Brian Wilson: Action speaks louder than words

THERE used to be a media ritual around the festive season which involved the release of internal government papers from 30 years ago and longer.

THERE used to be a media ritual around the festive season which involved the release of internal government papers from 30 years ago and longer.

Valuable insights were offered into half-forgotten events and acres of newsprint were filled on a quiet news day.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

In Scotland, these papers were ceremoniously made available at that marvellous place, the Scottish Records Office in West Register House, now sadly empty with some stock transferred to the other end of Princes Street in the less user-friendly General Register Office, while the rest is in storage with access both complicated and expensive.

Under the guise of progress, the media ritual has been abandoned. The Scottish Government has reduced the release period to 15 years which is too recent to attract much interest from journalists or researchers. There is no accompanying guide to potential highlights or invitation to study files of significance in advance of release. Something useful and interesting has been lost.

The only intimation of this year’s releases was on the National Archives of Scotland website which advised unhelpfully that the files are held off-site and would require a day’s notice before anything requested could be examined. With 400 files involved, nobody bothered to look for needles in haystacks. The days of productive browsing have gone.

A consequence of reducing the closure period to 15 years has been to turn the files, at point of release, from documents of historic interest into something more political. Much of what happened a mere 15 years ago has resonance today. So instead of being aids to historical understanding, the files – insofar as they are noticed at all – are of interest only for political point-scoring.

Last week, as far as I could see, there was no coverage at all of the files from 1997 that have been released by the Scottish Government. Instead, this being Scottish politics, there was a bogus row about a set of files relating to the devolution legislation in 1997 which have not yet been cleared for release by the Scotland Office which needs to consult with other departments.

I doubt if there is anything sinister about this and the sooner they are released the better. The excitable Nationalist MSP fielded to express outrage complained that Scotland was being “cheated of its history”. If he really thinks what Derry Irvine said to Jack Straw about powers proposed by Donald Dewar under sub-section 3(b) of the Scotland Bill equates to “Scotland’s history”, then he has led an intellectually sheltered life and should get out more.

By far the most important point about the devolution files, both published and yet unpublished, is that they will all be contained within a single calendar year. The Labour government was elected on 1 May, the enabling legislation was fast-tracked and the referendum was held on 11 September – all in the year of grace 1997. That is the timetable which serves as in indictment of the self-indulgent farce being played out in Scotland at present.

There certainly should have been robust exchanges within Government in 1997 about the details and pitfalls involved in such an important piece of legislation. They are now of little historic significance because there was also an outcome which we all know and live with – the Bill was passed, the referendum held and Holyrood delivered. And all within a year.

As someone who was there at the time, I would love to see all the Scottish Office files from 1997 published because they would tell a great story if anyone was remotely interested in reading it about what can be achieved where the political will exists, even if there is not a lot of money around to do it with.

In 1997, the incoming Scottish Office team had half the money now available to the Scottish Government for roughly the same devolved functions, even after the recent cuts that they moan so much about. I have argued ever since that nobody should be allowed loose in government with millions to spend until proving that they can do something useful with thousands.

When one contrasts what was achieved during that period to change the political landscape of Scotland, it puts in perspective the current state of torpor and absence of creative political ideas which characterises Holyrood. While legislating on the constitution, we did not forget that there were other areas of far more urgent priority – education and employment among them.

Yet looking through the dry list of files just published and accessible to anyone who can be bothered having a stab at finding something that looks mildly interesting, I can see little or no trace of many notable actions which took place at that time. Perish the thought that anyone has been “cheating Scotland of its history” by editing out the politically inconvenient lessons from 15 years ago?

Let’s take the issue of land reform – the forgotten subject of Scottish politics on which the current Holyrood administration has done precisely nothing, other than appoint a working-party which will not report until the other side of the referendum. Contrast that with the speed of action in 1997 when there were politicians who were in a hurry to turn the words of decades into actions – and did so.

Why is there nothing in the newly-released 1997 files about the establishment of the Community Land Unit which drove the buy-out of estates by the people who live on them – delivered within a month of Labour coming to office? Or the setting-up in October 1997 of the Land Reform Policy Group under John Sewel which subsequently presented Holyrood with an agenda which it half-delivered and half-diluted?

I was education and industry minister in 1997. Where are the files that deal with the decision to deliver every penny of additional funding that the Scottish colleges of education were asking for? No lessons to be learned there? Or the introduction of early intervention in areas of deprivation? Or the initiative to appoint thousands of classroom assistants in primary schools? I could go on.

I would actually prefer a clearer division between current politics and history, an objective which was better served by the 30 year-rule than the 15-year one which has replaced it in Scotland.

What happened 15 years ago is scarcely history, but that does not mean that lessons cannot be learned from it.

The political challenge is to ensure that they are right ones.