The narrative of devolution twenty years on

gtwuaP6C (1)Today marks the twentieth anniversary of the first Scottish Parliament elections. In this post, David Torrance looks back at how political parties in Scotland have fought to control the narrative of devolution and examines how that ‘story’ has evolved over the past two decades.

Pollsters and sociologists have long understood the power of political storytelling. James Carville, who engineered Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential victory, believed that an effective narrative was ‘the key to everything’, while the NATO strategist Mark Laity has described how a narrative with historical overtones can influence decision- making more than logical argument.

This is not, however, a contemporary political phenomenon, but rather something as old as spin and fake news. As others reflect on the twentieth anniversary of devolution in Scotland, it’s worth looking at the role narrative – or rather political ownership of narrative – played in the run-up to the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in May 1999, and indeed thereafter.

Broadly speaking, the ‘story’ of devolution in Scotland was owned, at first, by the Scottish Labour Party from the 1980s until the early 2000s, before the Scottish National Party (SNP) assumed control in the mid-2000s. More recently, ownership has become more competitive, with the Scottish Conservative Party belatedly expressing comfort with devolution and challenging the SNP’s claim to ‘stand up for Scotland’.

As I’ve argued in an earlier essay, this narrative marketplace has much deeper roots, for since the late nineteenth century every major political party in Scotland has told a ‘story’ of an autonomous Scotland while claiming to defend that autonomy from internal and external threats. Initially it was the Liberals with ‘Home Rule’, then the old Scottish Unionist Party, which presented itself –most ostentatiously between the early 1930s and mid 1950sas the main ‘guardian’ of a distinct Scottish national identity, while extending what was known as ‘administrative devolution’ within the United Kingdom.

Later, this political story passed to Scottish Labour in augmented form, at its most salient after the 1987 general election when the party resolved various internal debates to emerge as the main champion of a devolved Scottish Assembly/Parliament. A necessary corollary was delegitimising the Scottish Conservative Party’s claim to guardianship of Scottish identity, thus the charge that the governments of Margaret Thatcher were ‘anti-Scottish’ and hostile to distinctively Scottish institutions.

There were echoes of the earlier Unionist approach. Not only did Scottish Labour draw upon its considerable reserves of political symbolism, but it pushed the SNP’s competing nationalism (‘independence in Europe’) to the periphery of political discourse, all the while pursuing its own electoral strategy north of the border with the tacit approval of the UK Labour Party, classic features of what the sociologist Michael Billig called ‘banal nationalism’ and Jim Bulpitt’s description of territorial management in the United Kingdom.

Although the SNP attempted to challenge Labour’s ownership of the devolution agenda – Alex Salmond used to claim the party couldn’t ‘deliver a pizza let alone a parliament’ – Donald Dewar, Scottish Secretary after 1997 and Scotland’s inaugural First Minister in 1999, understood well the power of political storytelling. His memorable speech at the Scottish Parliament’s official opening on 1 July 1999 invoked:

The shout of the welder in the din of the great Clyde shipyards;

The speak of the Mearns, with its soul in the land;

The discourse of the Enlightenment, when Edinburgh and Glasgow were a light held to the intellectual life of Europe;

The wild cry of the Great Pipes;

And back to the distant cries of the battles of Bruce and Wallace.

Dewar’s speech was widely admired and quoted, including by Alex Salmond.

But having ‘delivered’ the Scottish Parliament in 1999, thereafter Scottish Labour found it difficult to maintain ownership of Scotland’s ‘story’, although initially there was limited competition given continuing Scottish Tory ambivalence about the devolution project and the electoral weakness of the SNP. Henry McLeish, First Minister for a year after the death of Donald Dewar in 2000, did attempt to refresh his party’s narrative, departing from Westminster on policies like free personal care for the elderly and floating a change of nomenclature for the Scottish Executive.

The mood music began to shift about a year before the 2007 Holyrood election, when Alex Salmond – who had returned to lead the SNP after four years back at Westminster – deliberately changed his campaign pitch to a more upbeat story of devolution and what it could achieve under his and Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership. As Jack McConnell later remarked, Labour ‘started to feel as if we were swimming against a tide, we were on the back foot’.

As head of what Salmond (rather than Henry McLeish) renamed the ‘Scottish Government’, the SNP engaged in a subtle retelling of the devolution story, one in which it – rather than Scottish Labour – had been the driving force behind the devolution campaigns of the 1980s and 1990s. In a 2018 biography of Jimmy Reid, former Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill wrote of the SNP as ‘the party most associated with the restored Scottish Parliament’.

Although electoral pressure from the SNP had certainly been a factor in Labour’s embrace of devolution during that period, the Nationalists had formally been opposed to devolution following the 1979 referendum. Indeed, it had been a strategic achievement of Alex Salmond’s to finally convince his party to support a Scottish Parliament prior to the 1997 referendum, which allowed him to campaign alongside Donald Dewar and Jim Wallace for a Yes/Yes vote. This gave him and his party a clear stake in the devolution project despite their previous ambivalence.

In devolved government after 2007, the SNP also sought to portray themselves as the true guardians of devolution, a constitutional journey it now wished to ‘complete’ with independence. It consistently championed, via parliamentary debates and speeches, two devolutionary landmarks – the 1988 ‘Claim of Right’ and subsequent Scottish Constitutional Convention – from which the SNP had remained aloof twenty years earlier.

This shift also manifested itself in rhetorical terms; a search of the Scottish Parliament’s Official Report for the phrase ‘talking Scotland down’ reveals its predominant use by Labour MSPs against SNP opponents before 2007, and vice versa following that election. This was an inevitable corollary of the claim, which also moved from Labour to the SNP, to ‘stand up for Scotland’. And just as Unionists had incorporated elements of nationalism into their political narratives, Nationalists paid supporters of the United Kingdom the same compliment; Alex Salmond even spoke of Scotland’s ‘six unions’ and his desire to remain within all but one of them.

Just as Scottish Labour had once taken the Scottish Unionist story of an autonomous Scotland and added legislative (as opposed to administrative) devolution to the mix, the SNP now took up old battle cries associated with the creation of a Scottish Parliament – chiefly the need to ‘protect’ Scotland’s social democracy from Conservative governments and boost its economic performance – and presented them as arguments for independence.

Scothorne et al referred to this commonality between Labour and the SNP as ‘social nationalism’, a story of ‘progressive’ Scotland predicated upon differing degrees of political autonomy within the British Isles. Although Scottish Labour hit back on points of detail, its alliance with the Conservatives in the 2014 independence referendum made this challenging. As the former Labour MP Tom Harris observed: ‘If the Conservatives had been anti-Scottish for opposing devolution then, weren’t Labour anti-Scottish for opposing independence now?’

Again, this dilemma was not new. In the 1940s and ‘50s the Scottish Unionist Party had advocated what it called ‘Scottish Control of Scottish Affairs’, only to suffer electorally when that ‘control’ was judged by voters to have delivered insufficient economic returns. Even in the late 1980s, the academics Geekie and Levy had warned Labour that the process of ‘tartanisation’, i.e. co-opting nationalist language, was, for a unionist party, ‘a dangerous game to play’.

With the electoral recovery of the Scottish Conservatives in 2016 and 2017, the narrative marketplace became more nuanced. Not only did Scottish Labour make efforts to regain control (‘if we don’t tell our own story well,’ Shadow Scottish Secretary Lesley Laird remarked in 2018, ‘nobody else is going to do it for us’), but Ruth Davidson also said she would ‘stand up for Scotland’ from within the United Kingdom, having followed her Welsh colleagues’ lead in seeking to extend the powers of the Scottish Parliament following the independence referendum.

In the wake of the 2016 European Union referendum, meanwhile, Scottish Labour and the SNP were agreed that the UK Government’s plan to retain control of some responsibilities being repatriated from Brussels amounted to a ‘power grab’ and perhaps even an existential threat to the Scottish Parliament, something that reflected the two parties’ narrative competition.

Unionist politicians also expressed concerns about the neglect of a more British or UK-wide narrative after 1999. In his last broadcast interview, the former Labour First Minister of Wales, Rhodri Morgan, said he would not describe himself as either a ‘Unionist’ or a ‘Nationalist’ but rather a ‘passionate devolutionist’, with the ‘belief that the British constitution is much healthier for having devolution since 1999’.

And reflecting upon 20 years of devolution at the Institute for Government, Tony Blair recently said ‘we [Unionists] should think more carefully about how we have a British and UK identity and not just an English, Scottish, Irish Welsh identity’; in other words, how to tell a compelling story of ‘the Union’ as well as of its component parts.

In his speech at the opening of the Scottish Parliament, Donald Dewar spoke of ‘a new stage on a journey begun long ago and which has no end’. The telling and retelling of Scotland’s devolution story has shifted and developed during the first 20 years of that journey, a phenomenon that seems likely to continue over the next two decades.

About the author

David Torrance is a Senior Library Clerk at the House of Commons Library, specialising in devolution, monarchy and the constitution.