Your Scotland, Your Voice: A National Conversation

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CHAPTER 1 THE NATIONAL CONVERSATION ON SCOTLAND'S FUTURE

I think the idea of a National
Conversation is hugely effective in
bringing people within the democratic
experience.

(Glasgow Summer Cabinet, 1 September 2009)

INTRODUCTION

1.1 In September 1997 the people of Scotland decided in a referendum to establish a Scottish Parliament, exercising their sovereign right to determine the form of their own government. 1 In the same referendum the people supported tax varying powers for the Parliament. 2 On 1 July 1999 the Scottish Parliament was formally vested with its full responsibilities.

1.2 Ten years on from devolution, the National Conversation has prompted extensive debate across Scotland on the options for the future of the country: continuing with the current situation; extending the responsibilities of the Scottish Parliament and Government; and independence for Scotland. A referendum on the options for Scotland's future would give the people an opportunity to have their say.

CURRENT CONSTITUTIONAL ARRANGEMENTS

1.3 The Scotland Act 1998 was the last major change to the government of Scotland within the United Kingdom (see Box 1). The Act devolved to a Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government all matters not reserved specifically to the United Kingdom: in practice domestic matters administered previously by the Scottish Office, such as health, education, justice, local government and agriculture and fisheries. 3

1.4 The matters reserved to the United Kingdom included:

  • matters seen as fundamental to the state: the Head of State, citizenship, foreign affairs, and defence and security
  • matters regarded as needing a common regime across the United Kingdom, such as employment and business law, drug classification and firearms control
  • matters that the United Kingdom Government thought should be organised across Great Britain or the United Kingdom, such as economic affairs, social security, and tax collection

1.5 Even the existing devolution settlement envisages changes in these devolved responsibilities. As only specified areas are reserved, any new issues - such as climate change - fall within devolved responsibility. The existing list of reserved matters can be adjusted by order with the agreement of the Scottish and United Kingdom Parliaments, although there is no statutory mechanism for the Scottish Parliament to request action from the United Kingdom Parliament to alter the division of responsibilities. 4

1.6 The Scottish Government has taken steps within its current responsibilities to further its purpose of focussing the Government and public services on creating a more successful country, with opportunities for all of Scotland to flourish, through increasing sustainable economic growth. The Scottish Government has also addressed the economic and financial crisis through the Scottish Economic Recovery Plan, but the main policy responsibilities remain with the United Kingdom Government, notably the level of public debt and spending over the short term, advancing capital expenditure from future years, and the overall tax regime. The Scottish Government has been constrained in the fiscal stimulus package it can introduce, and the actions taken by the United Kingdom Government may not be best suited to Scotland. For example, the resources allocated to the temporary cut in Value Added Tax by the United Kingdom could have been used to increase the level of capital investment, helping to support a greater number of jobs in Scotland.

1.7 For devolution to be successful, the Scottish Government needs to work closely with the United Kingdom Government, the other devolved administrations and the European Union. The governments have worked well together on some issues: anti-terrorism measures; the swine flu outbreak; and Climate Change Bills in both the Scottish and United Kingdom Parliaments. Regular meetings of the Joint Ministerial Committees have been re-established. However, relations between the Scottish and United Kingdom Governments have been less successful on other occasions: negotiations for a Prisoner Transfer Agreement with Libya; delay in amending the law on human rights cases under the Scotland Act; 5 exclusion of Scottish Ministers from the United Kingdom delegation to the Copenhagen Summit on Climate Change; and the United Kingdom Government's refusal to be flexible in funding capital projects, notably the Forth Road Bridge.

OPTIONS FOR THE FUTURE

1.8 The Scottish Government's white paper Choosing Scotland's Future, published in August 2007, identified three principal options:

  • the current devolution scheme, with the possibility of further devolution on individual matters as occasions arise
  • a package of specific extensions to devolved responsibilities, including fiscal autonomy, but short of independence. Such a package might need, or benefit from, the consent of the Scottish people in a referendum
  • independence: Scotland would assume all the responsibilities and rights of a normal European state, including membership of the European Union and other international bodies, the ability to determine economic policy, including the currency, and full responsibility for defence and security. 6

1.9 The Commission on Scottish Devolution (see Box 2) was set up in 2008 by the Scottish Parliament and the United Kingdom Government. Its terms of reference excluded consideration of independence. It has proposed a package of changes to the devolution settlement. The main elements are:

  • devolution of an element of income tax
  • devolution of some other minor taxes
  • limited borrowing ability for the Scottish Government
  • devolution of responsibilities for drink driving limits, airguns and speed limits
  • a formal role for Scottish Ministers in reserved policies on benefits and marine conservation
  • reserving to the United Kingdom Parliament and Government a number of matters currently devolved (regulation of health professionals, definition of charities)

The Commission also made a number of recommendations about inter-Governmental and inter-Parliamentary working.

1.10Your Scotland, Your Voice discusses in detail the advantages and disadvantages of various constitutional options for Scotland's future. As the package proposed by the Commission on Scottish Devolution falls short of full devolution, the paper discusses the opportunities provided by both the Commission's proposals and more extensive devolution, as well as independence.

THE NATIONAL CONVERSATION

1.11 The National Conversation began in August 2007 with the publication of Choosing Scotland's Future. Over 5,300 people have attended more than 50 National Conversation events throughout Scotland. Some 500,000 have viewed the website, which provides video and audio records of meetings, access to documents, Ministerial blogs and an opportunity to comment. 7 The National Conversation has been a unique programme of engagement with the Scottish public which has involved civic organisations, young Scots, black and minority ethnic communities, and individuals from all parts of the country. A full list of National Conversation events is at Annex A, and a list of organisations that have participated is at Annex B. 8

Public events

1.12 The National Conversation has been an open, inclusive process intended to encourage debate, ideas and opinions. Events have been held from Glasgow and Edinburgh to Stornoway and Dumfries. National Conversation events were part of the Scottish Cabinets held across Scotland in the summers of 2008 and 2009, with the First Minister, the Cabinet, and other Ministers, on the platform. There have also been 130 National Conversation economy-based sessions with community and business groups, attended by more than 6,500 people across Scotland.

1.13 The events gave members of the public the opportunity to present their own views, ask Scottish Ministers about their vision of Scotland, and to ask questions on local, national and international concerns. The events have illustrated how the constitution embraces everyday concerns such as the economy, employment, energy, benefits, housing, education and health. Quotes and comments from these events appear throughout this paper.

1.14 Civic Scotland has been a key part of the National Conversation. On 26 March 2008, the First Minister and the Cabinet hosted a meeting of over 120 representatives of civic society, acknowledging the importance of Scotland's civic institutions. National Conversation events have been hosted by the Scottish Council of Voluntary Organisations ( SCVO), the Council of Ethnic Minority Voluntary Organisations ( CEMVO), Young Scot and the Scottish Youth Parliament, and churches and faith groups.

1.15 There have also been National Conversation events outside Scotland. Ministers have debated these issues in London, Toronto and Dublin. The First Minister hosted a National Conversation seminar in Brussels, and the National Conversation paper on European and Foreign Affairs was later launched there.

The National Conversation website

1.16 The National Conversation has pioneered the use of new media within the Scottish Government, with regular blogs from Ministers and the opportunity for individuals from across the political spectrum to debate directly with the Scottish Government and each other. So far the National Conversation website has received over 500,000 hits, and almost 5,000 people have contributed to the National Conversation blogs from all perspectives and across the world. 9

1.17 The website has also built up a record of the National Conversation as it has progressed, with video and audio records of meetings, transcripts of speeches, records of comments and questions and photographs. Along with an interactive timeline of Scotland's constitutional story, the website has become a forum for debate, a resource for research and lasting evidence of the interest generated by the National Conversation as it has developed.

National Conversation policy papers

1.18 As part of the National Conversation, the Scottish Government has published a series of papers on different constitutional options for reserved and devolved policy areas. These papers include:

  • Fiscal Autonomy in Scotland: The case for change and options for reform
  • Europe and Foreign Affairs: Taking forward our National Conversation
  • Opportunities for Broadcasting: Taking forward our National Conversation
  • An Oil Fund for Scotland: Taking forward our National Conversation
  • People and Communities: Taking forward our National Conversation
  • Rural Affairs, the Environment and Climate Change: Taking forward our National Conversation

Very useful, you are
to be congratulated
for attempting to
encourage debate.
Folks have been given
their chance to speak.

(Stirling National Conversation event, 13 May 2009)

Wider debate

1.19 The National Conversation is not taking place in isolation. Constitutional reform is a major issue across the United Kingdom, prompted in part by public concern about the expenses system of the United Kingdom Parliament. The United Kingdom Government's response has been to launch its Building Britain's Future initiative, the aim of which is to rebuild trust in politics, as well as to respond to the recent economic crisis. 10 Other organisations have launched initiatives in response to the expenses issue and the constitutional issues raised, for example, the Joseph Rowntree Trusts' POWER 2010 project. 11

1.20 The United Kingdom Government has also continued its programme of work on the Governance of Britain, and is taking forward a Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill which would place the civil service on a statutory footing, among other measures. 12

1.21 In Wales, the All Wales Convention published its report on 18 November 2009 recommending a referendum on extending the legislative competence of the Welsh Assembly. 13 The Welsh Assembly Government's Independent Commission on Funding and Finance for Wales (the Holtham Commission) also published its first report on reforming funding of devolved government in Wales on 7 July 2009. 14

BOX 1: SCOTLAND'S CONSTITUTIONAL JOURNEY SINCE THE TREATY OF UNION

1. The Treaty of Union between the independent kingdoms of Scotland and England came into force on 1 May 1707. The Treaty created a unified Crown and a single Parliament for the new kingdom of Great Britain. Its other main provisions covered representation in the new Parliament and reciprocal measures of taxation and trade, and it preserved various Scottish institutions, notably a separate legal system. Separate legislation guaranteed the position of the Church of Scotland.

2. Some Scots challenged the Union from the outset, particularly as the advantages of free trade to English colonies and free access to English markets - which took time to materialise - were offset by the higher English taxes and duties now payable in Scotland.

3. Following the failure of the 1745 Jacobite rising, the issue of Scotland's place within the Union, and the stability of the succession to the throne, seemed settled. New imperatives of industrial revolution and Empire moved to the fore. Scotland played a full part in these British developments, but its nationhood was preserved by the separate institutions protected by the Treaty of Union.

4. In 1853, the National Association for the Vindication of Scottish Rights was formed. Although short-lived, this indicated growing interest in Scotland's position as a separate political entity within the United Kingdom, motivated in part by the pressure for Home Rule in Ireland, and by the challenges of governing the expanding British Empire.

5. The emergence of political interest in Home Rule for Scotland was accompanied by changes in the arrangements for Scotland's government, starting with the creation of the Scottish Office in 1885 and the appointment of the first Secretary for Scotland to represent Scottish interests in the United Kingdom Cabinet. This recognised that Scotland's distinctive culture, institutional and political identity required specific and full-time representation. However, no separate national democratic assembly was developed.

6. Scottish Home Rule took on greater currency with the formation of a Scottish Home Rule Association in 1886. In 1888 Keir Hardie adopted a Home Rule platform at the Mid Lanark by-election, and Scotland's constitutional position has remained a central political issue since then. Home Rule for Scotland was debated on many occasions in the United Kingdom Parliament, and a number of Bills were introduced. In 1913 a Home Rule Bill passed its Second Reading, but the First World War intervened before further legislative steps could be taken.

7. Following the First World War, the political relevance of Scottish Home Rule was maintained by various political parties and movements, and the Scottish National Party ( SNP) was formed in 1934 from the National Party of Scotland (formed in 1928) and the Scottish Party (formed in 1932). The SNP won its first parliamentary seat at the Motherwell by-election in 1945, but held it for only three months.

8. Unionism dominated in Scotland following the Second World War, and in 1950 the Labour Party abandoned its support for Scottish Home Rule, although this remained an important issue in Scotland. The Scottish Covenant Association helped sustain popular interest in a Scottish assembly, attracting two million signatures between 1949 and 1950. However, the Association was not linked to any political party and failed to secure its objectives directly.

9. Scottish Home Rule returned as a key issue with the SNP's victory in the Hamilton by-election of 1967. Winnie Ewing won the seat with 46% of the vote, marking the emergence of the SNP as an electoral force and mainstream political party.

10. Since the Hamilton by-election, each of the main political parties has, at different times, committed itself to new constitutional arrangements for Scotland. In 1968 the declaration of Perth committed the Conservatives to Scottish devolution in some form, and in 1970 the Conservative government published Scotland's Government, which recommended the creation of a Scottish assembly. However, Conservative support for Scottish devolution declined, and the party opposed legislative devolution for Scotland through the 1980s and 1990s. Although the party campaigned for a "No" vote in the referendum of 1997, the Conservatives at both Scottish and United Kingdom level have supported the Scottish Parliament since it was established.

11. In 1969, the Labour Government commissioned a report into constitutional options for the United Kingdom. The Kilbrandon Commission did not report until 1973 by which time a Conservative government was in power. The Kilbrandon report recommended devolved assemblies for Scotland and Wales, which led eventually to devolution being put to the electorate in a referendum in 1979. The legislation required 40% of the total electorate to support devolution in the Scottish referendum; in the event only 32.9% supported the assembly, although this represented 51.6% of those who voted, and a majority of more than 77,000.

12. Following the election of the Conservative Government in 1979, devolution, and the concept of the sovereignty of the Scottish people, was taken forward first by the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly, and then, from 1989, the Scottish Constitutional Convention. In 1988 the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly published A Claim of Right for Scotland which asserted Scotland's cultural and historical legacy in putting forward its argument for a Scottish assembly. This was followed in 1995 by Scotland's Parliament, Scotland's Right, the Scottish Constitutional Convention's blueprint for a Scottish assembly, which became the basis for the settlement that was eventually enacted.

13. The Labour Party fought the 1997 general election on a platform that included a commitment to a referendum on Scottish devolution. The white paper Scotland's Parliament was published in July 1997, and its proposals were the basis for the pre-legislative referendum which was held on 11 September 1997. Over 74% of those participating supported the creation of the Scottish Parliament, and over 63% tax varying powers for the Parliament. The Scottish Parliament that reconvened in 1999 was based on the constitutional settlement in the subsequent Scotland Act 1998.

BOX 2: THE COMMISSION ON SCOTTISH DEVOLUTION

1. On 6 December 2007, the Scottish Parliament passed a motion calling for the creation of an independently chaired commission to review devolution in Scotland. Chaired by Sir Kenneth Calman, the remit of the Commission on Scottish Devolution was:

To review the provisions of the Scotland Act 1998 in the light of experience and to recommend any changes to the present constitutional arrangements that would enable the Scottish Parliament to serve the people of Scotland better, improve the financial accountability of the Scottish Parliament, and continue to secure the position of Scotland within the United Kingdom.

Members of the Commission were drawn from Scottish civic society and the Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative parties. The United Kingdom Government largely provided the secretariat for the Commission. As the Commission's remit excluded independence, the Scottish Government declined to take part.

2. Over the course of its work, the Commission took evidence mainly in writing, although there were formal evidence sessions with members of representative organisations and twelve public meetings to allow members of the public to engage with the Commission directly. The United Kingdom Government provided written submissions to the Commission, while the Scottish Government provided factual information. The Commission published its first report in December 2008 and its final report in June 2009.

3. The final report, Serving Scotland Better: Scotland and the United Kingdom in the 21st Century, made 63 recommendations in four categories:

  • strengthening financial accountability
  • strengthening co-operation between the Scottish and United Kingdom Parliaments
  • strengthening the devolution settlement
  • strengthening the Scottish Parliament

Following publication of the final report, a working group, consisting of members of the political parties involved in the creation of the Commission, was established to take forward the recommendations.

4. The Scottish Parliament debated the Commission's final report on 25 June, passing a motion supporting its recommendations. The Scottish Government published its formal response to the Commission's recommendations on 9 November 2009. 15 While not in favour of all the conclusions of the report, the Scottish Government does support a number of recommendations and has set out a mechanism for those proposals with widespread agreement to be implemented as soon as possible.