Not so devolved after all

Observations on Scotland

In Italy recently, I met a number of expatriate Scots who were having trouble getting their heads round the idea of devolution. Most said they were broadly in favour of it, but were hazy on the detail. "Do we really need our own embassies?" asked a renowned Renaissance scholar. "Why does Scotland need an army, anyway?" asked his partner.

These people knew that Scotland had changed, but were not sure quite how. This is understandable. If the Scots now have their own parliament, doesn't that mean they have responsibility for their own affairs? Well, yes and no. Some powers are devolved to Edinburgh, such as health, education, local government, sport and the arts; others, however, including foreign affairs, defence, social security, financial and economic matters, remain the prerogative of Westminster.

Among the latter is the media, including newspapers. Policy on this continues to be under the control of the UK government, which, among other things, rules on possible monopolies and changes of ownership. This is now rather a moot point because of the proposed sale, the first since the advent of the Scottish parliament, of three Glasgow-based newspapers - the Herald, Sunday Herald and the Evening Times - by the Scottish Media Group. In dire need of a cash injection, SMG put the profitable papers on the market last month, immediately arousing the interest of a swarm of potential bidders.

We do not yet know who these all may be. We do, however, know about the Barclay brothers, who already own the Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday. With the former Sunday Times editor Andrew Neil at the helm, the Barclays have tabled a bid believed to be in excess of £200m, which may yet prove to be the highest. Were that to be so, a monopoly referral is regarded as inevitable. In which case, the crucial decision on the papers' future and, consequently, the diversity of political debate in Scotland, will rest with Melanie Johnson, MP for Welwyn Hatfield, and parliamentary undersecretary of state at the Department of Trade and Industry.

From afar, it may seem of no more than local concern. Indeed, the Sunday Herald, which is just three and a half years old, does not sell outside Scotland. Yet north of the border, the sale of the papers is of enormous significance and public concern. A motion is already in front of the Scottish Parliament calling on any consideration of monopoly issues to be based on a recognition of the peculiarities of the Scottish market as opposed to the UK one, and to insist that any sale must not compromise the papers' editorial independence, integrity and overall quality.

Whether that will have any impact is anyone's guess. New owners have a history of promising the moon and reneging the moment the spotlight moves elsewhere. It is worth noting, though, that in Scotland, the Herald and the Scotsman are the equivalents in England of the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph. A takeover of the Herald and its stablemates (which view the Scottish Parliament not uncritically, but constructively) by the Scotsman (with its Andrew Neil-inspired, bilious view of the redrawn political landscape) would not go down well with Johnson's Celtic colleagues.

Alan Taylor is associate editor of the Sunday Herald