In Depth

Scottish devolution at 20: hooray for Holyrood?

Scotland voted for devolution back in 1997 - but its political future now looks uncertain

Twenty years ago today, Scotland voted 3:1 for devolution in a referendum delivered by Tony Blair’s Labour government.

Yet while today there are no calls for a return to direct rule, and while the Scottish Conservatives have made peace with the existence of Holyrood, the future of Scottish politics looks in many ways less certain than it did in 1997.

In an interview with the New Statesman, Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson said the country was “tired of politicians shouting at each other with no end product”, and called on politicians to “use this period – which is the first we’ve had in years with no imminent election – to reduce the temperature in Scotland and in the political discourse”.

The country’s three main parties are at different stages in the political life cycle. The leading Scottish National Party (SNP) is attempting to relaunch itself (in all but name) as a party of governance in a devolved Scotland, rather than an independent one. Scottish Labour, meanwhile, is keen to capitalise on Corbyn mania under a new leader; while the Scottish Conservatives, buoyed by their own leader’s popularity, have become the official opposition, looking to transition to a government-in-waiting.

Although Scotland voted "no" vote in the September 2014 referendum on independence, or IndyRef, the issue is still a key one.

In The Herald, Alison Rowat asks: “Independence as an idea can live without Scotland, but can Scotland live without the independence debate?" 

She continues: “In her speech last week, the First Minister spoke of the ‘baby box generation’ of new Scots growing up under a Scottish parliament. But what of the IndyRef generation, those who have come of age in successive eras of essentially binary politics?”

With the main parties in a state of flux, what does the future hold for politics north of the border?

SNP ‘relaunch’

The SNP set out its programme for government last week in a speech that was low on fanfare but remarkably high on consensus policymaking.

“The focus for the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has shifted,” says The Independent. “This time round, pushed back by the uncertainty of the Brexit talks and, more definitively, a disappointing result in the UK general election earlier this year, there is little talk about IndyRef2, and less about Scotland trying to stay in the single market when (or if) the UK leaves the European Union.”

Where once independence was the mainstay of every speech, in her address to Holyrood last week Sturgeon “referred to it only once and even then only in passing, a recognition that the moment has, for the time being, passed”, says The Spectator’s Alex Massie.

Now, the main task at hand is one of governing, with many believing the SNP’s hold on the Left to be under threat from Scottish Labour and the appeal of Jeremy Corbyn.

“The secret truth about the nationalists is that they are a moderate party in radical clothes,” says Massie. Many of the party’s new policies come from right across the political spectrum, with plans to raise income tax sitting alongside free social care for under-65s with dementia.

But the fact that the SNP are no longer the radical face of Scottish politics may prove to be their downfall. “The party’s greatest danger does not come from the opposition parties in the Scottish parliament, or the UK government, but a growing tendency towards complacency and managerial politics,” says The Guardian’s Robert Somynne.

Labour re-revival

Kezia Dugdale’s resignation last month as leader of the Scottish Labour Party took many by surprise. Although Dugdale insisted she had not been pushed out by the party’s central office in Westminster, her vocal criticism of Corbyn during last year’s Labour leadership election made her position uncertain following Labour's surpringly strong showing in the 2017 general election.

The two main contenders to replace her are Corbyn ally Richard Leonard, the MSP for Central Scotland, and Glasgow MSP Anas Sarwar.

Sarwar is seen as favourite to win the contest, “partly because Scottish Labour members backed the centrist Owen Smith when he challenged Corbyn’s leadership last year”, says The Guardian’s Severin Carrell.

Although “Sarwar is no Blairite, he is as far to the right as a viable candidate for the leadership in Scotland can go”, says the New Statesman’s Stephen Bush. Yet the Glaswegian is “keen to not be seen as the anti-Corbyn candidate, despite calling for him to quit just last year”, says The Scotsman. In an article last week for The i, Sarwar said: “I want our movement to work together to elect Jeremy as prime minister, putting Labour’s vision for a fairer society into action across the UK.”

Which candidate is chosen in the leadership vote, on 18 November, will go a long way to deciding whether the party can regain its former political heartland.

Scottish Tories - a one-woman band?

The Scottish Conservatives have seen a phoenix-like rise from the ashes of 1997, when they failed to win any seats north of the border and campaigned unsuccessfully against devolution.

This resurgence can be linked to the election of Davidson as leader in 2011. Now, following a strong showing in both the recent Holyrood and Westminster elections thanks to their anti-independence stance, the Tories want to be viewed as a party of government on both sides of the border.

They have seen some initial success, with a “hefty chunk of the SNP’s education reforms drawn from Tory ideas (though they never put it like that), including giving more freedom to head teachers and introducing standardised national testing”, says Massie.

But whether “Davidson can overcome the combination in urban Scotland of antipathy towards her party and resurgent support for Labour is not at all clear”, says Euan McColm in The Scotsman.

“Even if Davidson does start to win over support from other parties, she will continue to be at risk of suffering serious damage because of the policies and actions of Tory colleagues at Westminster.”

Independence never-endum

The seemingly never-ending independence debate since 2014 has blighted Scottish politics across the spectrum, says The Herald’s Alison Rowat.

“The sharp, Thatcherite edges of the Scottish Conservatives were blunted, leaving behind a monolith with one popular policy: no to another referendum. Scottish Labour was reduced to slipping and sliding all over the place on whether to back independence.”

By the time of the next Holyrood election, in 2021, the SNP will have been in power for 14 years and “the argument that it is ‘time for a change’, regardless of the government’s performance, will be an appealing one”, says Massie.

Whether that change is a Scottish Labour resurgence or a, previously unthinkable, Tory First Minister remains in the hands of voters.


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