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Monday, June 1, 1998 Published at 13:07 GMT 14:07 UK

UK Politics: Talking Politics

The history of Scottish devolution

Ever since the Act of Union in 1707 saw the merger of the English and Scottish Parliaments there have been vocal campaigners for Scottish self-determination. BBC Scotland's Political Editor Brian Taylor looks back at the long history of devolution.

The history

Do you remember the first meeting of the Scottish Convention to draw up a scheme of devolution? It was on November 15 1924. There was yet another convention after World War II.

Finally, in 1989, the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the trades unions, the local authorities, the churches and various civic groups formed the Constitutional Convention and drafted the scheme which has led to the present government's proposals.

Do you remember when the Scottish Tories produced a strategy paper advocating increased administrative devolution to Scotland? No, not under the former Scottish Secretary Michael Forsyth but on November 3 1949.

Do you remember the House of Commons carrying a Scottish Home Rule motion? No, not in the 1970s but April 3 1894.

It is important to bear in mind that Home Rule is a very, very long-running story in Scotland. It is a story that has been around since the Scottish and English parliaments both voted to end their separate identities and to merge in 1707.

The Act of Union

That clinical description of the Act of Union between Scotland and England, of course, masks a persistent concern among sections of the Scottish public that the partnership was unequal.

They argued that the English Parliament regarded itself as simply continuing in the supposedly merged Westminster, which had now absorbed the previously independent Scotland.

Opponents of the Union vigorously voiced such concerns when the measure was debated by the Scottish Parliament. These concerns were counteracted by support from much of the nobility plus guarantees for established Scottish civic and religious institutions plus promises of general economic advancement plus, it would appear, offers of patronage to key individuals.

Lingering anti-Union sentiment featured within the complex amalgam of motives that prompted the Jacobite risings of 1715 and 1745.

Historians commonly attribute the decline of such overt sentiment to a combination of economic growth in Scotland after the middle of the eighteenth century and direct or indirect efforts to play down Scottish cultural identity and foster British links.

Unique institutions

Argument persists as to which factor played the bigger role. But still Scottish identity survived - perhaps most obviously through the Church of Scotland - alongside allegiance to the British state. Scottish education remained distinct, as did the Scottish legal system.

It is that surviving legal structure which will now be adopted and subject to reform by the planned new Parliament.

While listing the elements that kept Scotland distinct, it is important never to forget the level of support that there has been in Scotland for the Union with England, both formally and informally.

Since that Union, Westminster policy has broadly aimed at a quiescent Scotland: not in itself an unworthy objective. Unsettling events like the disruption in the established Scottish church in the 1840s have occasionally threatened that strategy.

The Scottish Office

When a feeling grew towards the end of the nineteenth Century that legislation affecting Scotland was receiving insufficient attention, Westminster responded.

A Scotch Education Department was formed in 1872. A Secretary for Scotland - with an office in Dover House in Whitehall - was appointed: although the first incumbent reportedly thought the measure "quite unnecessary".

That post was occupied by a full Secretary of State from 1926. The Scottish Office progressively developed - opening a headquarters in Edinburgh and steadily taking over the powers of the Boards (or quangos) which had administered Scotland since the Union.

Today the Scottish Office is responsible for virtually the full range of Scottish domestic issues including health and education.

The push for change

Throughout this period of administrative change, the campaign for political change has grown.

The core argument is that Scottish governance should not be dependent on political control created by a House of Commons majority in which Scotland - with a relatively small presence at Westminster - inevitably plays only a minor role.

That argument grew in strength during the years of the Conservative rule, from 1979 to 1997.

During this period Scotland elected few Tory MPs and so it was claimed that a party that it did not elect governed the country. And as a result Scotland was often on the receiving end of policies, such as the Poll Tax, which it palpably rejected.

In truth, however, that particular claim sits more comfortably with a Nationalist interpretation. It is not genuinely open to politicians who endorse the Union between Scotland and England to argue that a Westminster majority is an insufficient mandate under the present system to govern Scotland, a constituent part of that Union.

Nevertheless, the essential argument for both devolution and independence is the same: Scottish self-determination.

In other words, if the Scots demonstrably want devolved self-government, they must have it. If they demonstrably want independence, they must have that.

'Home Rule'

Down the years, there has been a bewildering range of organisations featuring amalgams of political parties which have campaigned for Home Rule in its various guises.

Much early Nationalist sentiment attached itself to what would now be thought of as devolution rather than full independence.

The early Scottish Labour Party founded by Keir Hardie - a precursor of the full British party - had a firm policy of Scottish Home Rule.

Within the Labour movement, even in Scotland, support for such an objective has wavered in the succeeding century through periods of adherence, neutrality and opposition to the present vigorous endorsement.

As outlined above, there has been widespread administrative devolution through the establishment and development of the Scottish Office: often initiated by Conservative governments.

There have been Royal Commissions, SNP support has ebbed and flowed, the Tories have adopted, then renounced, then accepted Home Rule.

[ image: Former Labour leader John Smith described devolution as the
Former Labour leader John Smith described devolution as the "settled will of the Scottish people"
John Smith, the former Labour leader, undoubtedly had this extensive background in mind when he described devolution as "unfinished business" - although, personally, he was also referring to his own role in the 1970s.

Then, Labour attempted to bring about Scottish Home Rule only to face frustration. Labour's narrow Commons majority meant a difficult passage for succeeding efforts at legislation.

Finally, in 1979, Scotland voted narrowly 'Yes' in a post-legislation referendum - by 51.6 % to 48.4%. But it was not enough to surmount the hurdle introduced by a backbench Labour MP that 40% of the total Scottish electorate must turn out in support of the measure.

As Labour leader, John Smith also described devolution as the "settled will of the Scottish people" - a description regularly evoked by the present government in advancing its own devolution programme.

Whether devolution is the final will of the Scottish people with regard to their system of governance remains to be seen.

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