Devolution Doom

Christopher Harvie

‘You don’t hate us in Scotland, Master?’ said Professor John Stuart Blackie, the Teuto-Gaelic classicist, to Jowett of Balliol. ‘We never think of you at all,’ came the lapidary reply.

Drafting a sketch for a BBC radio programme on devolution, I was rung by Professor Phil Williams, a colleague at Aberystwyth who is also Plaid Cymru’s spokesman on energy. ‘I’m on it with Jack McConnell,’ I said.

‘Who’s McConnell?’

‘Scottish First Minister.’

‘Well, I never . . .’

This was a benign version of the Jowett syndrome but serious enough: Westminster, Holyrood and Cardiff have become places apart. As the days tick away before the Holyrood elections on 1 May 2003, Labour seems in better shape than the SNP: John Swinney lacks the lethal charm of his predecessor, Alex Salmond, and his members went out of control when selecting candidates for the regional list system, ditching the best and brightest. But the polls show that McConnell is far from being out of the woods.

Whoever wins, is Holyrood to be little more than a Glasgow-Council-writ-large, a magnificent shell housing a small, dim creature? Has transparency done its business, only to expose the morbidity of the Scottish body politic?

Scottish devolution reasserted itself in the 1980s as a by-product of Europeanisation. Technology, politics and culture would, it was hoped, mesh together in the new industrial city-region, transforming the ‘neotechnic’ epoch (of carbon-fired industry) into its ‘geotechnic’ successor (in which technology would enhance society and the environment). Patrick Geddes had predicted this in the 1890s, along with self-government. Which is why Geddes – a recurrent presence in the novels of Alasdair Gray – counts as a patron of devolution, and indeed of that peaceable civic Europe in which Gray’s ‘Scottish Co-operative Wholesale Republic’ would find its place.

The outcome has been rather different. The MSPs and the McConnell Executive face socio-economic crisis. There is now outright recession, following on from months when growth ran at a third of the UK level; most sectors are afflicted by structural malaise. Agriculture and fisheries, which have kept the place going since Skara Brae, are struggling with the aftermath of foot and mouth, the hopeless economics of the family farm and the consequences of overfishing. Tourism was in deep trouble even before 11 September, and manufacturing output has gone down by 14 per cent over the past two years. The remaining heavy industries are on a subsidy drip-feed and, reeling from the transatlantic recession in new technology, Silicon Glen faces the cyberclearances before its second generation of hi-tech firms has emerged.

Service-industry capitalism – which enjoyed only a brief career as a cash cow – radiates gloom. Scottish Media Group, which runs the Herald and STV, is threatened with takeover. Thins has gone bust, leaving Scottish bookselling to Anglo-America. Over-expansion has left huge dents in the valuations of Scottish Power and Stagecoach. The once-booming finance sector, centred on Charlotte Square in Edinburgh, now boils down to the Royal Bank of Scotland and Standard Life, the latter now landed with the pensions crisis. The prospect of a decent rail system is retreating to the 2020s, some of the necessary cash having been blown on five pointless, populist miles of motorway in Glasgow. The new, much-touted Rosyth-Zeebrugge ferry has had its economics undermined by haulage firms using East European drivers on minimal wages. Football, the warhorse of national identity, now sees the ‘Old Firm’ about to dismount, and seems ready for the vet, if not the knacker’s yard. As for health, Scots tend to be sick and old. It costs a lot to die.

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