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.