The Consequences of the Lockerbie Release and the Fools of Devolution
Open Democracy. August 28th 2009
The fallout after the al-Megrahi case continues to show that devolution – and Scottish devolution in particular – has the capacity to show the limited understanding that many have about the current constitutional state of the UK. Worse than that for many this boils over into resentment, anger and rage, which at points is directed at the Scottish Government and Parliament, and sometimes ‘Scotland’ as an entity.
James Macintyre’s short piece in today’s New Statesman, ‘The Folly of Devolution’, is a breathtaking example of incomprehension falling into anger and hyperbole. He states of the al-Megrahi release decided by the SNP administration:
This is precisely the sort of decision that should be taken – and be seen to be taken – at a national level by the British government, not by nationalists in one part of the UK. (1)
This is part of the typical British/Westminster gaze that the ‘little platoons’ and troublemakers are nationalists, while the big, grown-ups are serious and statesmanlike, rather than British nationalists. Macintyre’s next sentence is a gem:
But devolution has led to a grave failure of accountability.
This sentence in its assumptions does not understand the nature of the UK or Scotland’s place in it. The Scottish legal and judicial systems, indeed Scotland as a place of autonomy which has often escaped or put itself beyond Westminster’s reach, did not arrive with devolution. As long as the parliamentary union between Scotland and England has existed, Scotland has had such a position in the UK.
Misunderstandings both historic and more contemporary abound. Yes Labour were ‘opportunistic and short-termist’ in relation to supporting Scottish devolution in the 1970s, but that was increasingly untrue in the 1980s when the party returned to its earlier decentralist traditions which it had inherited from Gladstonian Liberalism.
To call Tam Dalyell ‘prophetic’ certainly puts your cards on the table, but Macintyre gets it completely wrong when he says that Dalyell’s main argument was that devolution was adopted ‘to see off the nationalist threat in its [Labour’s] Scottish constituencies’. In the 1970s such a critique of Scottish devolution was not unique to Dalyell, but widespread, and Harold Wilson’s and UK Labour’s motivations to hold Scottish Labour heartlands quite transparent.
Dalyell’s 1970s argument was about an obsession with the West Lothian Question and from it the incompatibility of devolution with a supposedly unitary state. Dalyell thought this would lead inevitably to Scots independence, a ‘motorway without exit’.
Macintyre states that, ‘Tony Blair’s mistake was to accept uncritically his predecessor John Smith’s policy on devolution’. The only problem is that he did not. He adopted the referendum against widespread vested interest opposition in Scotland and considered pre-97 junking devolution, embarking post-election on proposals which departed considerably from the Scottish Constitutional Convention plans.
Macintyre even manages to get the support for independence in a You Gov Daily Mail poll from the day before wrong – citing it as 38 percent, when at the moment it is 28 percent (2).
His whole piece, short and unreflective, is deeply revealing illustrating the scale of the crisis of the British Union which he so claims to support and wishes to maintain. Its break-up would be ‘a tragedy for the British nation state, which remains far greater than the sum of its parts’.
Exactly. It is the sum of those parts that many us worry about. In Scotland, England and across the world. The disastrous foreign policy, not just in Afghanistan and Iraq, but in its alliance in ‘the war on terror’ and dogmatic adherence to ‘the special relationship’ – a case of asymmetrical devolution if ever there were with Westminster happy to be the provincial outpost to the imperial empire.
In domestic areas, across economic and social policy, the British state has morphed into a ‘McKinsey state’ which does the bidding of a corporate class who have shown no signs of stopping their ransacking of what we once took to be the common weal of the UK.
Far easier for James Macintyre to turn his ire on the small, decent government of a polity daring to chart a different course, which has the courage to say ‘not in my name’ to the humiliating and damaging approach of British governments and the state of the last thirty years or so. Yes, time to blow those irksome ‘little platoons’ out of the water before they begin to chart a different route. The al-Megrahi case shows that it is much too late to stop this happening.
1. James Macintyre, ‘The Folly of Devolution’, New Statesman, August 27th 2009,
2. Alan Roden, ‘Salmond Rocked by Lockerbie Backlash’, Scottish Daily Mail, August 26th 2009.