If the devolution process has hit anything the hardest it’s the Scotland Office. Once the de facto government of Scotland for more than a century, the office and it´s secretary of state have now entered the nether sphere of responsibility and become a tad redundant.
No one can doubt the good and patriotic intentions of the office bearer. Alistair Carmichael and his predecessor, Michael Moore, were the regular point men for the flak and baiting from Yes opponents in the referendum. Moore himself should be remembered as the man who played a substantial role in negotiating the terms of the referendum and his unceremonious dismissal by Nick Clegg was ungrateful at best.
Since the establishment of the Scottish Parliament, successive incumbents have struggled with the perception of whether they are the appointed representative of Scotland in the UK or the representative of the UK in Scotland. Devolution has largely reduced the role – through circumstance, there is no evidence of design – to that of a concerned uncle. They want to offer advice but don´t want to step over the line of telling off their brother’s kids in the Scottish Parliament.
Generally, the day-to-day grind of Scottish politics is left well alone. One look at the Scotland Office website confirms that statistical and press updates are mundane and seldom respond issue by issue to business before Holyrood.
For most in Scotland, the Scotland Office is largely seen as the UK Government´s arm to represent itself. Moore and Carmichael broke the stalemate and were the first industrious secretaries of state since devolution who used the auspices available to them to campaign on an issue of seismic and historic proportions to Scotland. On the whole, however, the once august role has become a back seat passenger to the Scottish Government.
It is, in short, inessential.
What´s to be done about it? Great offices of state have come and gone before (Secretary of State for the Colonies, anyone?). Should we scrap it and save the taxpayer a £90k salary and a £8m department budget?
It can and should be reformed.
The gross foresight of an SNP majority notwithstanding, the Scottish Parliament was designed to instil cooperation into its institutional character. The mixture of first past the post to elect 73 constituency MSPs and proportional representation to elect 56 regional MSPs was devised to ensure as broad a mix of Scottish political opinion as possible. Despite the cavernous and more often than not political distance between party leaders, even the chamber is an intimate foreground, even if not as claustrophobic as Westminster.
The point is the spirit of the place was designed to eschew majority rule and put party politics aside to give cooperation as great a chance to stand in the light.
The personal dominance of former First Minister Alex Salmond and the scale of the SNP victory in 2007 tends to obscure the detail that the two great roles in the parliament, the first minister and the presiding officer, are elected. The formality of the chamber voting for the first minister may seem like a novelty in the eighth year of a ubiquitous SNP majority, but it was a mechanism designed to foster coalition agreement.
While the presiding officer has to resign their party membership, the point is that both positions are held at the pleasure of the parliament. There is no entitlement, even with the most overwhelming of majorities. A man’s a man for a’ that; our institutions reflect that spirit and Scotland is all the better for it
Scotland is not at the stage of embellishing our institutions with so much romance that it clouds function. The Scottish Parliament is fresh out the box, everything has its place and we should take advantage of this to make changes before tradition overtakes purpose – the blight of Westminster.
Elect a Secretary of State for Scotland. Have the position become party neutral like the presiding officer. The position would become about a duty to Scotland – not loyalty to a political party.
The tables have turned in Scotland where we are no longer a top-down policy drawer to be managed from Westminster. If predictions are to be believed, after the 2015 General Election Scottish MPs will again, as was the case in the first half of the 20th Century, represent a Scotland in the United Kingdom and the machinery of government should reflect this.
The Secretary for Scotland (precursor to its secretary of state status granted in 1926) was appointed to handle ´Scotch´ affairs by Gladstone. The auspices of the Scottish Office developed to consolidate the number of boards and committees which managed Scottish affairs like education and health.
Need preceded design, and this is where we must return to again.
A significant problem in the referendum debate was the choice was framed as being between the Scotland Act (1998) and the benefits of independence. Next to no time was spent discussing how grey areas of overlap between reserved and devolved matters are resolved, or how communications channels were conducted between the governments and parliaments of the UK.
Memorandums of Understanding (MoU) are bilateral or multilateral agreements for communicating and resolving disputes in constitutional jurisdictions. Even the Scottish Government website, often the front page of politicised government activity, describes MoU as:
“…an agreement that complements the varying devolution settlements of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and underpins how the UK Government and these three Devolved Administrations should conduct relations with each other. No part of the MoU is considered a legally binding treaty. Instead it is a collection of written agreements given authority by mutual consent.”
MoUs are statements of political intent and while not legally binding, represent cooperation between the Scottish Government and the UK Government in a way that redefines the parochial distinctions between ‘us and them in London’ made during the referendum.
Memorandums of Understanding do not require parliamentary approval, but they should be used as a springboard to establish an institutional umbilical between the Scottish Parliament and the UK Parliament.
The Scottish Parliament should vote on a motion tabled to appoint the Scottish Secretary from a choice of the 59 Scottish MPs returned at a UK General Election.
As sure as it is an informality to appoint a Scotsman or woman to the position, so too it should become the zeitgeist to appoint from the selection of elected Scottish MPs according to a vote made by the Scottish Parliament. While not legally binding, it would be a barometer vote by which the prime minister should appoint the post.
The prime minister´s constitutional right to appoint his own ministers would not be infringed by a MoU because it would continue the unwritten constitutional nature of government. The depoliticised nature of the role would determine the standards of behaviour like those for the presiding officer. The prime minister could dismiss an individual on those grounds if they broke their commitment to representing and serving Scotland objectively and without political colouring.
We’re alive during a constitutional renaissance. Yet the surge in SNP popularity and record membership and the big resignation announcements of Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling as MPs have left the former Better Together campaign with an anti-climax.
Pro-Union campaigners must reclaim the imagination that the unique British constitutional character affords us. As sure as the hilltops of Hell froze over when Alex Salmond said he was now fighting for home rule, so too must the unionist parties grasp the thistle and think three miles outside the box.
We have the option, have always had the option, to exploit our unwritten constitution with flair to try to test every option in order to preserve while modernising the United Kingdom. Let those who continue to call for independence do so only after every nook and cranny and wild idea have been tested to first make this, in the words of our American cousins, a more perfect union.
Elect the Scottish Secretary. Let Our Man in London serve and represent Scotland with a renewed legitimacy befitting the occupant’s patriotism and energy.
At the very least let’s try it after the 2015 General Election. If it fails, we can try something else. Such is the story of our unwritten British constitution.