Thursday, November 30, 2006

St. Andrew's Day: Devolution

Today is St. Andrew's Day. St. Andrew is the patron saint of Scotland, so this is the equivalent of St. Patrick's Day, though Scots emigrants were less successful than their Irish brethren in exporting the day to North America in the 19th and 20th centuries. My mother, a Scottish patriot, was always upset that I was born a few hours too late; I should have been born on November 30 instead of December 1.

In honour of Scotland's most patriotic day (which, ironically, is still not a "national" holiday in Scotland, though it may become one soon), I thought I would talk about the current state of Scotland's nationalism and give a lesson on Scottish history. I started writing an essay last month. It became a monster, by far the longest post I'd ever created for the blog. It was also far too detailed. As a result, I've decided to split the entry up into several bits. I'm not sure if they will all be posted today or not. At any rate, here is the first part, on the devolution of Scotland's parliament.

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Devolution is the process by which a central government grants powers to a national, regional, or local level government. In 1998, Scotland was granted its own parliament under devolution from the British parliament in Westminster (a district of London). Devolution has resulted in friction between Scotland and England. This friction is bad news for Gordon Brown, Chancellor of the Exchequer and a Scot who is running for the leadership of the British Labour Party, the current party in power.

Trivia: Tony Blair is considered "English" by almost everyone, but he was actually born in Edinburgh, Scotland. Blair spent most of his childhood in Durham, England, but he lived for a time in Edinburgh, Adelaide, Australia, and Glasgow, Scotland.

Previous to Blair, the last Scots born prime minister was Ramsay MacDonald, who last held the position in 1935. The British prime minister has been a Scot six times (technically seven) since the Union of the Crowns.

I may have missed someone, but I only found one Welshman as prime minister (technically James Callaghan was born in England, but he represented Cardiff), and one Irishman. The Irishman was Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, who was the famous general who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo. Wellington was a Protestant and of the English "squirearchy" that ruled Ireland, and so he was very sensitive to his Irish roots. Later in life, when someone suggested that he was a famous Irishman, Wellington replied, "A man can be born in a stable, and yet not be an animal." Apparently "de Nile" is a river that runs through Dublin.

I found one "foreign born" British prime minister. Andrew Bonar Law was born in 1860 in Rexton, New Brunswick, before there was a nation known as the Dominion of Canada. His mother died in childbirth and he was raised by his father and his aunt (who lived in her sister's home). When his father remarried, his aunt went back to her native Scotland and took the boy with her when he was 12. So Law went from teenager to adult in Glasgow, so technically there were seven Scottish prime ministers (or six Scottish and one Scots-Canadian/Canadian-Scots prime minister) of Great Britain.

Scotland's parliament is now responsible for things happening in Scotland, without any say from the British parliament. The Scottish parliament in the Holyrood district of Edinburgh handles all affairs of Scotland. This includes the Scottish health service, Scottish infrastructure, and education within Scotland. The Holyrood parliament has some limited power of taxation, but it has yet to enact on it. The Westminster parliament handles items involving the entire country (national defence, international trade, fiscal policy, most taxation issues, energy policy, and other things like abortion rights and drug policy). Westminster also handles all aspects of things happening in England, such as England's health care, and England's education system.

Trivia: Power was transferred to Scotland's parliament on July 1, 1999. Wales was also devolved at the same time as Scotland, though the Welsh National Assembly did not form until March, 2006. The Welsh National Assembly has less power than Scotland's parliament. Northern Ireland technically received Home Rule in 1921, but a devolved national assembly was not formed until 1998. That assembly is not operating right now due to a breakdown in the Northern Ireland peace process.

The source of the friction comes from the fact that Scotland still sends members of parliament to Westminster. Scottish MPs (Members of Parliament) get to vote on everything brought up in Westminster. This includes items dealing strictly with England, like education, that are handled in Scotland by the Scottish parliament. Perhaps not surprisingly, this whole controversy has its own name, the "West Lothian question" (named for Tam Dalyell, a Labour MP for Scotland's West Lothian constituency — think "riding" in Canada, or "congressional district" in the U.S. — who first posed it in 1977). The question he posed was, "For how long will English constituencies and English Honourable members tolerate... at least 119 Honourable Members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland exercising an important, and probably often decisive, effect on British politics while they themselves have no say in the same matters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?"

Opponents of devolution in its current form say that it's not fair, that Scots get to vote on strictly English matters while English MPs don't have a say in Scottish matters. Proponents of devolution in its current form point out that England has the lion's share of the people, and takes up the lion's share of the British budget. England is such a huge part of Britain that purely "English" matters affect the entire nation. A supposedly "England only" matter could eat up a huge amount of money, with an indirect, but no less potent, effect on Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Of course the "simplest" solution to this problem is to keep Westminster as a national government for all of the U.K. and devolve a parliament for England, too. This would put Britain on a par with former colonies like Canada, Australia, and the United States with a central government and devolved regional governments. So far English voters have been against this move, partially because Westminster has, traditionally, been England's parliament.

As a result of devolution, there is increased tension between Scotland and England. The two countries have been at peace since the Jacobite rebellions of the 18th century, but many Scots never accepted the loss of their nationality. Scottish nationalism, in its present form, rose about the same time as Irish nationalism. When the Republic of Ireland was formed, a movement in Scotland sought the same thing. This movement gained strength through the 70s and 80s. I have only my parents' perspective on this, but it mostly centred on a belief that parliament was run by the English for the greater benefit of the Home Counties around London. The Tories looked at Scotland only as a tourist trap and a source of North Sea oil. It was the North Sea oil, in fact, that pushed a lot of Scots in the late 70s and early 80s, as the revenue for what was seen as Scotland's natural resource didn't seem to result in much wealth for Scotland.

A referendum on giving Scotland a form of devolution was held on March 1, 1979 by the Labour government then in power. They imposed a requirement that 40% of Scotland's eligible voters participate. Both the Labour and Conservative parties ran ads to convince Scots to vote "No". The referendum was held in the winter, in bad weather. While the referendum passed, it did not reach the 40% minimum number of participants. The view from across the Atlantic suggested that the referendum was stacked against Scots, yet I've since learned that many Scots nationalists thought that the plan did not go far enough toward home rule. There was opposition from several sides, and the measure failed.

In the 90s, Scotland became a swing vote in the British parliament. The Tories and Labour were in a close enough fight that Scotland became an important voting block. To soothe Scottish voters, the Stone of Destiny (or Stone of Scone, pronounced "skoon") was returned to Scotland. All Scots monarchs had been crowned on this stone, until Edward I (the Hammer of the Scots) stole it in 1297. Ever since it was placed in an old chair upon which all the English and British monarchs were crowned. It's a piece of Scottish nationalist history, and Scots nationalists wanted it back. On Christmas Day, 1950, four Scottish students stole it. In the process, they broke it into two pieces. They managed to sneak it past roadblocks and had it repaired by a stone mason. They left it in ancient Arbroath Abbey in April, 1951. Rumours suggested that the stone was a copy and that the real stone was hidden. Nevertheless, it was returned to England. In 1996, though, Margaret Thatcher's replacement, John Major, decided to return the stone to Scotland when it was not needed for coronations as an attempt to gain Scottish support. The plan seemed only to inflame Scottish nationalism, and the Labour party was heavily supported in Scotland in the next general election.

Today there is talk of full Scottish independence, not just parliamentary devolution. The Labour Party has taken to fighting the Scottish National Party by suggesting that leaving Britain would be horrendous for Scotland. Certainly a country of 5 million would not have the clout of a country of 65 million. The European Union is all about unity, not disunity, it is pointed out. Still, within the EU smaller countries have been quite successful. These include Ireland, Denmark, Iceland and the Netherlands. The big fear is whether or not Scotland's economy would suffer. This would depend a great deal on how Scotland became independent. At least Scotland could accept the Euro as a strong currency without having to maintain the Pound. I remember seeing a show in the early 80s about how Scotland produced more natural resources than it used internally. At the same time, I've encountered English folk who see Scotland as a big subsidy sink hole; they feel Scotland is getting more than its fair share right now.

English feelings about Scots did not improve during the World Cup, where the Scottish First Minister refused to cheer for England and made it quite clear that he would not, causing a couple of English companies to boycott Scottish goods. This smacks of the trade sanctions that faced Scotland in 1707, forcing them to agree to the Act of Union that lost Scotland it's nation status in the first place.

The Labour Party is at a lower ebb in popularity right now. Like the Republicans in congress and the Liberal Party in Canada, it has been in power for too long. The Scottish National Party stands to gain seats in Scotland's parliament as a result, which could result in Scottish independence. Meanwhile, Gordon Brown finds himself facing off against Scottish Nationalists in the north, and anti-Scottish sentiment in England. If he becomes Prime Minister he might very well be the last Scottish prime minister in Westminster.


Sarah said...

It's the Scottish National Party not the Scottish NationalIST Party.

There was no devolution referendum in the 80s under the Thatcher Government. The Conservatives were opposed to devolution. There was a referendum in the late 70s under the then Labour government and it was that referendum that required 40% of the electorate entitled to vote to vote yes.

Allan Goodall said...

It's the Scottish National Party not the Scottish NationalIST Party.

That's what I get for relying on the spell checker!

There was no devolution referendum in the 80s under the Thatcher Government.

You are quite right. I was wrong. That's what I get for relying on my apparently fading memory. Checking Magnus Magnusson's volume on Scotland, I see that the referendum was held on March 1, 1979.

I have since corrected my post. Thank you for pointing out my errors, Sarah!