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:
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The EU (Withdrawal) Bill raises questions about the role of smaller opposition parties in the legislative process

leston.bandeira.thompson.and.mace (1)The EU (Withdrawal) Bill’s return to the Commons saw SNP MPs protest about their voices having been excluded from the debate. Louise Thompson explains how parliamentary procedures can indeed restrict debate for smaller opposition parties, and considers whether something ought to be done about it.

Following the first session of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill’s return to the Commons, most newspaper headlines focused of the battle between Theresa May and the group of backbench Conservative rebels seeking concessions from the government about parliament’s ‘meaningful vote’ on the Brexit deal. The front page of The National instead highlighted the lack of debate on the devolution clauses within the bill, which was limited to just 15 minutes, as well as the fact that only one SNP MP was able to speak. Just a few hours later, every single SNP MP walked out of the Commons chamber during Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) in protest about this issue – and the Speaker’s refusal to allow a vote that the House sit in private to discuss it. It’s not unknown for the SNP to deploy tactics like this in the chamber and it raises interesting questions about the role of smaller opposition parties in the Commons.

The parliamentary position of small ‘o’ opposition parties

When it comes to opposition in the House of Commons, it’s easy to focus attention solely on the ‘Official’ Opposition. But there are four (or five, or six) other opposition parties, depending on where you position the DUP and Sinn Fein. Just as parliamentary architecture in the Commons privileges a two-party system (with the green benches facing each other in adversarial style, the despatch boxes for the use of the government and official opposition party only), parliamentary procedures also help to underpin a system which seems to prioritise the ‘Official Opposition’. Hence, the guarantee of questions at PMQs.

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Party conferences and Brexit

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Party conference season presented an opportunity for each of the political parties to set out their responses to the EU referendum result. Unsurprisingly, there were major differences between their respective visions for the post-Brexit landscape. Whilst the Liberal Democrat and Green leaders called for a second EU referendum, and the SNP promised a draft bill for a second independence referendum, at the Conservative conference the Prime Minister vowed to ‘get on with the job’ of negotiating Brexit. Ailsa McNeil offers an overview.

Following a long summer of uncertainty, with only Theresa May’s vague and much repeated statement that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ offering any semblance of clarity, conference season was a chance for Britain’s political parties to outline their post-referendum strategy. Of the main UK-wide parties the Greens were first to hold their conference, from 2–4 September, followed by UKIP on 16 and 17 September and the Liberal Democrats from 17–20 September. Labour’s conference was held in Liverpool from 25–28 September, whilst the Conservatives gathered in Birmingham from 2–5 October. Finally, the SNP conference took place in Glasgow from 13–15 October.

Conservative

Brexit dominated the Conservative conference. As well as the usual party leader’s speech to close the conference, Prime Minister Theresa May also delivered a speech focused on Brexit on the opening day.  She firmly dismissed the demands for a second referendum and promised to ‘get on with the job’ of negotiating Britain’s exit from the EU, pledging to invoke Article 50 by the end of March 2017.

In defiance of a legal challenge aiming to prevent the government from triggering Article 50 without parliament’s consent and of a large number of MPs and peers who have called for a parliamentary vote, the Prime Minister told the conference that it is ‘up to the government to trigger Article 50 and the government alone’. Although not unexpected –  in August she indicated that no parliamentary vote would be held – May’s stance is at odds with a considerable body of legal opinion, contending that such a move would both expand the royal prerogative arbitrarily and subvert parliamentary democracy (by undermining the express intention of the legislature, as expressed in the European Communities Act 1972).

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