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Why has Scottish Devolution Worked?

Professor Rab Houston is the author of Scotland: A Very Short Introduction, which publishes in the UK today. He is Professor of Modern History at St Andrews University, and his previous books include Autism in History: The Case of Hugh Blair of Borgue and Literacy in Early Modern Europe: Culture and Education 1500-1800. In the piece below, Rab looks at why Scottish devolution has worked.

A common but erroneous line in the English press is that Scottish devolution only works because London bankrolls it. The truth is that Scotland’s historic experience of diffused power and local administration has facilitated the functioning of modern devolved government.

Scotland and England have been in Union for three centuries. Joined less at the hip than by a fingertip, they have managed (with Wales and Northern Ireland) successfully to promote a British project in spite of a centuries-old legacy of distrust, double-dealing, broken promises, and betrayal. Since 1999 Scotland has readjusted in part to what it was before 1707: a completely independent state with distinctive experience of government, religion, law, education, social relationships, population mobility, and culture. The success of devolution comes not only in the restoration of a measure of independence, but also arises from the way Scotland was governed both before and after Union.

For the last millennium the genius of Scotland’s political development has been simple. It lay not in developing coercive state power, but in accommodating plural forms within a structure of government where the touch of the centre was usually light. Scotland was for centuries socially hierarchic and politically oligarchic, but it was also governmentally ‘heterarchic’, organizing itself into a functioning whole without recourse to the compulsive mechanisms that its English neighbour took for granted. There was an element of centralized political power focused on the authority of kingship, but the essence of Scotland’s historic government lay in devolving, directing and co-ordinating rather than controlling. Scottish kings secured a measure of harmony through a process of ethnic accommodation – admittedly not always easily realised – underpinned by core values. Loyalty to the monarchy and shared Christianity were the most important and enduring symbols of unity, with a later admixture of Britishness forging a distinctively Scottish ‘unionist nationalism’. The reservoir of symbols has changed over the centuries, but the sense of identity rooted in history has not.

Scotland contained within its small compass many productive tension between different regions and cultures, of which the Highland-Lowland divide is only the most obvious. Since the time of Cinaed mac Alpín in the ninth century the success of kings in Scotland lay in accommodating diversity of race, ethnicity, language, lifestyle and social organization. From the fourteenth century Stewart monarchs tried by education policies and other means to reconcile and assimilate the ‘wyld wikked hielandmen’ with Lowlanders, but they were always aware that part of their kingdom’s heritage lay with a distinctive Highland culture. During the eighteenth century another bridge was built as tartan became a symbol of what Scotland could contribute in men and materials to British imperialism. Highland identity became firmly associated with Scottish identity in the nineteenth century, encapsulated in the romantic image of the Scot-as-Highlander that was popularised by Queen Victoria.

The tensions were creative because rulers reached important accommodations with local and regional diversity, enshrined in substantial degrees of local government autonomy. The enduring power of the nobility is one example, but Scotland’s largely self-governing towns also exemplify the strength of devolved authority. Burghs were financially flexible, empowered to respond to changing needs by legislation enabling them to charge additional levies on, for example, the sale of beer. Acts hypothecated the taxation to specified ends: Greenock built its new harbour in the mid-18th century using beer money and Edinburgh, among other things, to build churches and to fund its University’s chair of law. Many towns too had corporate endowments and incomes, known as the ‘Common Good’, which they were legally obliged to use on collective necessities. Sometimes that just meant corporate junketing, but it also delivered a social dividend in the promotion of a wide spectrum of both private activities and public interests ranging from clubs and welfare projects to civic histories and buildings. The importance of family, community, and locality that this focus implied is preserved in gravestone inscriptions from across 18th- and 19th-century Scotland.

The essentially local core of political and social life is also clear in British lawmaking on Scotland. In the half century before it was subsumed in 1707, the Scottish Parliament produced two-thirds of all legislation in Britain, but three-quarters of the acts were ‘private’, affecting particular towns or districts. After 1707 Scotland’s representatives used their time on the same local issues and kept distinctively Scottish law and religion out of the British parliament. Only in the field of economic policy did post-1707 politicians continue legislative attempts to foster national growth: for example, protection and bounties for the linen industry from the 1740s.

Being local did not necessarily mean acting parochially. Sometimes regulation was not just acceptable, but necessary and Scots were more comfortable accepting interventionist social policies than were the laissez faire English. An important example was the regulation of rents that began with the Glasgow rent strikes of 1915 and ended with massive government investment in housing in the era of the Welfare State. Yet Scots were also prepared to resist the power-seeking impulses of the centre and to promote a strong ‘civil society’ or ‘voluntary sector’ of collective action in bodies as diverse as trades unions, churches, social or sporting clubs, and neighbourhoods. These associations were autonomous, overlapping and sometimes competing, but they relied for their strength on a shared acknowledgement of the legitimate claims of all members of society, individuals and groups alike, in an interconnected whole.

It is the appreciation of diversity and the strength of internal political devolution that explains the many good things about modern Scotland. As much as the fact that Scotland was once independent, the way it was governed in the past and the means its people used to create multiple lines of authority accounts for the success of modern devolution.

Recent Comments

  1. Pages tagged "accommodating"

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  2. Poacher79

    Scottish devolution works because the most inept Scottish politicians are in England and are too busy flushing the UKs economy down the big white telephone – they are not interested in managing Scotlands infrastructure – why are there so many Scots in Brown’s cabinet – England needs devolution!

  3. […] is the author of Scotland: A Very Short Introduction, and has previously written for OUPblog here and […]

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