Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A motorway without logic

Much as I would like to buy into Tam Dalyell's theory that by opting for devolution in 1997 we drove onto a motorway without exit heading for independence, his reasoning seems distinctly peculiar. Any parliament that is set up is bound to seek more and more powers? In actual fact, most sub-national parliaments around the world are reasonably content with their powers. What makes the difference in Scotland is our status as a nation, and the fact that our political centre of gravity has progressively drifted away from that of the UK as a whole ("progressively" in every sense of the word).

To illustrate his theory, Dalyell recalls that Barbara Castle was an arch Euro-sceptic until she became a member of the European Parliament, at which point she started pressing for more powers for that parliament -

"Not within months, but within weeks, she was wanting more powers for the parliament. Why? Because she was bloody well there."

Hmmm. More probably, she suddenly realised the absurdity of a situation where the only democratic body in the Common Market was also the only one that held none of the power. If so, she was absolutely right and there was nothing hypocritical in that stance at all.

We also learn, bizarrely, that the source of Dalyell's fundamentalist unionism was a brush with the politics of Northern Ireland in 1969 -

"...he had been warned by the then home secretary Jim Callaghan not to embark on a trip to Northern Ireland just when the Troubles were escalating. Mr Callaghan's reasoning was that he did not want a Scottish MP involved in the province.

In his book, Mr Dalyell writes: "At that point in time, Callaghan was right and I was wrong. I did not go. Scotland was tinder dry and the Troubles could easily have spread to the land of Glasgow Rangers and Celtic.

"Indeed, I made up my mind to oppose devolution for Scotland tooth and nail on the sweaty summer evening when I watched Glenn Barr, the Ulster Protestant leader, and his Ulstermen's reed pipe band, making its way along Linlithgow High Street… I believed - and still believe - that it is much better for Scotland to be fully part of Britain and not to be hived off as an inward-looking community as in Northern Ireland at that time.""

The difficulty here is that Dalyell's dream prescription for a better Scotland (ie. the abolition of devolution) actually happened in Northern Ireland just three years after the start of the Troubles. Did direct rule from London usher in a golden new era of outward-looking pluralism? Er, not exactly. The return of self-government several decades later, this time with nationalists sharing power, proved much more effective on that score.

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