The SNP’s quiet revolution in its approach to devolution

Devolution, devolution and more devolution. It is the order of the day.


Yet it is not a new phenomenon in our country’s politics. Administrative devolution began in 1885 and was followed, eventually, by legislative devolution in 1999. The arguments surrounding if Scotland should have a parliament or an assembly, what powers should this institution hold and how should this endeavour be financed have been some of the central arguments in Scottish politics throughout much of the 20th century.


To many people’s surprise the new parliament has largely been humming an ‘old sang’ as we, again, set out to answer the two defining questions of devolution; what powers should the Scottish Parliament have and how should the parliament be funded.


For the first time in legislative devolution’s short history it is a Nationalist leader at the negotiating table.


It is difficult for many people who can largely be clumped together as the ‘Indyref Generation’ to fully comprehend at one point, in the not too distant past, not all SNP politicians and activists supported devolution. Some argued that it would lock Scotland into the Union and divert the nationalist movement away from its goal – independence. These were the Fundamentalists and they lost Scottish nationalism’s ideological debate. They are now just footnotes in the history of the independence movement.


When you consider that devolution is essentially a way of attempting to improve the United Kingdom, you can appreciate why those who wish to leave the Union would look at the concept sceptically.


Historically we are seeing a change from the nationalist trend of accepting any new powers to Scotland as fundamentally good for the country and the party. Now we see the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, and her colleagues seek a fiscal package which suits their policy agenda first and foremost.


When the Kilbrandon report on a Scottish Assembly landed in late 1973 the first reaction from the SNP was a resolution by the National Executive Committee calling on the Scottish Trade Union Council (STUC) to demand ‘an extension of economic and financial powers of the assembly proposed by the report’. By the spring of 1974 that had dwarfed into demands not for an assembly but a ‘parliament’ and one which had all ‘economic and fiscal powers, and control over UK government departments in so far as their activities affected Scotland. From that point on the Nationalist position was clear; the more powers in Scotland’s hands means less power at the hands of Westminster, this can only be good.


From the signing of the Smith Commission on 27 November 2014 to a few months ago this was largely still the position of the SNP. John Swinney, whose signature is on the document, in a statement to the Scottish Parliament, said, “On behalf of the Scottish Government I welcome the contents of the report but regret that a wider range of powers has not been delivered”. Meanwhile the 2015 manifesto for the Westminster election stated:


“We believe that these proposals do not go far enough to honour the promises made during the referendum….In the meantime, we will prioritise devolution of powers over employment policy, including the minimum wage, welfare, business taxes, national insurance and equality policy – the powers we need to create jobs, grow revenues and lift people out of poverty”.



In these negotiations between the Scottish Government and the Treasury over the fiscal framework we are gently seeing a move away from this ‘any further devolution is preferable to no further devolution’.


Sturgeon is fashioning a more nuanced nationalism. One that almost aims to create a form of independence within the United Kingdom.  It is one that does not simply seek a wider and wider array of powers but, instead, one which aims to provide the SNP with a toolbox to achieve its non-constitutional policy aims.

It is a quiet but important revolution in nationalist thinking.

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