Devolution’s greatest strength? Being part of UK’s protective framework – Christine Jardine

Queen Elizabeth meets Holyrood's presiding officer Ken Macintosh amid its 20th anniversary celebrations (Picture: Getty)
Queen Elizabeth meets Holyrood's presiding officer Ken Macintosh amid its 20th anniversary celebrations (Picture: Getty)
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The creation of the Scottish Parliament 20 years ago and the shift towards federalism should help bind the UK together, writes Christine Jardine.

I think it was the rendition of Aye Fond Kiss that finally got to me.

The song itself seemed completely incongruous. A peerlessly poignant song of parting to celebrate 20 years of partnership.

It was strange to be emotional about what was, essentially, a political anniversary.

In that moment I was suddenly aware, not only of those who had made Holyrood’s existence possible and are no longer with us, but of how we have all moved on in the past two decades.

At least until the past few days. In the week since the celebrations, it has felt not only as if progress has come to a standstill but that, if we are not careful, we are in danger of slipping backwards.

While Holyrood is off for recess, we at Westminster are caught in a strange Brexit limbo while we await the outcome of the Tory leadership campaign.

And at the same time, it seems that Holyrood’s birthday has suddenly reminded everyone in ‘The Mother of Parliaments’ that there is another union which may well have been neglected.

In the chaos of Brexit, one of our governments has taken its eye off the unionist ball, while the other has identified what they see as an opportunity for them to seize. I despair of them both.

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The country – and by that I mean the UK – stands at a critical crossroads. It is a junction where we are increasingly being encouraged by some to believe that we need to take different routes.

I cannot agree. And that is the root of my frustration with the epiphany over devolution. It is not the rediscovery itself. It is what it is being used for.

In both cases, the suspicion is too great to ignore that it is being used for narrow party political purposes rather than public interest.

After all, we often glaze over it in the current debate, not least because it is a source of potential embarrassment for them but neither the Conservatives nor the SNP were early adopters of devolution.

While my own party – the Liberal Democrats – had argued in its favour for the best part of a century, it was the Labour Party who delivered it. The nationalists first opposed and then supported devolution.

But all of us in Scotland, political or not, are aware that, for the SNP, the parliament that the rest of us cherish will never be enough.

Questions from the SNP benches at Westminster, whether at Prime Minster’s Questions, Scottish Questions or almost any other ministerial interrogation seem framed simply to promote the nationalist Government and undermine the UK.

And then there is Brexit. For most of us who are campaigning to remain in the EU, our goal is simply that. We want what is best for the whole of the UK.

But again it seems that every time an SNP politician speaks up on the subject, the Brexit debate has become just another aspect of the grievance strategy to achieve independence. And that is where my fear of backsliding comes in.

Surely none of us can be in any doubt that the reconvening of the Scottish Parliament at the close of the 20th century has been a power for good?

We have seen so many important decisions devolved to the people best placed to take them and to represent the people of Scotland.

But perhaps its greatest strength is that it has been done within the protective framework of the United Kingdom.

Now as we cope with the turmoil created by the drive to leave the European Union, both our governments – or rather our parties of government – want us to take a fresh look at devolution itself. The Conservative announcement of a review of the situation is the second in as many weeks.

And anyone who watched the witness sessions of the Scottish Affairs Committee’s inquiry into the relationship between our two countries cannot have missed the tension which pervaded every exchange.

Sitting at that table, I was in no doubt that what I was engaged in was the continuing contest for the union. That devolution is in danger of becoming just another political football for some was crystal clear. For me, that is unacceptable.

At the same time as we celebrated the 20th anniversary of our parliament, we are beginning to hear rumblings from those looking to the next stage of development of internal UK relations: devolution in England and what it might look like.

It is not the first time this has been laid on the table. So far it has always been unsuccessful.

But this time there appears a genuine belief amongst those looking to pick the brains of our devolution experience that if its time is not yet here, it is certainly much closer.

For me, it offers the promise of what I have always believed would be the ultimate constitutional goal: federalism.

Indeed the horrific experience that has been the three-year-long fight over Brexit has reinforced my conviction that it is our best future.

Perhaps when we celebrate the next great milestone of devolution, we will choose a song which recognises that it was not a parting but a closer binding than ever.