutions as being equivalent to the democratic institutions of independent nations. The name ‘Scottish Executive’ served as a constant reminder that Scotland’s parliament and government are subordinate to the structures of power, privilege and patronage which constitute the British state. Alex Salmond rectified that. An achievement which should be applauded and celebrated.
The importance of perceptions is, as we would expect, well known to the British political elite. How important can be gauged by their response to changes in the way the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government are regarded both within Scotland and abroad. The Scotland Office is still the Scotland Office. But the term ‘UK Government in Scotland’ has been introduced to directly compete with the term ‘Scottish Government’. Just as colonial governments of the past erected great fortresses to intimidate the indigenous population as well as palatial residences and impressive administrative buildings to remind the natives of their inferior place in the decreed ‘natural order’, so the British government has planted Queen Elizabeth House in the middle of Scotland’s capital city. These things are neither incidental nor trivial. They are the actions of a country clinging to its imperialist past. They are the actions of a country in the grip of an increasingly extreme British Nationalist ideology. To tolerate these things without protest is to nourish a viper in Scotland’s bosom.
Of course, the Scottish Government still isn’t actually like the governments of other nations. The Scottish Parliament isn’t the equivalent of the parliament of a normal nation. The Scottish Parliament is less than it should be given that it uniquely has the democratic legitimacy that derives from being directly elected by Scotland’s people. It is less because the British ruling elites continue to withhold the powers that rightly belong with the only institution entitled to be regarded as the real Parliament of Scotland. The Scottish Government is less than it should be because it continues to be hobbled by the devolution settlement. What has changed since 1999 when the Scottish Parliament reconvened is that it is now possible to envisage a Scottish Government that is the same as the governments of normal nations. It is now possible to think of the Scottish Parliament having the status and powers that other nations hold to be theirs by absolute right.
The ‘cosmetic’ change implemented by Alex Salmond 15 years ago has had massive implications for normalisation of the idea of restoring Scotland’s independence. That’s why I have 3 September marked on my calendar.
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