20 years devolution

People O’ Oor Ain

Published: 6 June 2019
Author: David McCrone

In the first instalment of our series on devolution at twenty, the University of Edinburgh’s David McCrone shares his thoughts on the success of the Scottish Parliament. 

Twenty years of a Scottish parliament, and for what? Given that the parliament is a legislative creature of Westminster, confirmed by the UK Supreme Court in 2018, and has no independent legal right to exist, what do people in Scotland think of it? There is a view, recently expressed by the leader of the Labour Party in Scotland, that the independence debate has distracted Holyrood from its original mission. It should, he says, focus on jobs, schools and hospitals, rather than constitutional issues (The Scotsman, 7th May 2019). This is an auld sang, often expressed by supporters of devolution who see it as an end-game, that ‘real politics’ matter far more to ‘ordinary people’ than constitutional matters. Remember, if you’re old enough, Jack McConnell’s slogan ‘Doing Less Better’?  

So what do those ‘ordinary – real - people’ think of it so far? We have 20 years of Scottish Social Attitudes surveys (SSA), kept alive by the heroics of the Scottish Centre for Social Research (ScotCen), with grudging (and measly) support from successive Scottish governments. The findings here are based on analysis of those SSA surveys, in the recent issue of Scottish Affairs, entitled ‘Peeble them wi’ stanes: twenty years of the Scottish parliament

Here’s the puzzle. Why, given that the Scottish parliament is the creature of Westminster, and with few powers over the big issues of life (the economy and taxation) do people rate it highly? Back in 1999 there was considerable optimism; that trust in the parliament was high, that people wanted it to have the most influence over their lives, that it would give them a greater say. Surely, many thought, once the novelty wore off and ‘real politics’ (those again) kicked in, pessimism would reign, and it would be seen as a ‘pretendy’ parliament (not funny, Billy, even then)? Well, no. Trust in the Scottish parliament has remained high. People see it as ‘theirs’, populated by ‘oor ain’. It gives them more say, and Scotland a much stronger voice in the wider world.  

Why this optimism? Why haven’t constitutional matters (‘un-real’ politics?) gone away? Assessing the first five years of the parliament, Alison Park and I identified a ‘devolution conundrum’. Put simply, improvements in people’s quality of life (even matters like the standard of living over which Westminster had greater say) were credited to the Scottish parliament. Pessimists blamed Westminster. Surely that no longer applies, given the daily grind of twenty years? No. The conundrum still holds true. Credit for improvements – in health, education, the economy, standard of living – go to Scottish parliament and government (and regardless of who is in power at Holyrood). It’s Holyrood what gets the credit; Westminster the blame. 

But why is that? The conundrum gets us closer to explaining the ‘success’ of the Scottish parliament in people’s eyes. Recall early claims that devolution was the settled will of the Scottish people (credited to John Smith). Recall too the belief that devolution and constitutional issues mattered far less to ‘real people’ than jobs, housing, schools and hospitals. True enough, but a false dichotomy. They segue into each other seamlessly. The answer to our conundrum is that the Scottish parliament (and government) provides the key institutional framework for politics and policy-making in Scotland, and this has lang been. Recall the teeth-gnashing of unionists that people were being sold a false prospectus, that ‘real politics’ are what mattered. Indeed so, but people see constitutional matters as the means to better social and economic policy. This too has lang been. Political parties are successful in Scotland when they harness these expectations.  

So who are the people who think Scottish government is good at listening to people’s views, more inclined to believe it works in Scotland’s long-term interests, and who trust it to make fair decisions? Manifestly politics comes into it: those in favour of maximising Scottish powers, and SNP supporters, and also those with higher levels of education and who are bettered resourced. UK government is better thought of by unionists, Tories, but also those with low levels of interest in politics. But even among such folk greater trust attaches to Holyrood than Westminster. Back in 1999, Alice Brown, Lindsay Paterson and I wrote that ‘Scots are not nationalists for expressive reasons: identity matters less to politics than effective government… for the foreseeable future Scottish politics will continue to be dominated by the question of how the country is governed’. True enough then; and even more so now.  


David McCrone is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Edinburgh. 

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