Our history of the Scottish independence movement continues with the story of the the Yes campaign and securing devolution.

THE establishment of the Scottish Parliament was a “godsend for nationalists”, according to Scots historian Professor Sir Tom Devine.

Ironically, it was delivered by Labour, “the mortal enemy” of the SNP, with the avowed attempt, in the words of former shadow Scottish secretary George Robertson, of “killing nationalism stone dead”.

“In 2015, his erstwhile colleague, Brian Wilson, proved more perceptive when, with the benefit of hindsight, he pronounced that devolution had instead become the scaffold on which Labour hegemony in Scotland was destroyed,” said Professor Devine.

He pointed out that after Winnie Ewing’s historic by-election result at Hamilton, the SNP had become a political force which concentrated the minds of the other parties on how its progress might be halted.

Despite this, he said, the SNP vote ebbed and flowed over the next three decades between “the extremes of modest success and abysmal failure”.

“As the rogue card in Scottish politics the party attracted inordinate press coverage which concealed to some degree its mediocre performance in those years,” said Professor Devine.

“Within the UK context, the overall parliamentary numbers ensured that the SNP seemed doomed to remain a party of eternal opposition, always an irritant and occasionally a temporary menace to Labour and Conservatives in Scotland but essentially impotent at Westminster no matter how much noise its MPs made there.

“The party’s key aspiration of Scottish independence had no traction whatever in a British political world dominated by parties, which whatever their differences, were always robust defenders of the Union state.”

Tony Blair, though, believed the biggest danger to the Union was not change but no change and when he swept to power in 1997 he gave the go-ahead for the second referendum on devolution which resulted in a resounding vote in favour of a Scottish Parliament with tax-raising powers.

However, Professor Richard Finlay of Strathclyde University is doubtful the then Labour prime minister understood what it would entail.

This was partly because Blair thought it would be like a parish council and also because of New Labour’s neoliberal beliefs which saw the state as less significant than market forces and the global economy.

“I think the idea was that it would be fairly pliant and a mirror of what was happening in Westminster,” said Professor Finlay. “I don’t think he saw it as becoming an institution which would develop its own sense of itself.”

READ MORE: History of Scottish independence: The Yes campaign and devolution

At first, with the early LibDem/Labour coalitions in Holyrood, it wasn’t clear the Scottish Parliament would fulfil the hope of many Scottish nationalists that it would be a stepping stone to independence.

“But from the perspective of 2020 it becomes clear that the Holyrood Parliament was the fundamental precondition for the emergence of the SNP as a party of government, a position it could never have achieved without devolution,” said Professor Devine.

“Gradually Scots began to accept that the real power over much of their daily lives resided in Edinburgh rather than London.

“The politics of identity and territory moved the goalposts and the nationalists, as the recognised primary defenders of Scottish interests, gained a powerful advantage within Holyrood.

“Labour in Scotland, on the other hand, was an integral part of the broader British Labour movement with its key policies enshrined as British in scope.

“When Johann Lamont, Labour’s former leader in Scotland gave her resignation speech in October 2014 she publicly admitted that the UK Labour leadership treated the Scottish party as ‘branch office’.

“Labour simply could not adapt to the new era of devolved and identity politics while the SNP, as an autonomous organisation, exclusively concerned with Scottish interests, did so with ease.”

Professor Finlay agrees the way the Scottish Parliament has evolved would surprise many involved in its creation – including nationalists who were worried that Scots would be happy to stick with devolution rather than go for full independence.

Even prominent nationalists like Professor Neil MacCormick were fairly ambiguous about whether full independence was necessary in the context of the European Union.

“He saw devolution as a process of negotiation in which you would have the Scottish Government, the UK Government and the European government,” said Professor Finlay.

“It is a process and, certainly pre-Brexit, the argument was that the Parliament would effectively move almost seamlessly towards independence as it gained more and more powers. It looked like it would just be an incremental process – independence by stealth.

“What you have here is a slow burn and quite a unique constitutional arrangement. If you asked a die-hard Unionist if devolution was a mistake they would probably say yes because the big problem is that you already have a semi-state in existence and once that happens it is very difficult to dismantle it.

“It’s embedded, it has been built up and people have a vested interest in it, so it becomes very difficult to abolish it at a stroke of a pen.”

READ MORE: Scottish Independence: The remarkable story of Margo MacDonald

AT the beginning of the Parliament there were rows over the cost of the new building and the legislation that was passed seemed quite ephemeral but this began to change and Scotland started to diverge more and more from Westminster.

Although the new Parliament had been given some tax-raising powers, Professor Finlay believes these amount to no more than a Union surcharge and the really significant factor was that Holyrood was able to decide how it should spend its budget rather than being told by Westminster.

“If you don’t get enough funding from Westminster and you have to raise taxes as a result, it is basically is a Union tax in a sense that it’s the price you pay for being in the Union and not having full fiscal autonomy,” he said.

“What is probably more significant was the different choices that can be made with the devolved budget because you do not simply have to reflect what is happening in Westminster. In actual fact you can do quite a lot with that and have different priorities. I don’t think people quite realised that, so in that sense it was important.”

The result has been free personal care for the elderly, free prescriptions, no university tuition fees and most importantly, the health service has been better protected from privatisation than south of the Border.

“I don’t think when people originally thought about devolution that there would be as much divergence as there has been,” added Professor Finlay, who thinks that in a wider sense the existence of the Scottish Parliament has also led to a difference in public attitudes between Scotland and England.

“It’s difficult to judge these things but if you look at how the lockdown has been observed here compared with England, arguably, one of the things you could say is that there is more of a sense of civic responsibility and social solidarity.”

Another big divergence is that Scotland voted to remain in Europe but England did not.

“Scotland has areas of deprivation that have been left behind but the voters did not do the same as they did in England and I think that is because there is probably not as much of a disconnect with the political class in Scotland as there is in England,” he said. “I also don’t think there is the same sense that things have broken down and I think that is because of the Parliament.

“You could say having political power does make a difference. If you look at in an international context and look at Germany where you have federalism you don’t have the same kind of problems, so there are wider issues as to the extent to which devolution and political engagement works.”

It should be noted that the Brexit vote has completely destroyed any notion of gaining independence by stealth – although by calling the 2014 independence referendum after winning another majority in the Scottish Parliament, SNP leader Alex Salmond had already brought the issue to centre stage.

The vote in favour was narrowly defeated in 2014 but showed a clear momentum towards independence which has speeded up following the 2016 referendum on leaving the European Union.

Professor Finlay said this has brought the constitutional question into sharp relief.

“What people thought would happen was that the influence with Europe would remain the same, or become stronger, and the influence with Westminster would become weaker and we would eventually move to a European/Scottish kind of thing,” he said.

And although Westminster has ruled out holding another Scottish independence referendum for the time being, Professor Finlay pointed out that, thanks to Labour’s Donald Dewar, “the father of the nation”, there is nothing to stop the Scottish Parliament holding a consultative referendum.

“I think what Dewar did, which was very clever, was to get agreement that rather than saying what the Scottish Parliament could legislate on, they would say what it couldn’t legislate on – so it can legislate on anything that is not reserved,” he said.

“A very good example of that is that the constitution is reserved to Westminster but referendums are not excluded so you could easily have a referendum as a consultative process and Westminster can’t say it is illegal.”

Sir Tom Devine’s comments are based loosely on two of his books, The Scottish Nation, which has now sold over 100,000 copies in the UK alone, and Independence or Union: Scotland’s Past and Scotland’s Present. Both are available in Penguin paperback