Europe South Asia Asia Pacific Americas Middle East Africa BBC Homepage World Service Education

Front Page



UK Politics







Talking Point
On Air
Low Graphics

Monday, June 1, 1998 Published at 13:08 GMT 14:08 UK

UK Politics: Talking Politics

Patriotism or an arid squabble?

Is Scottish devolution a product of a revitalised nationalism or simply an arcane constitutional wrangle? BBC Scotland's Political Editor Brian Taylor reports.

Two statements

Scottish devolution is passion, patriotism, self-determination, the core of a revitalised political scene in Scotland, a mould-breaking reform.

Scottish devolution is an arid constitutional squabble with an uncertain outcome and of little relevance to popular concerns.

[ image: Will devolution preserve or destroy the Union?]
Will devolution preserve or destroy the Union?
For those who have followed the issue, Scottish devolution can be both - simultaneously.

Even some who adhere vigorously to the first description have moments in the watches of the night when they wonder whether the second might not prove more accurate.

It is occasionally convenient for those who favour tidiness in politics to describe Scottish devolution as part of a broader package of constitutional reform including other targets such as freedom of information and the House of Lords.

Certainly, in terms of the present government, Scottish devolution is contemporary with other proposed changes.

But it can be argued that Scottish devolution has a distinct motivation of its own; a broader, more sustained motivation and one that is perhaps less amenable to individual party control.


Perhaps the classic error in observing devolution is to consider it as an end in itself, as a constitutional reform driven by the desire to produce the specific plan presently on offer.

By contrast, I would argue that the factor that motivates devolution is the same as the factor that formed the Scottish National Party and which helped in the obliteration of the Scottish Tories at the last election.

It is Scottish identity, Scottish patriotism: a vague, non-specific popular wish for self-determination.

Labour's plan is designed to match that mood with a package which preserves the Union - arguing that inaction can only lead to fracturing the link between Scotland and England.

That is not to say that Labour, at least in Scotland, is motivated by a simple fear of Nationalism. Certainly, the party is presently concerned at the apparent rise in support for the SNP as evinced in polls which track voting intention for the planned Scottish Parliament.

But Scottish Labour's support for devolution is of longer pedigree and deeper origin. Scottish Labour is alert to the same emotion of Scottish identity, a variety of the same drive that constitutes the SNP.

Independence is the SNP answer. Federalism is the Liberal Democrat answer. Devolution is the answer offered by the Labour Party.

Research published by Dr James Mitchell of Strathclyde University appears to confirm what is anecdotally obvious: that people living in Scotland increasingly feel Scottish rather than British and want that reflected in their political structures.

Dr Mitchell suggests that is partly a function of the relative decline in importance of the British state - and previously of the British empire. It might also be said to be a function of the revival in Scottish cultural nationalism.

Whatever, it is there. Scottish Labour is now - understandably - responding to that factor rather than driving it.

By contrast, the Scottish Tories who previously failed to respond to that factor paid the political price and have now announced moves to revive their Scottish identity.

Advanced options | Search tips

Back to top | BBC News Home | BBC Homepage |

In this section

Conceived by a spin doctor?

Chris Smith answers your questions

The Week in Politics

Week in Westminster

Watching the Ken circus

Two sword lengths