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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Lessons from Scotland

My home country, Scotland, is in the news these days. It has had a Nationalist government for more than 4 years – and its citizens will in a couple of years be asked to vote on independence from the UK. Somewhat perversely, perhaps, I rarely blog on matters relating to Scotland - which is most remiss since it has been experiencing some interesting developments in the past 2 decades. The debate within Scotland aabout independence has been going on for decades - but a new constitutional debate has started recently in England. Outsiders (of whom there are many amongst my readership) cannot understand the present debate without knowing something about the past - recent and not so recent. This post must, therefore say something about how we got to the present point.

I left Scotland in the early 90s just as a remarkable development was taking place there – Scottish civil society and its establishment (political, municipal, legal, religious) coming together from disgust with the results of consecutive UK elections of the 1980s which had left the ruling Conservative government with not a single one of the 70 odd Scottish members of parliament being Conservative. The Conservative government (which lasted from 1979-1997) - let alone its neo-liberal agenda - was simply felt to have no legitimacy in Scotland. Bear in mind that the 1703 Union of Scotland and England had left Scotland with its separate legal and religious systems and an educational system which also went its own way, helping to forge a strong sense of Scottishness in schools - whose composition was more mixed and democratic than in England.

In 1988 a cross-section of prominent members of Scottish society came together to form the Scottish Constitutional Convention - and started a process which lasted a decade. The Convention produced not just the blueprint for the 1999 Scottish Parliament (which had last met in 1707) but, perhaps more importantly, the social and political momentum to ensure its achievement – and the creation of a more consensual way of governing. The details can be found on the archives of the Convention of whcih this is an excerpt -
In July 1988, a constitutional steering committee, composed of prominent Scots and set up by the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly, recommended the formation of a broadly-drawn Scottish Constitutional Convention to make plans for the future governance of Scotland. All political parties were invited to take part. The Conservative Party declined to participate from the outset. The Scottish National Party, although involved in the initial preparatory work, was ultimately unable to accept the principles of consensus underlying the Convention's aims, and therefore did not join its deliberations. It is important to record that many individuals from both these parties have supported our work publicly or privately.
Nonetheless, the Convention is beyond question the most broadly representative body in Scotland. It has enjoyed the support of the Scottish Labour Party the Scottish Liberal Democrats, and a number of smaller parties. In all, the Convention has included 80 per cent of Scotland's MPs and MEPs; representatives of the great majority of local authorities; and many important elements in Scottish civic society, including the Scottish Trades Union Congress, the churches, ethnic minority groups, women's movements, and sections of the business and industrial community. Current membership is listed as Appendix II.
The Convention held its inaugural meeting on 30 March 1989 in the Church of Scotland's General Assembly Hall in Edinburgh. It adopted a declaration, which was signed by all its members. This was a Claim of Right
Those wanting more on the fascinating detail of the process should read here. It is a real case-study in consensual change - demonstrating that those who want to achieve significant change have to have patience and humility. Lasting change is never aachieved by slogans and the demonising which passes for most political activity these days.

I had been one of the leaders of Strathclyde Region from the mid 1970s which included half of Scotland’s population - the Scottish Nationalist party began to win seats and put the Labour Government of the day under such pressure that a Bill to enact a Scottish Parliament was enacted. I took part in a referendum in Scotland in 1979 which asked the Scottish electorate whether they wished the Bill creating a Scottish parliament to be implemented. A total of 1,230,937 (51.6%) voted at the referendum in favour of an Assembly, a narrow majority of about 77,400 over those voting against. However, this total represented only 32.9% of the registered electorate as a whole - compared with the 40% reuired by the Act. The Labour government accepted that the Act's requirements had not been met, and that devolution would therefore not be introduced for Scotland. This led to the withdrawal of nationalist support from the Government, its loss of a vote of Confidence and a General Election which the Conservatives won.

The emasculation in the late 1980s of local government by Thatcher forced me to look elswhere for a career. An invitation from Ilona Kickbusch, the Director of WHO’s European Public Health’s division came at the right time - to help her construct a network for health promotion in the countries of recently liberated central and eastern europe. The senior position I held in a Region had given me access to various European networks throughout the 1980s.
I have therefore had to follow its political developments from afar, in particular –
• the abolition by the London-based Conservative Government of the Regional system of local government in the mid 1990s;
• the election in 1999 (thanks to the New Labour government) of a Scottish Parliament and Exective which was, thanks to a new system of proportional representation, a coalition of the Labour and Liberal parties;
• the increasingly independent path taken by the Exective in matters of social policy eg ensuring free care of the elderly (unlike England)
• the appointment in 2007 of a minority Nationalist government – with a pledge to organise at an appropiate time a referendum on independence
*a stunning Nationalist over-all majority in the 2011 elections
• its style and content of government – which is more social democratic than that of New Labour eg resisting university fees

As I drafted this post, I began to feel a bit guilty about going into history. I feel a lot better now that I have just read today's article from one of the key figures in the Scottish Convention - appealing for Scots to cast their minds back to that period - when Scots voted in the referendum of 1997 they knew they were voting not just for a transfer of powers or for a mini-Westminster, but for a parliament that had been designed, conceived and carefully planned over six long years of vigorous and often heated debate. I should know, I bear the scars. It was to be a parliament, we said, 'radically different from the rituals of Westminster; more participative, more creative, less needlessly confrontational – a culture of openness'.

That vision has to some extent been fulfilled, but it is time to move on. The point is – and this is what Prime Minister Cameron does not seem to get – that Scotland's parliament was not a gift of Westminster. Home rule was home-made. It must stay that way.

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