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15 September 1997

New Scotland, New Elitism

Historic is one of the most overused words in the language and it has certainly been misapplied to the Scottish referendum. It is estimated that the turnout was 60.1 per cent: less than the 70 per cent in the general election and lower than 63 per cent turnout for the 1979 referendum which was judged to be an insufficient basis for devolution.

Given that many Scots dropped off the electoral register to avoid the poll tax, it is likely that there was a peculiarly high number of people not even eligible to vote. Of those who did vote, 74 per cent backed the Scottish Parliament, with slightly fewer supporting its tax-varying powers.

Perhaps this explains the distinct lack of excitement outside of the political establishment. This is a 'democratic leap forward' that has occured without any significant demonstration of public support until the ballot itself. Of course, the politicians themselves were very excited. They have talked about little else since the general election. In fact, they talked about little else before the general election. Devolution has been the raison d'etre of Scottish politics for several years. All of which begs the question: what is it for? What is the Scottish parliament going to do with its powers?

Many commentators have noted the wretchedness of the No-No campaign, and there is little surprise that it did so badly. Initially, the Conservatives were reluctant to front the campaign. There had even been suggestions during the general election campaign that some Tories might back devolution; after the election there were no Tory MP's left in Scotland. Indeed, it was recognised that the party's unpopularity might actually damage the campaign should they initiate it. For these reasons the No-No campaign, Think Twice was established as a non party front led most prominently by Donald Findlay QC, of the Rangers board. The Tory association was still there though, and the campaign even stuck to the same arguments about tax and the threat to the Union that had failed in the election. It was no wonder then, that Think Twice failed to capture the public imagination. This was all the more fortunate for the government, when you consider the vacuity of their own case.

In a sense, devolution fits into the same category as electoral reform, modernisation of the House of Lords, bills of rights or any other constitutional issue. These are matters of great concern to a particular class of people, but have never inspired much excitement in the majority of the population. They are essentially dull issues for people with nothing to say about anything else. What makes Scottish devolution different is that it became bound up in recent years with the broader anti-Tory sentiment that still dominates Scottish politics. The fact that Scots consistently voted Labour while the Conservatives dominated British politics fuelled a resentment that serves the new government well. The essence of the Yes-Yes campaign over the past month was to draw on residual anti-Toryism and the memory of the Poll Tax to cohere support for the Scottish Paliament. The bogey of a bankrupt political force was used to give legitimacy to an otherwise empty new institution.

While some voters may be harbouring hopes that the new parliament will mean a return to the Old Labour politics that they were comfortable with, the government makes no such promises. Devolution comes at a time when British politics is emerging from a failed past into a vacant future. The Scottish Parliament is neither a return to the past nor a conduit to a new agenda. The Scottish parliament is a substitute for a new agenda. Nobody knows what the Parliament will do, but they all agree that it will do it in a new way. There will be equal numbers of male and female MSPs; there will be proportional representation; there will be consensus instead of confrontation. Consensus on what is apparently a question to be dealt with later.

As a matter of fact, the devolution discussion reached its political and intellectual zenith in its penultimate week, when campaigning was suspended as a mark of respect to Diana, Princess of Wales. The unseemly squabbling that had punctuated the early part of the campaign gave way to a mood of pious introspection. Scotland's 'unique' culture was expressed in a week of British national unity, as the Scottish Football Association yielded to pressure from Downing Street. The new political class was in its element, and a world away from the political barracking that characterised the development of new institutions in the past. The role of 'the people' was also established, emotionally involved but subdued. If there is a new political agenda, this is it.

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