Brian Wilson: We need commission on devolution

AN independent review of devolved powers could pay dividends, writes Brian Wilson

The death of Franco in 1975 had a cathartic effect on Spain and led to a lasting democratic settlement. Picture: Getty

One of football’s unsung gifts is the capacity for taking its followers into unexpected places.

And so it arose that, last weekend, I found myself in a Basque town called Eibar of which I hitherto knew little.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Yet I should have. In 1931, Eibar was the first municipality in Spain to proclaim the Second Republic. Six years later, having held out heroically against Franco’s forces, it was flattened by bombing from the Luftwaffe, on a practice run for what they would soon inflict on much of Europe.

News happens where the reporter is and there were none in Eibar. Guernica, on the other hand, was bombed days later and attracted the outrage of the civilised world. Its name still stands as a rebuke to those who looked the other way when the bestial intent of Fascism was inescapable.

The chronology of such events is intriguing. At the level of international diplomacy, denying the inevitability of confrontation was explicable in a generation that had seen so much of war. But what of the personal hob-nobbings and ideological compromises with the architects of evil which continued long after Guernica? That history has been sanitised far too soon.

While I was in Eibar, the Sun published its picture of the Queen, as a six-year-old, giving something which approximated a Nazi salute. The year was 1933. By any standard, it was a low blow against an 89 year-old woman who has given an adult lifetime of impeccable service to her country, in peace and war.

Plenty has been written about the overlapping fringes of Hitler’s aristocratic supporters and the British Royal Family. Given the Germanic origins of the latter, it would be surprising if such links had not existed and many of the secrets will remain under lock and key in the Round Tower of Windsor Castle for ever and a day.

But conspiracy theories about the royals miss a more important point – that, far beyond 1933, a substantial proportion of the British ruling class, along with assorted fellow-travellers of humbler origins, were more than willing to ignore all evidence and salute evil incarnate in pursuit of their own interests and ideologies. That was as true in Scotland as anywhere else and we should know more about it.

When Gavin Bowd produced an excellent book on the subject a couple of years ago called Fascist Scotland, it was met with a predictable torrent of abuse from those who had not got beyond the title. This was an academic account of those who, from various political perspectives, gave succour to the Fascist cause and also of how they were dismissed by Scottish society. Denying that they existed is specious.

We are currently living through a glut of anniversaries and commemorations from the two great conflicts of the 20th century. If we are to learn from them, we also need to understand the contexts within which they occurred or might have been avoided. Eibar and Guernica should still serve as reminders that there is sometimes a price to be paid for doing nothing.

One of our hosts in Eibar had been the first elected mayor of the town after the death of Franco and restoration of democracy. He was from the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV). We were also greeted by the current mayor whose party is aligned to the Spanish socialists (PSOE). If we could be bothered taking the trouble, there is a lot to learn from the political dynamics of the Basque autonomous region.

The first fundamental is that if you create a tier of government based on the “nation”, then it is more than likely that a centrist, Nationalist party will get the long-term job of running it. With brief exceptions, this is the position the PNV has found itself in since 1980. What now prevails in Scotland is the rule, not the exception, and was predictable from the outset of devolution to anyone who cared to look elsewhere.

Equally, however, the rule is that this does not translate into independence. It shows no sign of doing so in the Basque country which has at least as strong a national identity as our own, and more of a culture. If a stable basis for autonomy can be established, that appears to satisfy the great majority, including a high proportion of those who vote Nationalist (as the means of extracting most from the central state).

The Spanish constitutional structure arose out of cathartic events in the late 1970s. In the transition to democracy, they had to get it right and, by and large, they did. There were no taboos in creating a structure designed to last. So, for example, “full fiscal autonomy” was a question of pragmatism rather than principle. The Basques raise their taxes and pay a percentage to Madrid for reserved functions.

It is worth contrasting the stability of this arrangement with the absurdity that prevails in our own situation.

The Scottish Nationalists claim to want Full Fiscal Autonomy but actually don’t because it would be economically disastrous. The pro-Union forces resist Full Fiscal Autonomy because they fear it would destabilise the Union whereas the evidence from Spain is quite the opposite.

There is no answer to such paradoxes when addressed only in isolation.

Meanwhile, the UK government gets itself into a counter-productive fankle by addressing the anomaly of Scottish MPs voting on English laws, even though it exists more in perception than reality. Everyone understands the problem but, again, trying to find an answer in isolation simply plays into the hands of those whose interest is in deepening divisions.

History has not dealt us a cathartic event which would result in all these issues being addressed as a rounded whole rather than as a series of loosely connected controversies. I suppose we should be grateful for that. But the alternative of an endless series of botched compromises which make constitutional wrangling the permanent meat and drink of politics is not very attractive either.

It doesn’t sound very exciting but I suppose a Royal Commission might help with all the constitutional issues which have emerged on the table in order to seek an optimum solution. Probably too late, some might say, but still better late than never.