COMMENT

Remarkable though it might now seem, Labour and the SNP were on the same side in the devolution referendum twenty years ago. They both backed the proposal that Scotland should have its own parliament.

Central to their argument was that devolution would enable the governance of Scotland to be more sensitive to the country’s distinctive needs, aspirations and sense of identity. No more would ‘unelected’ Tory governments be running the nation’s affairs. Devolution’s advocates argued also that the new parliament would be more accessible and accountable to voters, thereby reinvigorating the country’s democracy.

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The parliament has, indeed, enabled Scotland to do things differently, including abolish university tuition fees and provide free social care. That said, the iconic differences are more a product of the first decade of devolution than the second. Indeed, there now even seems to be something of a crisis of confidence in one of the country’s institutions that has always been distinctive and hitherto a source of pride – its education system.

Meanwhile, those who run Scotland do now spend most of their time in Scotland, rather than running off to London for at least half the week. Politicians can be button-holed and lobbied more easily, while voters can petition the Edinburgh parliament in order to draw problems to its attention. That said, Holyrood has struggled to persuade much more than half the country’s voters to make it to the polls; turnout in Scottish Parliament elections has been markedly below that in UK elections.

So, while devolution has not been an unalloyed success, at least some of the original promise has been realised.

However, while Labour and the SNP agreed on what devolution would achieve, they had very different expectations of its consequences. Labour thought devolution represented the country’s ‘settled will’ and would kill nationalism ‘stone dead’. The SNP hoped it would help pave the way to independence.

It is the SNP’s hopes that have come closer to being fulfilled. The party’s success in winning an overall majority in the 2011 Holyrood election – despite the use of a proportional electoral system that was meant to avoid such an eventuality – paved the way for a referendum on independence three years later. Although the country voted to remain in the UK, at 45%, support for independence was much higher than at the beginning of the campaign.

Moreover, most of that increase in support for independence has subsequently held up. Far from enjoying a ‘settled will’, Scotland is now much more divided about how it should be governed than it was twenty years ago – though there is as yet still no sign of majority support for independence.

What this division has helped usher in is a more powerful devolution settlement than the one for which Scotland voted twenty years ago. No area of Scotland’s domestic affairs is now wholly beyond Holyrood’s reach, including taxation. But whether increased devolution will prove more successful than the original settlement in resolving the country’s constitutional status remains to be seen.

John Curtice is Professor of Politics, Strathclyde University