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Great Britain: Enthusiasm For Scottish Parliament Wavers, But Devolution Still Popular

  • Kathleen Moore

One of British Prime Minister Tony Blair's biggest reforms in his first term was to devolve some power from London to Scotland and Wales, which together with England make up Great Britain. The Scots have used their relative autonomy to scrap tuition fees for university students and provide free personal care for the elderly, much to the envy of some people in England. So admirers may be surprised to hear there were few celebrations when the devolved Scottish parliament marked its firs t 1,000 days recently, and that polls show Scots are disappointed with the accomplishments of their parliament so far.

Prague, 11 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- When Scots voted for devolution in a 1997 referendum, plans were drawn up for a new parliament buildi ng in Edinburgh to house the 129 members of the Scottish Parliament -- or MSPs -- who would have a say in sectors such as Scotland's health, education, environment, and agriculture.

Five years later, that building is still not complete and is likely to cost some 500 million euros ($442 million) -- more than seven times the original estimate.

John Curtice is head of research in Scotland for the National Centre for Social Research, which has documented waning enthusiasm among Scots for their parliament. He says the fiasco of the Edinburgh building and its spiraling cost have become a "disastrous symbol" for the parliament since it was set up in 1999. But he says the main reason people are disappointed in the record of their MSPs is that expectations were so high to begin with. It's no surprise to find, as Curtice puts it, that "reality has kicked in."

One of the center's polls, conducted around the time of the 1997 referendum, found that 79 percent expected that the new parliament would give ordinary peo ple a bigger say in how Scotland is governed. Last year, however, only 38 percent said this had actually happened. Respondents said MSPs had failed in particular to deliver on education, following the near collapse of the Scottish exam system two years ag o.

Curtice says, "I would argue perhaps the most revealing thing is that when we ask people now who has the most influence over what happens in Scotland, two-thirds say the U.K. government in Westminster. There's the perception that the parliament is no t making the impact that one would expect, or at least the [impact that] advocates of devolution were expecting."

Tim Luckhurst, a former editor of one of Scotland's leading dailies, "The Scotsman," goes further. He cites a poll conducted this year by Sc ottish Television in which 96 percent of respondents believed the devolved parliament has performed badly throughout its existence. Luckhurst says Scots don't have to look far for the reasons.

"Their [MSPs'] interest [is] in causes that appear to have ab solutely no resonance with the general public and their constant, apparent desire to reward themselves for the simple act of being elected to office, rather than concerning themselves with issues that are of genuine public concern," says Luckhurst.

He li sts three issues that have preoccupied parliament but are of little general interest to voters: the ban on fox hunting, already a minority sport; the repeal of a clause banning the promotion of homosexuality in schools; and plans to outlaw corporal punish ment for small children.

It hasn't helped that MSPs last month awarded themselves a 13.5 percent pay raise, or that they're considering expensive furnishings for the yet-to-be-completed parliament building.

Scotland's lawmakers say they have made a diff erence to ordinary people's lives, giving them "a new voice in the land," in the words of Donald Dewar, Scotland's first minister until his death in 2000. They point to the abolition of university tuition fees and the introduction of free personal care fo r the elderly. And Curtice says much of what the parliament is good at -- like producing well-crafted legislation in committee -- is not the stuff of newspaper headlines.

James McKenzie, a spokesman for the Scottish Parliament, admits that "no one will s ay it's been perfect but a good start has been made." He says many of the big issues of the day are still dealt with in London, but that Scotland's MSPs have passed laws that do affect the lives of many people.

McKenzie pointed to legislation that the pa rliament adopted on domestic abuse, where restraining orders against violent partners can now be applied in cases where the couple are unmarried, or even gay.

As for whether topics such as fox hunting are trivial, McKenzie says this drew a huge amount o f interest from both supporters and opponents. "This is a minority sport," he says, "but it's something that many people have a strong opinion about."

But Luckhurst of "The Scotsman" says the university tuition and health-care policies are simply example s of the grandiose spending habits that MSPs learned while in local government.

"This is not evidence of bright, intelligent, radical thinking. It's evidence of people who have spent too much time in an environment in which money was not their problem. A ll funding came from central supply and therefore they didn't have to take responsibility for the taxation required to pay for their ambition. What we have got in Scotland, as even left-of-center academics agree, is an executive which has spent money with no thought for the future and which will have great difficulty financing these policies, not just in the long-term but even in the next few years," says Luckhurst.

But before Scotland's devolution experiment is consigned to the dustbin, it's worth notin g that the attitudes recorded in Curtice's surveys are actually fairly complex.

While people say they are unhappy or disappointed in their new parliament, there's still widespread support for the principle of devolution. And three-quarters now say parlia ment should have more powers, raising the question: Has devolution fueled, or quelled, separatist feeling in Scotland?

Scots have a strong sense of national identity, and even prior to devolution, their legal and educational systems were significantly different from those in England.

An opinion poll conducted earlier this month suggests that, with just over 12 months to go before the next Scottish elections, the pro-independence Scottish National Party is gaining ground on Labour, which is in coalition with the Liberal Democrats in the devolved government. The poll gave the SNP a lead in the proportional element of the election, and showed the party closing in on Labour in the first-past-the-post vote.

Luckhurst says devolution initially dented the SNP's fortunes but that the parliament has given the party an important forum. As he notes, the nationalists "only have to win once."

"In the long-term, what one has to recognize is that, with the creation of a devolved parliament, it is conceivable that a patriotic nationalist sentiment will eventually come to dominate, something that was entirely impossible while Scotland was governed by the union parliament," says Luckhurst.

There are also signs that some in England's regions are restive and want their own regional assemblies, too. A BBC poll last month showed this feeling is particularly strong in the regions bordering Scotland and Wales.

John Adams is a former Labour adviser on devolution and an expert on constitutional reform at London's Institute of Public Policy Research. He thinks it is quite likely that England's regions will get some form of devolution. Still, he says this should not shake the foundations of the union. In fact, he believes devolution has made the Scots more appreciative of the U.K.

"The fact that we're trying to develop a more devolved and diverse U.K. is a very good thing, and I think it strengthens our country rather than try to pretend we're all the same," says Adams.

Curtice suggests that, even as people in Britain incre asingly stress their national or regional identities, the post-devolution union is still robust. He notes that people are more likely to emphasize their Scottish, English, or Welsh identities, as opposed to their Britishness.

But ask them if they still want to be in the U.K., he adds, and a majority -- in England, Scotland and Wales -- say yes..

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