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5 July 1999

Judge it by deeds, not words

New Statesman Scotland - The new parliament has been hyped beyond reason, writes Douglas Al

By Douglas Alexander

The life of a Scottish MP is a divided one. It combines (hopefully) an active involvement in Scottish life with an obligation to represent our constituents’ interests in Westminster.

The differing perspectives provided by these roles have never been more sharply drawn than in the past few weeks. While in Edinburgh the blethering classes have proved effusive in self-congratulation over the historic significance of the parliament, in London I have found myself explaining to perplexed journalists and politicians that, yes, power has now been devolved away from Westminster. It seems to come as a shock to them that this is not some unintended consequence of devolution but was its very purpose.

As a lifelong advocate of devolution, perhaps I should regard these diverse reactions – noisy triumphalism and perplexed indignation – as mere discordant notes at the start of a new song. Yet on both sides of the border I discern a growing questioning, as the long-advanced merits of devolution start to be tested against the exacting challenges of expectation.

These expectations have been heightened by the recent inflation of rhetoric about devolution. As I sat in the gallery observing the parliament’s opening, the first words I heard were Winnie Ewing’s assertion that “The Scottish Parliament, which adjourned on 25 March 1707, is hereby reconvened.” Not only did this wholly ahistoric assertion unwittingly root the new institution in an undemocratic, feudal tradition, it also wilfully ignored the parliament’s place in the network of modern democratic institutions that now share power, from local to European level.

Ewing’s words cannot, however, be dismissed as one nationalist’s opportunistic reinterpretation of the parliament’s origins. They reflect a far wider confusion about both the intent and implications of devolution. During the coalition negotiations, real outrage was expressed in Scotland that Donald Dewar had maintained contact with the Prime Minister. Yet, as if to confirm these dark suspicions, Matthew Taylor, the director of the Institute of Public Policy Research, then published an angry polemic declaring that “devolution gave the people of Scotland and Wales the right to elect their own government, not to redesign the political platform of each party”.

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In the face of such confusion, those of us who continue to see devolution as the best constitutional architecture need to defend the settlement, or doubts will harden into both disillusionment and hostility towards the devolutionary project.

Perhaps the biggest mistake we could make would be to attempt to enhance the legitimacy of the devolved parliament by encouraging it to mimic the shallow trappings of statehood. As Mark Leonard argued recently in the NS, that has been the error of those pursuing popular legitimacy for the European Union. In presenting the EU as a nation state under construction – with flags, anthems and passports – the debate has become “paralysed by an image of Europe as a federal house three-quarters built, where its owners ran out of money, or political will, before the roof could be built”. The Scottish Parliament will establish its legitimacy not by seeking more powers but by using its powers effectively to improve educational standards and tackle health inequalities, for example.

Those of us intent on harnessing the true potential of our new constitutional architecture must look beyond politics. In the Harvard Business Review, Charles Handy recently highlighted how many modern corporations are now devolving power within their organisations. In language familiar to anyone acquainted with Scottish devolution, he explains that “in British Petroleum . . . the centre came up with a list of 22 ‘reserve powers’ but after discussion . . . these were pruned down to the ten most essential to the future of the company”.

Perhaps the most intriguing consequence of such developments is the extent to which they have challenged the roles of corporate leaders. Westminster politicians could learn from Handy’s description of how the role of the corporate centre has changed, from controlling to co-ordinating, using influence more than exerting power.

Holyrood politicians could also gain some valuable insights. Within these new structures, the role of the devolved unit is not to ape the institution of the centre but to work effectively for results within the bounds of the devolved powers. It also relies on the recognition and agreement that there are certain functions – such as R&D for companies, or defence for countries – that can be better undertaken by the centre than by the devolved units individually.

Perhaps the key ingredient of these companies’ continuing cohesion is a trust based on common values and a shared mission. So, by a strange irony, these corporate examples suggest that for Scottish devolution to become a settled institutional arrangement requires its adherents at Westminster to continue to argue unashamedly for the virtues of Holyrood, while devolutionists at Holyrood advance unashamedly the case for Westminster.

Ultimately, the measure of the devolutionary settlement’s success will not be what it is but what it does. The parliament will be judged not by the scale of its celebrations but the scale of its achievements in building a Scotland true to our values. So after 1 July it will be time to stop celebrating and start working.

Douglas Alexander is MP for Paisley South

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