Pete Wishart – 2019 Speech on 20 Years of Devolution

Below is the text of the speech made by Pete Wishart, the SNP MP for Perth and North Perthshire, in the House of Commons on 11 July 2019.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered 20 years of devolution.

It is with great pleasure that I open this debate on 20 years of devolution on behalf of the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs and the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs. Twenty years of devolution—it is hard to believe, Madam Deputy Speaker. It has been 20 years since our Parliaments opened their doors, transforming our nations and redefining the political culture of our countries. Our nations are better because of devolution. Our national life has been transformed, and we now have a distinctive voice because we have Parliaments within our nations.

Devolution has come of age and there will be no going back to before our Parliaments opened their doors to the world. I remember that day 20 years ago: I was going to be a candidate for the Scottish Parliament, and it was only the finishing of a Runrig album that got in the way and delayed my parliamentary career by two years. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if had I managed to secure a place in the Scottish Parliament—[Interruption.] I am hearing that there is still time yet, but as someone approaching the autumn of their career I will maybe just think about that one.

I remember the expectation in the air that day—the sense of anticipation and excitement that at last we could get down to the business of designing our own future because we had our Parliaments. I will never forget the look on Donald Dewar’s face when he said, “There will be a Scottish Parliament,” and he just had to add, “I like that.” And I will never forget Winnie Ewing taking the chair for the first time—Winnie Ewing, whose 90th birthday was yesterday, a celebrated figure in Scotland to whom we owe a great debt—and saying

“the Scottish Parliament, which adjourned on 25 March 1707, is hereby reconvened.” —[Scottish Parliament Official Report, 12 May 1999; c. 5.]

We have had our disagreements like any other normal Parliament or Assembly, and we have scrutinised Governments just as they do everywhere else, but we have worked with a great deal of consensus. There have been fantastic examples of cross-party work, pioneering and innovation in the Scottish Parliament, and it is worth looking at some of the things that we have achieved in the course of those 20 years.

There has, for example, been pioneering health work. We were the first country in the United Kingdom to introduce a ban on smoking in public places, and we know about the health dividend that has resulted from that piece of legislation. We recently introduced minimum ​unit pricing for alcohol, and there is already reasonable evidence that that is starting to have an impact on health outcomes. We have also made democratic reforms: 16 and 17-year-olds in Scotland now have votes, and we have proportional representation in local government elections, just as we do in the election of the Parliament itself. Then there is the social agenda: free personal care for our elderly in Scotland, free higher education, and free prescription charges. All those initiatives, and many more, are helping to make ours a better and fairer country.

This is often credited to Donald Dewar, but it was in fact a Welshman, Ron Davies, who said:

“Devolution is a process…not an event”.

What a process it has been, and what a journey we have been on! As a legislative body, the Scottish Parliament is an entirely different creature from the one that opened its doors back in June 1999. Two further Scotland Acts—the 2012 and 2016 Acts—followed the 1998 Act, which established the Scottish Parliament, and have significantly increased its powers. It now controls large swathes of welfare legislation, and its taxation powers mean that we can set our own income tax rates in Scotland. The Welsh Assembly is about to become the Senedd, and Scotland now has a Government. We in Scotland have had coalition government, majority government—although the rules are supposed to forbid such a thing—and two episodes of minority government, and still we move forward.

Hywel Williams (Arfon) (PC)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Welsh Assembly has advanced even further, given that we were somewhat behind our Scottish friends at the start of the process? It has travelled from being essentially a glorified county council to being a law-making body, which will hopefully proceed very quickly to take on many more law-making and tax-raising powers, leading eventually to independence.

Pete Wishart

I am more than happy to agree with my hon. Friend. As we observe what has happened in Wales, we see that the pace of the change has been quite dramatic. My hon. Friend is right to point out that Wales now has a law-making Assembly. There was some discussion yesterday about its being renamed the Senedd, which I think will prove very worthwhile and valuable. We are on a journey, and it is not finished yet.

Stephen Kerr (Stirling) (Con)

The hon. Gentleman is making a strong case for what has been achieved in the last 20 years, and I welcome that. Does he agree that, by virtue of the make-up of the Scottish Parliament and the system by which we elect our MSPs, it is right for parties to work together—that there should be no demarcation lines marking who will work with whom, but we should always be working together for the benefit of Scotland?

Pete Wishart

There is nothing in what the hon. Gentleman has said with which I could possibly disagree. We have seen examples of coalition government in the Scottish Parliament, and, indeed, it was designed on that basis. When Labour and the Liberals, in the main, put together the Scottish constitutional convention, that was what was anticipated. The fact that we have been on a particular journey and have had a variety of different arrangements for government demonstrates our resilience.​

Stephen Kerr

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Pete Wishart

I will not, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind. I want to make sure that the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), who chairs the Welsh Affairs Committee, has a chance to speak.

There has been a flurry of devolutionary activity recently. A review initiated by the UK Government is to be conducted by Lord Dunlop, and there is an ongoing debate about completing the powers of the Scottish Parliament with independence for Scotland. That continues to be the most debated and defining issue in Scotland’s political and public life. One thing that can be said about devolution is that it is never boring. Our Parliament has brought Scotland to the attention of the world. Our international footprint has increased because of devolution, and as a consequence more people know about our beautiful country and what it does.

Stewart Malcolm McDonald (Glasgow South) (SNP)

I think it is still the case, and it was certainly the case at the time, that when the Scottish Parliament passed the Bill that became the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Act 2014, there was a larger majority in favour of equal marriage in that Parliament than in any other legislature in the world. In fact, the Scottish Parliament is the only legislature in the world which, whenever it has been presented with legislation to extend equality to its citizens, has voted in favour of it. Is that not a good thing, and does it not constitute progress that should always be protected in future?

Pete Wishart

My hon. Friend has made a valid and strong point. He is absolutely right about equal marriage, and about the way the Scottish Parliament responded. There have been other progressive developments on social issues, and I am particularly proud that our Parliament has taken up such causes so dramatically and consistently. I look forward to seeing further examples of progress in the future.

It is right for us to keep devolution under review, and 1 am proud of the work that my Committee has done over the past few months in assessing it after 20 years. We focused particularly on intergovernmental relations, and suggested a number of far-reaching reforms. We believe that, if implemented, our conclusions will make a significant difference in the quality of the inter- governmental relations that currently exist throughout these islands.

I think we can all agree that, institutionally, the Scottish Parliament has functioned well and is now an immovable feature, secure in the fabric of our democracy. It is there to stay. However, the relationship between the two Governments has not kept pace with developments, and the machinery for dialogue and engagement has not kept up with the evolving dynamics of devolution. What we have found is that intergovernmental relations are under pressure as never before. It seems that, having emerged from the experience of the independence referendum, they have been challenged to within an inch of their lives by Brexit.

Before I go into that further, I will give the House the good news. The relationship between the two institutions seems to be functioning well at a sub-political level: the work between civil servants, for example, continues unabated. Our Committee heard solid evidence from ​senior civil servants that everything was being conducted perfectly well, and that work was being done behind the scenes. However, we were concerned about the quality of the relationships across these islands, and we made a number of recommendations in that regard.

Christine Jardine (Edinburgh West) (LD)

The hon. Gentleman is making a very strong case, but does he agree that responsibility for the relationship between the two Governments is not something that we should dictate through paperwork, or something for which we should have to resort to legislation? Is it not up to the two parties in government to be grown up, to sit round the table and to take part in constructive discussions, rather than engaging in what we often witness here—petty bickering about just about everything when an excuse can be found for it?

Pete Wishart

The hon. Lady is an assiduous member of the Scottish Affairs Committee, and as I look around the Chamber I see other assiduous members. I agree with what she has said, but I think it is incumbent on us to have the mechanism, the infrastructure and the machinery to ensure that when Governments disagree—as they will when they have particularly different policy objectives —we can accommodate that disagreement, shape it up, and resolve some of the tensions and difficulties that are encountered.

Let me now go back to the beginning, because, as the hon. Lady knows, the Committee looked into this in great detail and heard a great deal of evidence. In the early days of devolution, everything was straightforward and easy. The Labour party was in government in Cardiff, Edinburgh and London, and intergovernmental relations were conducted among comrades, friends and colleagues who would just pick up the phone and get in touch with each other to resolve any difficulties. They were generally resolved very easily; I am sure that you remember those days, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Only one issue was not resolved, and it remains in the name of the bar in the Scottish Parliament. In a dramatic rebuke to Scottish colleagues who dared to suggest that they should become a Government, Big Brother down here—in the form of Labour Members—said, “They can call themselves the White Heather Club, but they will never be a Government.” To this day, the bar in Holyrood is called the White Heather Club as testimony to that fantastic rebuke from our Big Brother Westminster Labour colleagues.

It took the UK Government three years to keep up with developments and acknowledge the change when Alex Salmond rebranded the then—it has to be said—pathetically named Scottish Executive the Scottish Government.

I think it is fair to say that the cosy relationship that existed in the early days of devolution was pretty much shattered with the arrival of the SNP minority Government in 2007. This was an SNP Government who were prepared to push the boundaries of the devolution settlement and who tried to define a new means and method for us to assert ourselves as a nation, and they were not content being restricted to what was available in the then devolution settlement.

Then of course came the independence referendum, and who will ever forget that? Curiously, inter-Government relationships survived the referendum relatively intact, ​and that was because there was a need for engagement between the two Governments and we had the Edinburgh agreement and rules were set up for that. That taught us the lesson that things can be done if there is structure, rules and a means to come together for agreed objectives, and the agreed objective during the independence referendum was that it would be done properly and constitutionally.

Brexit has broken that, however. What we have with Brexit is two Governments, one in Scotland and one in London, with totally different objectives on the issue of leaving the European Union. Scotland wants nothing whatsoever to do with Brexit; it returned one MP with a mandate for an EU referendum, and we have consistently said we find this counter to our national interests. But of course we have a UK Government determined to deliver Brexit. We should have in place, however, a means to be able to accommodate that—to be able to ensure that these types of differences can be dealt with and negotiated smoothly.

That brings us to the machinery of all this. At the very top is the Joint Ministerial Committee. We looked at a number of options for transforming or even replacing it, but came to the conclusion that replacing it would not serve any great purpose. So we suggested a number of things that we could do to improve the functioning of the JMC, because it is not working properly; it does not have the confidence of the Scottish Government and it does not particularly have the confidence of the Welsh Government. The UK Government set the agenda, and they are responsible for all the dispute resolutions, and they seem to be the arbiter of what happens and how things are conducted.

We said that things have to change dramatically, and there is one phrase that runs through almost every chapter of our report: “parity of esteem”. We therefore propose that the JMC be a body where all four of the Governments are treated as equals, and as such we recommended that JMC meetings should be hosted and chaired by each of the UK Administrations on a rotating basis, and that meetings should be held frequently and have a set schedule with agendas agreed in advance between all parties.

We also asked the Government to explore third-party mediation, because again we received a number of pieces of evidence that suggested that this was not working. We also said that the JMC should look at dispute resolution and made a number of recommendations about Whitehall Departments becoming devolution-proof.

Hywel Williams

Further to that point, the JMC has been described as not fit for purpose in its current form. Its fitness for purpose would be greatly aided if it had its own secretariat, and if it had a statutory basis as well.

Pete Wishart

We have recommended that the Government look at the JMC having its own secretariat, and the UK Government have now said they are prepared to explore that. However, I want to come back to the Government’s response to our report, and I think that what the Government are prepared to do will delight the hon. Gentleman.

David T. C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?​

Pete Wishart

Yes, of course; I give way to the Chair of the Welsh Affairs Committee.

David T. C. Davies

Under the suggestion the hon. Gentleman is making about everyone having an equal say, presumably the First Minister of Northern Ireland, when that Assembly is set up again, would have a veto over what was happening in the rest of the United Kingdom.

Pete Wishart

With all great respect, I think that the hon. Gentleman misunderstands and possibly does not really appreciate what we are saying. We suggest in our report that parity of esteem be established. It is not right that the UK Government should chair all proceedings and set the agenda; that should be the responsibility of all Governments and the chairing should be rotated—just the chairing, so not having a veto but just ensuring that that sense of equality exists between the four Governments in a setting and a forum that is supposed to be able to accommodate that.

What we said about the Scotland Office and the Secretary of State’s role probably got most of the headlines and caught most of the attention when our report came out just a few short weeks ago. When we looked at the Scotland Office and the Secretary of State’s role, we found a Department that has more or less been bypassed in two very important functions. One of them is at the highest level of inter-Government relations such as the bilateral meetings between First Minister and Prime Minister. That now seems to be conducted by the de facto Deputy Prime Minister; he does all that and there does not seem to be much of a role for the Scotland Office in those proceedings. The second thing we found, which is probably more important, is that bilateral arrangements between Ministers from Scotland and Whitehall were being conducted by themselves and they were not going through the Scotland Office. If a Minister in Scotland wanted to deal with an issue that was of importance to the UK so it was something that needed to be done together, that would go straight to the relevant Whitehall Department down here with no role for the Scotland Office. So we asked what the Scotland Office therefore really does, and why it is in place, with all the paraphernalia of a civil service and so on.

Liz Saville Roberts (Dwyfor Meirionnydd) (PC)

An additional point is that there needs to be formal consideration of the interplay between legislation that is created here and that now being created in the Welsh Assembly. There is a recent example with the Joint Committee on the draft Domestic Abuse Bill: there is a piece of legislation in Wales concerning violence against women. There is no formal mechanism to examine how legislation created here and legislation being created in other places intermeshes and to ensure they do not contradict one another.

Pete Wishart

That points to some of the evidence we took in the Committee. It is an important point, and I know that it will be looked at when these matters are being progressed.

We found, however, that the Scotland Office did do the following. It is its right and prerogative to do this, so of course it can, but it wanted to make sure that the role of the UK and the workings of its Government are ​asserted in Scotland. That seems to be the basis of the Dunlop review: how we can make Scotland better love what the UK does. This seems to involve a relatively large resource and budget, and it seems as though we will have to expect a lot of new UK branding with all the associated flagging paraphernalia that goes with it. It seems like some sort of bold attempt to make us love that just that little bit more by visibility.

We asked the Secretary of State about this yesterday, and I got the sense that the UK Government are trying to do a rebranding exercise. [Interruption.] Scottish Conservative Members do not like that and are saying that is not the case. We shall hear their opinions about what the Dunlop review will do, but we are very encouraged by the Secretary of State’s response to our report. I think they have agreed to look at almost every recommendation we made; we are excited that they have said they will look at most of the things around the JMC and that that will form part of the review. They are even prepared to look properly at a review of the Scotland Office and tell us what it will be doing, so we remain encouraged. [Interruption.] I did not want to sound bitter or unhappy with things, but that was what I was hearing yesterday, and the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (David Duguid) was at the same meeting. We have to be positive where we can be and thankful for the fact that most of that response seems to have been quite good so far, so we will just keep things going, and I say to colleagues on the Scottish Affairs Committee that we have a role in this, so we will make sure that that happens.

Stephen Kerr

Just to be absolutely clear to the Chairman of the Scottish Affairs Committee, he knows that I welcome and support his Committee’s report, but the Dunlop review is about how the United Kingdom Government work better to bring the benefits of the Union to all parts of the Union; it is quite clearly mischievous on his part to suggest something different.

Pete Wishart

I think that I am actually repeating what the hon. Gentleman said: the review will show us what the UK Government do in Scotland. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman can tell us what he thinks they are doing; I am just saying what I think, but there we go. [Interruption.] Will the hon. Gentleman just calm down a little? He does not need to get over-excited; this is a consensual debate. We will see what happens, but I congratulate the UK Government on their positive response. It is right that we continue to look out for devolution and continue to ensure that it is properly assessed and continues to work in the best interests of all our nations across the United Kingdom.

Patrick Grady (Glasgow North) (SNP)

My hon. Friend is making an important speech marking 20 years of devolution and where we go next. Right at the start, he spoke about Winnie Ewing reconvening the Scottish Parliament and that historical continuity is very important for the next steps. The Scottish Parliament was never abolished; it was adjourned and then it was reconvened, and where it goes next will be a matter for the people of Scotland. And this House of Commons should recognise that now as well and endorse the claim of right and the fact that the sovereignty will lie with the people of Scotland.​

Pete Wishart

It is almost as though my hon. Friend has read my mind, because he anticipates that that is exactly what I was going to come on to, in closing this short introduction to the debate. He is right: this is a matter for the people of Scotland to determine.

We have to agree that the Scottish people should always get what the Scottish people want. We have now said that we agree on the sovereignty of the people of Scotland through the claim of right, and I am delighted that this House passed that. However, there is an ongoing debate just now, and what I do not like hearing is people saying that democracy will be denied in Scotland and the Scottish people will not get their way if that is what they decide. We have to end that sort of talk. We have to say in the House that the Scottish people should always get what they want, and that it is right that the future of Scotland remains in Scotland’s hands. We have had 20 years of a Scottish Parliament. It has been thoroughly good, and we all agree that it is a transformed Scotland and made such a difference to our national life. We now look forward to the next 20 years and whatever future awaits.