Monday, May 23, 2011

The revival of a Grand old tradition : procedural devolution in place of real devolution

One of the much-loved comic traditions of the pre-devolution constitutional debate was that whenever the pressure for self-government was at its strongest, the die-in-a-ditch unionists would always respond by saying - "I know! Let's beef up the Scottish Grand Committee instead!" Incredible though it may seem, Labour's sole proposal for reform in the face of a huge SNP advance at the February 1974 election was to allow the Grand Committee to meet in Scotland very occasionally. It wasn't until the early 1980s that the proposal was actually brought into effect by the Thatcher government - by that point, of course, the boot was on the other foot and it was the Tories who were the constitutional obstructionists. Another decade later, and seemingly mystified that the impossible-to-please Jocks hadn't been bought off by two appearances a year in Edinburgh by a powerless Westminster committee, the Tories sighed and reluctantly handed over the family silver - a few more meetings per year in Scotland (although the extra ones were outside Edinburgh to avoid the unlikely impression taking hold that this was some kind of Scottish Parliament), question times in the Committee with Scottish Office ministers, plus (gasp) adjournment debates. Did the joyous multitudes spontaneously take to the streets to chant the names of "The Liberators", John Major and Ian Lang? Er, not exactly. By 1995, in a state of panic about the seeming inevitability of devolution under a Labour government, Michael Forsyth had one last try by chucking in occasional Grand Committee question times with the Prime Minister and other cabinet ministers.

The reason the arch-unionists always went down the same route was because 'administrative devolution' had been long since granted in the shape of the Scottish Office, so the only bone left to throw at public opinion short of genuine legislative/executive devolution was this peculiar brand of 'procedural devolution' - a few fragmented bits of the shell of self-government without any of the substance. Now, you might have thought we'd seen the last of these silly cosmetic exercises after the Grand Committee was mothballed a few years on from devolution, but not a bit of it. The Scotsman reports today that the old unionist instinct has taken hold once again, and Labour MPs have responded to the pressure for substantial new powers for Holyrood by suggesting a revival of the Grand Committee instead -

"Kilmarnock Labour MP Cathy Jamieson, one of those pushing for it to be reconvened, said: "It would be a wonderful opportunity to bring the work of MPs closer to Scottish voters and help show that what happens in Westminster is important to them too.""

Hmmm. Before Cathy gets too carried away with the wonderfulness of the opportunity, she might want to reflect on the fact that, even at the height of the Tories' tinkering in the mid-90s, a poll was published showing that just 2% of the electorate were even aware of the committee's existence. I'm guessing that the figure might be quite a bit lower than that now.

But let's not be unduly churlish - the chance to watch Jimmy Hood lead an adjournment debate in Dalbeattie Town Hall is, I'm sure, one that few of us will be able to resist.


  1. Hmmm, 2%? Yeah, that would seem about right.

    I've heard of the Scottish Grand Committee, but I had no idea what it was, that it no longer existed, what it did (if anything) or what it would add to the mix.

    If it has been gone for a decade or so and has not been missed, I suspect that reinitiating it might be rather a waste of money.

    By and large I suspect that Scottish MPs at Westminster have very little to do. I imagine that most of the week at Westminster is taken up with domestic English matters and set pieces like PMQs.

    Most of these things do not require Scottish MPs to be present, or to vote (although I'm wary of worrying too much about the West Lothian question, given that English MPs always voted on Scottish matters, and still do when that matter is decided at Westminster. (Otherwise, with fewer than 10 Scottish members of parliament in the two parties of the coalition, they'd not get much through.)

    If this is her answer to Labour’s meltdown in Scotland, Cathy, bless her, has just proved that she doesn’t live in the real word of ‘ordinary people’, for all her grass roots credentials.

  2. Think my dumbfounded comment at this piece of havering Orwellian fantasy on Labour's desperate part has been lost to the ether. But Lord God Almighty, what kind of troglodyte kailyard do these obdurate, knuckle-dragging apparatchiks dwell in given they can even begin to contemplate such a Lauder-Connellyish notion? Hood & Co from Dalbeattie Town Hall?

    Much as I love Dalbeattie, they'd be an absolute laughing stock compared to the issues being put on the agenda at Holyrood: A real fought, Oor Wullie kind of proposal.

    On second thoughts, maybe they should just go ahead and show us all what a shower of unreconstructed help ma boab neeps they are.

  3. Erratum
    "a real ba' heided, ...".

    Apologies, never was much good at multi-tasking: In this case typing whilst picking my jaw up off the floor at the sheer brass necked drivel of this notion. What craven depths would this lot of toom tabards not sink too? None, I am now believing.

  4. I think it's time for the SNP group in Westminster to put forward a Motion calling on ALL MPs representing devolved areas to have their salaries reduced, reflecting the fact that they don't have as much work to do as MPs for English constituencies, and bearing in mind that more devolved powers are being discussed and this situation will only worsen.
    I think that this would have a good chance of success, given the preponderence of "English" Conservative MPs at Westminster who will see a chance to shaft the Scottish Labour contingent
    in the guise of saving money.
    The SNP Group will take a high moral stance which the public will appreciate, compared with the grasping Labour Party which will oppose it.
    The post of Secretary of State for Scotland should also be abolished--another saving.
    Over to you Angus Robertson.....