The New Statesman Essay - Scotland returns to the Dark Ages

Devolution is supposed to be a progressive policy. In reality, it has released the dragons of bigotr

There is a golden time every summer when a small part of Edinburgh feels as vibrant as Greenwich Village. It is festival time. Progressive Britain boards the shuttle at Heathrow, or finds a bargain on easyJet, and converges on the Royal Mile and the New Town. Voices from Hampstead and Oxford fill the restaurants and bars. Briefly, one of Europe's most conservative cities takes on a patina of radicalism.

Since 1997, new locations have joined the list of "must sees" on this annual Caledonian pilgrimage: the slowly rising shell of the Scottish Parliament building, its temporary home on the Mound, and the pubs frequented by ministers and MSPs. London is old and tired and dull. Edinburgh is where it's at - and devolution has made it swing. Over exorbitantly priced Chablis and scallops at the Witchery, metropolitan guests indulge late-night fantasies. They should relocate, they say to each other. House prices are incredibly reasonable. They could live in Charlotte Square and stroll to work.

It almost never happens. Scotland is depopulating. Young graduate professionals queue to escape this land of joy and plenty. Attracting incomers is a dream beyond the possible - except in the Highlands, where a declining economy makes property cheap for Dutch hippies and their English neighbours. Oh, life is good enough. The country is beautiful, and disposable income goes further where mortgages remain small. This allows the middle classes to pay the school fees made essential by declining educational standards - a higher proportion of children in Edinburgh and Glasgow is privately schooled than at any time in Scottish history. In the teaching of maths, science, English and foreign languages, Scottish state schools fall well below European averages, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. And if the child happens to have an English accent, he or she will be mercilessly teased - and sometimes worse.

Few of us will explain any of this to outsiders. It is considered unpatriotic to criticise devolved Scotland. And devolution is presented by new Labour as the best proof of its progressive radicalism. The truth is very different.

I remember when I first doubted that devolution was in fact progressive. In early 2000, I had dinner with an American diplomat who was then assigned to the Edinburgh consulate. I invited her to help judge the "Scottish Parliamentarian of the Year Award" sponsored by the Scotsman, of which I was then editor. "Spare me," she said. "All men. All dull. All reactionary. Scottish Labour remind me of Texas Democrats. They're more reactionary than the real right and thoroughly misogynist."

Consider this. In the past two years, Scotland has been swept by poisonous prejudice. The worst excesses occurred during trench fighting over the repeal of Section 28. The Daily Record, a faithful supporter of the Scottish Labour Party, thrashed up outrage about "gay pornography" and warned that children would be force-fed homosexual propaganda. Vile theories about secret gay conspiracies in the professions were openly promoted. Cardinal Thomas Winning, the reactionary leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland, used language of which he should be permanently ashamed (but isn't) and sought to maximise the influence that his Church holds over the Labour Party in Glasgow and west central Scotland.

It worked. A cabal of Labour ministers with large Catholic electorates and reputations for deep-seated conservatism undermined Wendy Alexander, the minister responsible for repeal. They promoted compromise (as if there is a mid-point between tolerance and bigotry). The pure, progressive argument that Section 28 should go because it legitimised prejudice was abandoned. Though the legislation was eventually repealed, the "safeguards" that replaced it undermined the entire project. The battle was witness to the most aggressive manifestation of a new alliance between devolved politics and ancient prejudice.

The alliance manifests itself in other ways. Militant anti-abortion groups have persecuted the health minister, Susan Deacon, over her plans to expand access to advice about contraception and abortion. Labour-supporting newspapers have questioned the acceptability of Deacon's own lifestyle (she is not married to the father of her child, although they live together in a perfectly stable and conventional partnership). Her suitability for her position has been widely questioned by jealous Labour colleagues.

Such incidents illustrate that militant Catholicism has re-emerged as a powerful reactionary force in devolved Scotland. It regards the Edinburgh parliament as a golden opportunity to impose values that Westminster would never endorse. The Church wants to repeal the abortion law in Scotland. This is impossible, because the late Donald Dewar ensured that, while Edinburgh has the power to reintroduce the death penalty, it has no authority over abortion. Why was this power reserved for Westminster? Simple. Dewar knew the power of political catholicism in Scottish politics and did not trust his party to fight it. He made sure that the issue could not be decided here. Doesn't that give an insight into the state of Scottish progressivism?

But devolution has not just encouraged a reawakening of pre-modern ideas about deviancy, law and sexual conduct. Misogyny, too, is rampant. Female ministers have been relentlessly persecuted, briefed against and ridiculed by male colleagues. Susan Deacon's personal life was just the start. Wendy Alexander has suffered atrocious hostility for the singular offence of being luminously clever and incontrovertibly female - a rare combination in the Scottish professions.

These senior female ministers are also recognisably progressive. They regard Holyrood as a potential testing-ground for good ideas. This is anathema to the Labour-dominated Scottish establishment, which always saw devolution as an administrative change, not an opportunity to experiment with radicalism. Stark proof of this came with the calculated destruction and dismissal of Donald Dewar's special adviser John Rafferty. He was ostensibly dismissed for exaggerating the threat to Deacon during the battle over abortion clinics. In fact, he was the victim of a reactionary cabal that resented his sponsorship of radical ideas: baby bonds, income-related graduate tax, reform of local government, parental involvement in school management. Rafferty was deliberately stitched up by a group of politicians and civil servants who now work closely with the First Minister, Henry McLeish. New Scotland is a ferociously tribal place.

Other disasters? Proportional representation, introduced by Westminster for elections to the Scottish Parliament, has been rejected by Scottish politicians for use in local government elections (it would destroy the careers of Labour councillors).

In circumstances very similar to the Stephen Lawrence case, the courts failed to achieve a conviction in the brutal murder of Surjit Singh Chhokar. There has been little sustained protest and no real effort to discipline or reform a legal system that patently and repeatedly made basic errors of procedure. Racism is not a problem in devolved Scotland because, like Joyce's Ireland, we hardly let them in. The English are the largest minority and, since they are the same race, it is quite acceptable to loathe them.

Sectarianism has re-emerged in all its ugliness. Very few MSPs have the courage to oppose the separate Catholic schools that instil and preserve it on both sides of the divide and which Winning regards as his most precious asset. Earlier this year, the power of sectarian hatred was advertised when the Irish premier was warned not to visit a memorial to victims of the Irish potato famine on the same day as a crucial Celtic v Rangers football match. Official Scotland condemned Frank Roy, the MP who advised him to stay away. But Roy was right. The Taoiseach's presence would have been regarded as provocative by a substantial minority of Lanarkshire opinion.

There is more. Fox-hunting, which Scotland was going to ban first, has not been banned at all - and, in the wake of foot-and-mouth, probably never will be. The quango culture, which Labour promised to abolish, has expanded. MSPs who swore to promote openness have opposed a legal case intended to prevent them meeting and debating in private. Scotland's legal system has been routinely challenged under the terms of the European Convention on Human Rights and has been found wanting, on the alarming grounds that the connections between politicians and certain types of judicial appointment are incompatible with judicial independence. The Lord Advocate, a figure whose mere existence is a standing insult to the separation of judicial and executive power, appointed himself to the bench (yes, he can do that in Scotland) on the eve of the Lockerbie trial.

Earlier this year, a judge in Aberdeen ordered the acquittal of a man charged with rape, not on the grounds that his victim had consented to sex - his lordship acknowledged that she had not - but because there was no evidence that he had employed physical force to coerce her and, under an interpretation of Scots law not employed for several decades, rape has only occurred when sexual intercourse was achieved through violence. Absence of consent alone is insufficient.

Are all these things the fault of the Scottish Parliament and Executive? The rape case is not - though MSPs could have moved faster to change a statute that ought to be offensive to everyone in British politics. And as for the rest? It would be absurd to suggest that, in every single case, MSPs had the power to influence or dictate outcomes. That is not the issue. The question is: has devolution made Scotland a more progressive place in which to live? The answer is no. Scotland was more progressive before devolution.

The truth - as many contented, affluent, expatriate Scots privately admit, and as their friends in Scotland discuss, though never in front of English friends - is that a pre-modern, small-town mentality has reasserted itself. Devolved Scotland is doing what Ireland did in 1922; it is experiencing the same trends that created the priest-ridden, shame-concealing bigoted nation of Eamon de Valera. Stripped of the talent and the power structures that had ameliorated life since 1945, Scotland is rediscovering nasty old ways. Traditions of deference to authority, respect for status, male domination of the professions and reluctance to wash dirty linen in public have become stronger. They were always here, but were diluted by the soothing balm of the British state, to which bright Scots made, and still make, such a disproportionate contribution.

The worst excesses take place in the Scottish Labour Party. Here, the notions that time served matters more than talent, and that obedience is a greater virtue than honesty, have long been dominant. When the only parliament was at Westminster, the factionalism, fixing and corruption were mostly confined to local government. John Smith and Donald Dewar knew about the awful sectarianism on Monklands District Council. They turned blind eyes to it because it was easy to deny. An unwritten contract existed - you boys can play squalid games in the closed world of your one-party council statelets, but you must never involve the parliamentary party nor will you embarrass us by getting caught. That was then. Now these tactics are the stuff of Edinburgh parliamentary politics, too. The dominant ethos in the Scottish Executive is the ethos of Scotland's Labour councils - unprincipled, middle-aged, male, misogynist and principally motivated by naked self-interest.

Yes, there are other political parties. But despite the formal existence of a coalition government, Labour's centrality to Scottish politics is akin to the role of the Communist Party in China. Labour is the establishment here, and a thoroughly old-fashioned, unreformed establishment it is. That is why it behaves so much like the Conservative Party in England.

Devolution has made this worse. Good, sincere, progressive columnists in Scottish newspapers are commenting on this phenomenon with increasing frequency and anger. Their view is that devolution will take a long time to work, that change requires a chance to bed down and produce results, that Ireland took half a century to achieve enlightenment and maturity. Perhaps. But what if the process is moving in the wrong direction, if devolution is not making things better slowly but is abandoning progressive ideals at every turn? On that basis, would it not be progressive to abolish the Scottish Parliament? I spit blood when ignorant metropolitan Blairites insist that just asking such a question makes me a reactionary.

To believe the twaddle about Scottish devolution providing a model for change elsewhere, you need either to receive a salary from a devolved institution or to live in England. Either way, you need help. A fortnight at the festival isn't enough. That is the only time when Scotland does feel progressive. For a fuller picture, come and live here. I'll introduce you to Henry McLeish's little tartanised province. But like hell you will.

If new Labour has achieved anything progressive, then it has not done it in Scotland. Here, the change that Blair presents as progressive radicalism has preserved in aspic the very establishment that always made Scotland look horribly conservative to enlightened visitors. That is why it appealed to so many in the Scottish Labour machine. They wanted to be allowed to do things their own way without having to endure unpleasant comparisons with the more open-minded and meritocratic British state.

Progressives should regard it as their duty to prevent them. But everything's OK. The Footlights will be appearing on the Fringe, and that really is all that matters. Isn't it?

Tim Luckhurst is a former editor of the Scotsman. He was press officer and research assistant to Donald Dewar, 1985-88