Devolution – which may yet tear the United Kingdom apart – was the brain child of the Labour Party, put into practice for the benefit of the Labour Party by the Labour governments of Wilson and Blair.
This may be an unfamiliar idea. It’s assumed by almost everybody – even perhaps many people in UKIP – that devolution has happened because of the rise of Scottish and Welsh Nationalism. But history tells a rather different story.
Look at it from the point of view of the Labour Party in 1970. The great industrial areas of Britain – the North West, the North East, most of Yorkshire, the West Midlands, South Wales, Glasgow and much of central Scotland – were under permanent Labour control. But unfortunately only at the level of local government. At the level of national government, elections every few years meant that Labour was only in power for about half the time and Labour policies were liable to be undone during the regular periods of Tory rule.
Surely, something could be done about this? Might it not be possible to insert another level of government in at least some of the Labour-controlled parts of the country, so that Labour policies could be permanently insulated from the threat of Tory interference?
Until the SNP came to power in Scotland, the effect of devolution was what had been intended: the installation of more or less permanent Labour governments in both Scotland and Wales. It meant that in Scotland and Wales, Labour had permanent control of education and the NHS.
How did Labour pull off this coup? Of course, independently inclined minorities in both Wales and Scotland helped to get things off the ground, and became more important once the devolution bandwagon got moving. But the first initiative, and the final enactment, came from Labour governments.
The devolution process began during Harold Wilson’s government. In 1966, Gwynfor Evans, the Plaid Cymru candidate, won a by-election in Carmarthen. Then in November 1967, there was a by-election in Hamilton. Winifred Ewing, a charismatic young lawyer, stood as a Scottish Nationalist candidate. Neither she nor anyone else expected her to win. But win she did.
Neither of the nationalist by-election victories had been anticipated; there was little evidence of a big problem. By-elections frequently produce unexpected results, and both nationalist members were to lose their seats in the next general election. Harold Wilson’s government over-reacted – or saw an opportunity for the future.
There would be an election in 1970. Quite possibly Labour would soon no longer be in power. Unfortunately not much could be done about that. But something could be put into cold-storage for the future. A Royal Commission on the Constitution, its members carefully chosen – as Royal Commission members generally are – was set up.
The brief of the Royal Commission was to examine various models of political organization for the future of the constituent parts of the United Kingdom: devolution, federalism and confederalism were to be considered, not excluding even the division of the UK into separate sovereign states. It was an extraordinary brief for a commission of “experts” – but the experts were chosen, they agreed to undertake this important responsibility, and after much research and deliberation, they duly reported. Predictably they saw a need for Scottish and Welsh devolution.
By the time they reported, it was 1973, the Conservatives were in power, and their report was shelved. But Labour returned to power in 1974 and in due course acted on the report’s recommendations.
The report had recommended that Scottish and Welsh assemblies should be set up, but the Scotland and Wales Bills of 1978 had a difficult passage through Parliament and the Acts also provided that the Scottish and Welsh people should first be consulted in referendums. An amendment to the Acts provided that a simple majority in a referendum would not be sufficient; it would also be necessary for at least 40% of the total electorate to vote in favour.
The referendums were duly held; Welsh devolution was decisively rejected and in Scotland, devolution plans were approved by a small majority. But only just over half the Scottish electorate voted and those in favour amounted to only one in three of electors. Devolution was abandoned for the time being and the Acts were subsequently repealed by the government of Margaret Thatcher.
Only then did a serious movement for Scottish devolution develop in Scotland itself. The SNP had little to do with it; it was led by leading members of the Scottish establishment (including the churches) who hated the Thatcher government even more than did their counterparts in England and hoped to insulate Scotland from Thatcherite influence. The increasing flow of North Sea oil increased Scottish confidence. After that, it only needed a Labour government in Westminster to enact devolution.
In May 1997, Tony Blair won a landslide election victory. The devolution process commenced immediately. Again a referendum was held and the Scottish electorate this time voted decisively in favour; the Scotland Act was passed in 1998 and the Scottish parliament came into being in 1999; Wales followed.
Unfortunately, only now are we starting to see where devolution can lead…