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Stevenson Lecture

This lecture was delivered by Prof James Mitchell at Glasgow University on the 9th May 2023

It is fitting that this Stevenson lecture should be delivered in honour of Nigel Smith. Nigel’s contributions to public life echoed Sir Daniel Stevenson’s in many ways. And there is a much in the work and activities of Sir Daniel and Nigel that remains highly relevant today.  

Sir Daniel Stevenson was a remarkable figure, best known in this institution as a former Chancellor of the University but who made a significant impact on municipal politics as a town councillor and the city’s Lord Provost 1911-14.  In the words of Irene Mavor, Stevenson ‘considered local self-government to be the most direct and effective means of improving community well-being’.   

His work on the organisation of the city’s internal governance, especially funding of civic politics, would have appealed to Nigel’s keen sense of how to run an organisation. And Nigel knew a thing or two about financing civic politics – more as a campaigner than within public institutions – and more often enough from his own pocket. 

Strangely absent from almost all commentary on Stevenson is reference to his support for home rule or that he was a founding member of the Scottish Party, often referred to as the Moderates – a party supported by a more impressive line-up of public figures than its very short history and its brief foray into electoral politics might suggest – its candidate in the only election it contested – the 1933 Kilmarnock by-election – won 6,098 votes (16.9%) and came last of four (the other three all included ‘Labour’ in their affiliation). We could – almost – imagine Nigel as a member of the Moderates – almost, but not quite as he preferred cross/non-party activity. 

Nigel well understood the importance of political parties but preferred to focus on issues and to build bridges. He was not easy to pigeon-hole from a party political standpoint. He would support or criticise depending on the issue under discussion. In many ways he personified the idealism of ‘new politics’ that had inspired many to campaign for a Scottish Parliament. 

This independence made him a key and trusted figure in the lead up to the 1997 referendum. His reflections of the 1979 devolution referendum led him to conclude that the broad support for a Scottish Assembly then had been seriously undermined by divisions amongst its supporters, particularly between Labour and the SNP. A fortnight after the 1997 general election when it was clear a referendum would be held, he explained that the campaign would be different from that 18 years before, a campaign he described as ‘fairly noxious’: 

Underlying this campaign are the lessons of history of 18 years ago which put a deep mark in the psyche of the nation as to how not to do things when you conduct a referendum campaign. We need to provide a single, unifying force in Scotland during this campaign (Herald 16 May 1997). 

He resolved to prevent a repeat of that happening and was instrumental in establishing the Scotland FORward campaign that successfully won a clear majority for the two question referendum in 1997. 

Nigel, like Sir Daniel, was a great champion of self-government. Where they differed significantly was that Nigel was – as has often been said – the ‘most effective campaigner you’ve never heard of’. 

The Glasgow Herald obituary of Sir Daniel in September 1944 remarked that he was a ‘challenging personality’ who ‘provoked many controversies’. Nigel did not run away from controversial subjects but was hardly a challenging personality. Keith Aitken, in an article in the Herald in 1998 described Nigel as ‘not noted for raucous exuberance’ (Herald M23 March 1998), not one to seek the limelight. 

He did not hesitate to challenge those with power and authority whether it was the European Union, UK Government, and more recently Scottish Government, BBC high command in London, the CBI, and Chambers of Commerce. There was a running theme through his work and concerns. 

Centralised decision making was poor decision making. 

Openness and transparency were vital. 

Power should be dispersed. 

Building consensus was impotant. 

This was evident in his ideas about political, economic and cultural institutions. 

In an article in the Herald in February 1992, he explained his thinking, 

To this day, the UK remains highly centralised on the South-east. It continues to see £20bn spent squeezing more people into the South-east as better than spending half the sum on an effective regional policy. The South-east takes the predominant share of the decision-making units in planning, design, and development in both business and government. No country which so inadequately understands its own regions can properly represent them in other forums. (Herald, 29 February 1992). 

Nigel worked happily with anyone who shared his objectives. He would quote Lord MacFarlane’s maiden speech in 1992 in the Lords in a debate on the Scottish economy – words that remain highly relevant today. MacFarlane was a Glasgow businessman, a Tory peer (and golf companion of Denis Thatcher). He chaired an appeal to fund a major refurbishment of the Kelvingrove Art Gallery. I recall interviewing him in the mid-1980s when he worked across parties in Glasgow Action to seek a consensus on improving the city. MacFarlane criticised the ‘concentrated and congested area of economic activity in the South East’ and suggested that a ‘recast regional and urban policy must look beyond the excitement of the East Thames corridor and London Docklands and aim at the economic revival of the United Kingdom’s proud provincial cities. A national programme is needed for the revival of the provincial cities which can be the economic powerhouses of the 1990s’ (Lords, Wed 12 February 1992 col.767-769 Debate on Scottish Economy). 

Nigel was a Euro-sceptic, though sceptical, not dogmatic nor anti-European. His critique of the EU was similar to his critique of the UK and was not without merit. He was concerned in the early 1990s that Scotland would be peripheral to the interests of Brussels and in 1992 warned, 

London’s performance on regional issues, not good at the moment, will decline even further as it tries to represent itself in Brussels. To be consulted and directly represented from Edinburgh to Brussels on all the vital policy and funding issues now arising there, seems essential (February 29, 1992). 

He noted that Strathclyde region and Highlands & Islands Enterprise were already doing this to great effect. And indeed, Dumfries and Galloway was already doing this. 

The same thinking was evident in his critique of BBC decision-making. In 1993, he asked, 

Is it appropriate that England, with 83% of the British population, makes 96% of the television network?  Must the 17% of the population who live in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland crowd into the remaining 4%? Is this a fair use of a British licence which is a tax in all but name? How far can a level playing field for creative ideas be said to exist, in practice as well as theory, when every stage of an integrated production process is dominated by London? 

… The campaign report further proposes the setting up of an English Broadcasting Council, similar to those established for Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. This, the report argues, would end the awkward situation of casting the three smaller nations into a subsidiary constitutional role and, at the same time, signal a new commitment towards regionalism. (Herald 18 December 1993) 

He quoted an internally commissioned public survey complaining of the ‘metropolitan centricity’ of the organisation and called for a ‘due proportion’ of BBC spending in Scotland. (Herald November 9, 1993) 

But Nigel understood the need for some degree of central economic management. Alf Young quoted Nigel in January 2000, 

Most people are surprised when I suggest that the Bank of England has a far better understanding of current activity or lack of it in the Scottish economy than the more obvious candidates like the Scottish CBI, the Scottish Council, the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, the Institute of Directors, or the Federation of Small Businesses. 

He insisted that the Bank had come a long way in the past decade ‘from virtually ignoring Scotland and the English regions to making them an important part of its deliberations’ and believed at that time that the system could be improved further, making the Bank and its Monetary Policy Committee even more susceptible to experience in every corner of the UK in their monthly interest rate decision. But warned, 

…no amount of sophisticated intelligence-gathering will get us away from the core fact that one central interest rate decision affecting the economic lives of millions of people cannot possibly please all of these people all of the time. That’s as true of the euro-zone as it is of the UK. It would be just as true of an independent Scotland, whether that independent Scotland was inside the euro-zone or outside it (January 21, 2000). 

The neglect of the Centre 

I offer this very sketchy outline of Nigel’s views only to give an indication of the breadth of his interests and their coherence but mostly because his thinking remains highly relevant. 

At the heart of our past and current discontents lies the centre. 

By the centre I refer to what the late Norwegian scholar Stein Rokkan, arguably the leading European authority over the latter half of the C20th, on these matters, described as ‘privileged locations within a territory’. 

As Nigel remarked in his reflections after 20 years of devolution in ‘The Scottish Parliament – partial success: could do better?, 

‘Twenty years later there is still no reform at the centre of Britain’ (p.11). 

All states have a centre – indeed some would argue it is a defining feature of any state. Rokkan posed a series of questions to identify a centre: 

  • Where do the key resource holders most frequently meet within the territory? 
  • Where have they established arenas for deliberations, negotiations, decision-making? 
  • Where do they convene for ceremonies for the affirmation of identity and where have they built monuments to symbolise this identity? (110) 

Accepting that centres are necessary, we need to consider two further questions: 

  1. How should the centre be constituted? 
  2. And what should be decided at the centre (and what should be decided elsewhere)? 

Of course, in no state is everything decided in one location but wand it is not difficult to identify the UK’s centre – from the Whitehall/Westminster centre of political power but also, as we saw on Saturday, the site for the convention of great ceremonies. 

In the nineteenth century and through much of the twentieth, the concern was to ensure that there should be a strong Scottish voice at the heart of government. The Commons catered for Scottish distinctiveness but power lay in the executive and the demand in the latter half of the century was on getting a Scottish Minister where it mattered. 

Challenges to the centre have come in two forms over the last century and a half: 

  • Demands for a voice at the centre; 
  • Demands for the devolution of power to Scotland. 

A Scottish Office was stablished in 1885. It was, in the typically cynical words of Prime Minister Lord Salisbury when inviting the Duke of Richmond and Gordon to accept the new office of Scottish Secretary, 

… the dignity (measured by salary) is the same as your present office – but measured by the expectations of the people of Scotland it is approaching to Arch-angelic . . . It is really a matter where the effulgence of two Dukedoms and the best salmon river in Scotland will go a long way’. 

In a further letter to Richmond and Gordon, Salisbury remarked that the ‘whole object of the move is to redress the wounded dignities of the Scotch people – or a section of them – who think that enough is not made of Scotland’. 

Over time, the responsibilities of the office grew along with the growth in state intervention. But ‘administrative devolution’, as it came to be known from the 1930s, went beyond those matters that came under the Scottish Secretary’s administrative domain. The principal function was being Scotland’s voice in the core executive – that part of central government responsible for making final decisions, coordinating and arbitrating. And successive Scottish Secretaries did this well as testified by records in the National Archives at Kew. Scotland’s generous share of public spending was owed in no little part to the activities of Scottish Secretaries and officials over the course of more than a century arguing Scotland’s corner. 

But the Scottish Office was a nineteenth century institution rooted in a pre-democratic age.  Its existence was an acknowledgment that the United Kingdom was diverse but while described as a form of ‘Scottish control of Scottish affairs’ the Scots in control were not accountable to the wider Scottish public but only, in the final analysis, to the Prime Minister of the day. 

This weakness became the focus of attention in the twentieth century. A shift took place in the latter half of the century from ensuring Scotland had a voice at the centre to having Scottish control of Scottish affairs in Scotland directly accountable to the Scottish electorate. 

Devolution was framed in – and I use this term advisedly – separatist and binary terms. It was separatist in the sense that it was considered separate from how Scotland’s voice should be articulated at the centre and binary in the sense that matters would be defined as retained at Westminster and all else would be devolved. Relations between UK central and devolved governments were an afterthought as if there were no areas of joint responsibility. 

This did not resolve the problem of Scotland’s voice in central control of retained functions nor how shared problems and competences should be addressed. 

There was some effort in the early days of devolution to address this deficiency. Nigel himself was appointed to a Bank of England’s Scottish Consultative Panel from 1993-2004. But the problem of the centre persisted. My own research on Devolution and the Centre in the early years of devolution, led to the conclusion that from the Whitehall perspective, devolution had been an event not a process, accommodated relatively easily (and more so than EEC membership and Next Step Agencies from Whitehall’s perspective). For many in Whitehall, devolution has been achieved and was not seen as an ongoing matter presenting daily problems and issues in the way that EU membership did. Again and again, Whitehall officials who were interviewed in the early years of devolution essentially saw the creation of the Parliament as something that could be ticked off as finished work. The Scottish Parliament had been created: job done. 

Only occasionally, such as over Scottish tuition fees and care for the elderly, did devolution come to the fore in Whitehall.  Devolution did not create a major upheaval in Whitehall. The centre failed to engage directly with the consequences of devolution for citizenship rights. It adopted a laissez-faire attitude to the relationship between citizenship, equality and territorial politics. Little thought was given as to how Scotland – and indeed other parts of the UK – should be represented at the centre post-devolution. 

The experience of the last few years ought to have taught us that the focus needs to be on how Scotland’s voice is heard at the centre as well as how devolution operates. It was the sense that this voice was not heard or, as some saw it, ignored or worst of all treated contemptuously by elements at the centre that created the demand for a Parliament. But that sense continues to exist and will not disappear without further reform. 

The binary thinking referred to is a large part of the problem. Notion of separate levels of government, each operating within their own competences might appear sensible from a legal perspective and how the Scotland Act was drawn up. But from a public policy perspective, it makes no sense. It might work for the ‘tame problems’ – problems that can be tackled, even solved, within definable boundaries – but none of our ‘wicked problems’ – the complex, deep-rooted, multi-dimensional problems that don’t lend themselves to a simple ‘solutions’ – require cooperation across and between different government organisations and civic institutions. Call it whatever is fashionable – Multi-Level Governance, Network Governance – the key need is for coordination, cooperation and consensus building. Attempts to treat these ‘wicked problems’ as ‘tame’ through a single institutional framework are almost bound to fail. 

As Paul t’Hart, a leading scholar on public leadership, has noted, the list of wicked problems faced today, crying out for leadership are all about complexity and borderlessness: urban stress, cyber crime, climate change, refugee flows, obesity epidemics, religious fanaticism, alcohol and drug abuse, problem gambling, child trafficking, genetic engineering, resource depletion, poverty… These are complex problems because they involve a large number and diverse range of stakeholders, values and interests.  They entail irreducible uncertainties or conflicts about the nature and scope of the problem as well as the likely impacts of alternative ways of tackling it. They cannot be solved by known, affordable and easily managed response modes, but instead require novel, untried risky solutions.’ 

‘…how is leadership exercised in such a world? (Paul t’Hart (2014), Understanding Public Leadership, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, p.88, 89) 

One response is that everything should be devolved and concentrate everything in London but that assumes constitutional power controls economic economic power.  Independence would still leave huge economic power in London. Regardless of Scotland’s constitutional status, decisions made in London – whether in Westminster/Whitehall or in the City of London – will have major consequences for Scotland.  We cannot change our geography.  We will always be ‘in bed with an elephant’ to borrow Pierre Trudeau’s comment on Canada’s relationship with the United States. This is a challenge for all regardless of constitutional preference. Constitutional change alone cannot on its own address the economic imbalances so obvious in the United Kingdom.   

Nigel recognised this in comments he made 19 months after the Scottish Parliament first assembled in comments on the BBC: 

The Government could have legitimately instructed the BBC under the terms of the Royal Charter to take full account of devolution in its home services. That it chose not to exercise its power has a wider significance for devolution. 

By dealing with the BBC, the archetypal British organisation, in this way the Government has sent a very public signal to several hundred British bodies, largely representing the powers retained in London, which are considering what form their unlegislated response to the Scotland Act should take. They are as diverse as the Bank of England, the Equal Opportunities Commission, Royal Mail, Government departments to obscure but important British scientific committees. 

The message is simple. In the face of radical constitutional reform, a conservative and minimal response from them is quite acceptable to the Government (Herald December 18, 1998). 

Many saw a solution in more regular and more frequent meetings of Intergovernmental institutions.  There was logic in this as articulated by a number of scholars – notably Alan Trench in UCL’s Constitution Unit in the early years who made a powerful case for more formalised and more frequent meetings of Ministers from devolved and UK central governments. These arguments were copied repeatedly in books, academic journal articles, and numerous reports of Parliamentary Committees from devolved bodies and Westminster. But Intergovernmental Relations only work if the governments involved want them to work and in recent years would often became fora for grandstanding and politicking. No progress can be made so long as the governments – the centres – were unreformed. No amount of new machinery of Intergovernmental Relations will work – indeed it could make matters worse – if centres are looking for a fight.  Providing a gladiatorial arena for constitutional one-upmanship is pointless. 

This suggests a series of reforms at the centre of UK: 

  1. Greater cognisance of the diversity of the UK is needed across public institutions – the BBC, the Bank of England and regulatory bodies for example as much as inside the heart of central government; 
  2. Mechanisms to prevent devolution being rolled back – like Nigel my view is that claims of a power grab have some validity but are often exaggerated. Proposals to reform the second chamber giving it power to block any such move and involving its reconstitution as a chamber of nations and regions make sense; 
  3. But we also need to consider how to ensure that the core executive is representative of the state as a whole – that raises questions about how the Commons is elected – an electoral system that translates minority support into a majority in the Chamber giving the executive power to ignore the majority in the country. 

But there is another centre that requires our attention. Our centre in Scotland needs to be addressed.  Nigel was perhaps over-optimistic back in 1992: 

Edinburgh, being more alive to our peripheral status, is likely to improve our transport and travel links with our markets and to widen the definition of infrastructure to ensure businesses are supported by all the specialist services, and capital funding’ (February 29, 1992). 

This had been a major concern in the devolution debates on the 1970s – the fear that the proposed Assembly would be central belt dominated, it would ride roughshod over local government. There were concerns that the absence of it own revenue raising powers would mean its only way of maximising its budget would be by cutting grants to local govt and forcing local authorities to raise rates – a kind of backdoor revenue-raising mechanism. These were legitimate concerns that were not really addressed back then or since. 

The experience of Scottish central-local relations in the 1980s and 1990s convinced many in local government that a Scottish Parliament, especially one elected with a degree  of proportionality, would be more in tune with the their interests. The establishment of a Commission on Local Government and the Scottish Parliament under Sir Neil McIntosh, former chief executive of Strathclyde Region, which reported within a month of the Parliament assembling indicated changes. That report is well worth revisiting. Its series of recommendations were only partially implemented and its call for a new relationship – mutual respect and parity of esteem – has been absent in central-local relations in Scotland. 

Indeed, the situation that has prevailed in recent times is worse than feared in the 1970s. Not only has Scottish central government cut grants to local governments but it has blocked local authorities’ ability to raise revenue through council tax freezes and ring fencing. Essentially, local government is left with fewer powers and fewer resources.   

Other important document from the heady early days was the report of the Consultative Steering Group document ‘Shaping Scotland’s Parliament’ – which Nigel described as ‘an outstanding document which reads well today’. This was a cross-party/non-party group that set out the four key principles which should guide the Parliament: 

  • Power sharing between people of Scotland, the legislators and the Scottish Executive; 
  • Accountability of the Scottish Government to the Scottish Parliament and the Parliament and Government to the people of Scotland; 
  • Parliament should be accessible, open, responsive and facilitate participation; 
  • Its operation and appointments should promote equal opportunities for all. 

Twenty years on the CSG members reconvened and issued a report in October 2019. It expressed disappointment that devolution had led to a ‘weakening of the position of local government in Scotland… a tightening of central control over local budgets and spending priorities’ (CSG, ‘Reflections on 20 Years of the Scottish Parliament’, October 2019, paras. 13,14). 

There has been little sharing of power. The same criticisms that Scottish Parliamentarians and Governments level against the UK Govt can equally made against the Scottish Government by local authorities. 

On March 10th, in his campaign to be his party’s leader, the new First Minister had signalled a new approach. The news release was headed, ‘HUMZA PLANS TO EMPOWER LOCAL COMMUNITIES AS SNP LEADER’ and promised a series of changes:  

  1. Negotiate a Bute House type agreement with local government.
    2. Maximise local autonomy over spending power by reducing ring fenced budgets through a new fiscal framework.
    3. Take forward the local Governance review to consider ways of empowering local communities including consideration of a local democracy bill. 
    4. Consider new ways of working across public sector boundaries with reform such as the single island authorities. 
    5. Give further consideration to improve financial support to local Councillors to improve diversity. 
    6. Accelerate the work of the City Centre Recovery Taskforce. 

 It all sounds good – and very familiar. We shall watch carefully with interest. 

Accountability undoubtedly improved with devolution. Ministers and officials are called before elected representatives to an extent that would have been inconceivable before devolution. But it has stalled and in some respects has gone backwards. Three examples: 

  1. Fiscal accountability 
  2. Executive dominance of Parliament and within that the role of unelected but powerful Special Advisers (SPADs) 
  3. Non Departmental Public Bodies. 

Fiscal accountability 

How many people understand the Fiscal Framework? More importantly, how many MSPs – dare I ask, Ministers – really understand the complex fiscal framework? And accountability needs to reach beyond the Parliament. How many in civic Scotland, in the media? This is not to criticise any of these people but to highlight a major problem. Trying to teach/explain the Fiscal Framework, the operation of the Barnett Formula, Block Grant Adjustment is challenging enough. 

Executive Dominance and Role of SPADs 

First, we need to acknowledge that Holyrood is very much modelled on Westminster in key respects and most notably the way in which it is executive dominated. Holyrood is not the Parliament envisaged in which there would be a rebalancing of legislature/executive relations. It has not had the policy making role many anticipated but neither has it been as successful in its scrutinising function as it might have been. Is there really that much difference in the dominant role of the executive branch in London from Edinburgh? 

We also need to address the accountability gap that exists with regard to Special Advisers (SPADs). The number has, in Nigel’s words, ‘exploded’. Their role may be exaggerated in government but that ought to be explored more thoroughly. There is a need for communications expertise but the balance has shifted away from policy expertise towards spin. 

When we take account of the payroll vote in Holyrood – an extraordinary 26 SNP Ministers (40% of all SNP MSPs) plus 2 of the Green Ministers – we can see a problem. In his pamphlet Nigel reports Kerr Fraser – former Scottish Officed Permanent Secretary and this University’s principal – asking him ‘what are they [MSPs] gong to so all the time?’ In retrospect, I don’t doubt that MSPs have their work cut out but I do wonder what all of these Ministers do – though part of the answer does lie in the constant campaign mode so many engage in. 

Non Departmental Public Bodies 

And then there is the world of Non Departmental Public Bodies (NDPBs). Back in 1993, Henry McLeish, a future First Minister produced ‘Whop runs Scotland? A briefing paper on quangos and the Tory experiment to remove democratic accountability in Scotland’. In it, he noted the growth of Quangos – not only in numbers but in spending and how many competences formerly under local government had been removed from democratic accountability and handed over to bodies appointed by the Scottish Secretary. There was a tendency in the past to demand a ‘bonfire of the quangos’ but this demand invariably ran into the sand when the work of these bodies was almost always important. The issue is not the need for a bonfire as greater accountability and that could occur in two ways: 

  1. Consider which matters ought properly to be under local government control – we could, for example, explore public health and local economic development. We need a proper revie of local governance – that has been long promised but never actually happens. We could do with looking abroad for inspiration. That was done successfully in the past. Indeed, Sir Daniel Stevenson learned much from his brother-in-law Robert Heidmann, who had been elected to the Hamburg Senate – and incidentally was a strong backed against fierce opposition to the establishment of the University of Hamburg. Heidmann was a key figure in negotiations with Prussia – take note anyone who thinks that sub-state units of government should not be involved in extra-state activities. 

  2. There will always be a need for some NDBPs but appointments could be made more accountable.  Bernard Crick and David Miller (two leading authorities on legislatures who we have since died) in a publication – Making Scotland’s Parliament Work – which went into two editions proposed a Public Appointments Committee taking a ‘leaf from the best US practice’. The idea was then pursued in the Scottish Parliament with a Members’ Public Appointments Bill in 2001. Nigel gave it his strong backing, arguing that it would ‘encourage more people to apply for these posts’ (Herald December 18, 2001). He did ‘not accept people heading quangos would be deterred from applying because they would have to demonstrate their fitness for the job’ (Herald November 22 2001). He argued that it was no defence to suggest that public bodies spending ‘millions and millions of pounds’ should be led by people who could not face a committee. Such people should be robust enough to go before such committees or not be appointed. 

And then, of course, there are the Parliamentary committees. The best comment on committees in legislatures was made by a great political scientist who was perhaps less impressive as a politician.  Woodrow Wilson, in Congressional Government, asserted that, 

‘Congress in session is Congress on public exhibition whilst Congress in its committee-rooms is Congress at work.’ (Woodrow Woodrow 1981 [1885], Congressional Government, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 69). 

The theatre of the Holyrood chamber with First Minister’s Questions makes for good copy but has a limited role in scrutiny and accountability. The real work is done in committees. 

The resources available to Parliamentary committees have not kept pace with increased devolved competences, greater fiscal autonomy and greater complexity. This has meant that devolution has seen the executive branch grow more powerful at the expense of Parliament. That needs to be addressed. It may mean more MSPs – though that should be accompanied by changes in party selection processes as greater accountability will not come about with simply more MSPs under the thumb of party leaders. 

Finally, before I try to wrap up with a conclusion, let me turn to one of Nigel’s more controversial proposals, but one that was consistent with all that he sought to do. Nigel built the campaign for the Scottish Parliament by seeking a consensus. As noted earlier, he did not want a repeat of the 1979 referendum campaign. 

In October 2016, he raised the possibility that instead of a bare 50% voting for independence, it would be better to build a stronger consensus with a ‘super-majority’. He suggested 55%.  But he did so not to create a hurdle similar to the 40% rule in the Scotland Act 1978. He saw hope in the SNP’s view – articulated frequently but never so far as I’m aware publicly – that it would press for a referendum when polls consistently went over 60%. 

I am not advocating 55% but we should recognise that it was motivated by a genuine desire to create consensus. In 1997, support for the principle of devolution won 74% and support for tax varying powers won 63%. It is not a sign of weakness to acknowledge that it would be far easier to build an independent Scotland after that kind of support was achieved that the narrowest of victories (51.9%) achieved by Brexit support in 2016 – which was after all only about 0.3% higher than achieved in the 1979 devolution referendum. 


Reflecting on the experience of devolution, Nigel suggested it had been a ‘partial success, certainly less successful than campaigners hoped for at the outset in 1997’.   

A century ago, Beatrice Webb surveyed the fissures of early Scottish trade unionism, and concluded sadly that “the Scottish nature does not lend itself to combination”. A harsh judgment from a highly fallible judge, but you can see the point.  Keith Aitken March 23, 1998 

Rokkan distinguished between what he called MONOCEPHALIC and POLYCEPHALIC structures of government. Botanists will know monocephalic refers to a flower with a single head; Polycephalic meaning having more than one head. He argued that if you find a ‘high concentration of arenas in one small area, you have found a monocephalic structure’. A dispersal of arenas across serval regions of the territory creates a polycephalic structure. 

There is a more fundamental question than the geography of the centre and that is who is represented/who has authority at the centre? 

The constitution of any state needs the combination of a centre and decentralised decision-making.   

Pay heed to Nigel’s observation ‘Scottish entrepreneurial deficit pre-dates’ devolution but ‘I can state categorically that the existence of the Scottish Parliament has made matters absolutely worse’ (p.45). 

Centralists made a dangerous assumption of regional dependency, he said. ‘They opt for reconstruction by inward investment making self sustaining renewal even harder. They are bewitched by the economies of scale rather than the diseconomies of dependent regions’ (Herald, April 23, 1996). 

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