‘THE Government wants devolution to be a success” – these are the words of a document published last week as Cabinet Office papers written two decades ago are unlocked for the first time.

But others reveal how senior figures feared discord amongst English MPs who felt “the Scots and the Welsh are getting away with too much”.

And yet more behind-the-scenes tensions threatened to simmer over as political leaders battled for control of the first devolved Scottish Parliament before a single vote had been cast by members of the public.

The files, spanning 1998-2000, reveal the machinations of Tony Blair’s New Labour government, which had pushed John Major’s Tories out of power and passed the devolution legislation needed for the resumption of the Scottish Parliament in 1999.

The National: Neil Smith (left, Chairman of Scotland Forward), Alex Salmond (SNP leader), Donald Dewar (Scottish Secretary) and Menzies Campbell in Edinburgh today (Tuesday) for the launch of the YES campaign devolution countdown.   Photo by Edinburgh Evening News.

And they provide a fascinating look at how Blair and LibDem leader Paddy Ashdown positioned their parties against the political threat posed by Alex Salmond’s SNP as the first Holyrood elections loomed.

The two London-based parties formed an alliance in what became the first Scottish Executive. But privately, Labour had determined that Ashdown was a weak leader and Blair had written a terse warning to the Yeovil MP over a lunch meeting held between LibDem MP Michael Moore (who would later become Secretary of State for Scotland under the Clegg-Cameron Westminster pact) and an unnamed SNP MP.

The National: Dunfermline - October 8: Secretary of State for Scotland Michael Moore speaks during the Liberal Democrats Party Conference October 8, 2011 in Dunfermline. (Photo by Mark Mainz).

That had been reported in The Scotsman in December 1998, a mere five months away from the staging of the first Holyrood elections under devolution. On headed paper marked “strictly personal”, Blair wrote to Ashdown making it clear that the headline was a problem for both of them – and that the LibDems must distance themselves from the SNP’s core policy of independence for Scotland. “I was very unhappy to see the story in The Scotsman today about Michael Moore’s (above) meeting with the SNP. I understand this meeting did take place,” Blair wrote.

“I think it is very foolish for the LibDems in Scotland to posture in this manner. Besides anything else, they need Labour voters to vote for them, not Nationalists. This meeting and the publicity given to it send quite the wrong signal.

“I think it is very important that we rapidly get a story out making it clear that this is not the beginning of a LibDem/SNP alliance. You might, for example, indicate that you have backed off because of the SNP demand for a referendum on independence.

“I cannot emphasise too strongly how damaging this move could be unless we deal with it rapidly. I hope you agree.”

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Ashdown, who died in 2018, hit back with a handwritten letter to Blair, insisting the LibDems must not fight the election “as your junior partners” because “to do otherwise would threaten our success – and that is in the interests of neither of us”.

“I can’t believe you object to a lunch meeting between one of our members and a member of the SNP!” he went on. “But that’s all this was – a lunch between two MPs which has now been hyped up by a single newspaper report.

“I really don’t think that anyone would take seriously the thought that this is, as you put it, ‘the beginning of a LibDem/SNP alliance’ on the basis of a sub’s headline in a single newspaper report!

“I understand from my people that your people in Scotland are quite relaxed about it, recognising it as an over-written story, slightly hyped by the SNP.”

Until 94, Labour operations north of the border had been carried out under the Scottish Council of the Labour Party but the rebrand to the Scottish Labour Party came at a key time, making a statement about the autonomy as UK constitutional politics prepared for a major shift.

The National:

There was no shift in Ashdown’s attitudes towards Labour, however – he’d been seeking a coalition with that party since John Smith (above), Blair’s predecessor. A mooted Westminster alliance failed to come to fruition after Labour secured a majority. The concept of closer working between the parties post-97 election had been dubbed “the project”, with internal analysis showing strong alignment between the parties’ manifestos.

However, there was incredulity from No 10 as seen in the notes where a prime ministerial aide responds to Ashdown’s proposal for a competition to design a new hemispherical parliament where they could work together.

“I can’t believe that he has proposed a hemispherical House of Commons,” the papers say. “Are you sure you want to go ahead with this project?”

But with Holyrood – where the voting system included a form of proportional representation and seemed to guarantee there’d be no chance of any party winning an outright majority – Ashdown was keen to score a place at Labour’s cabinet table. “I understand why our position makes Labour nervous,” he told Blair in response to the letter on the lunch, “but it is the position we believe best calculated to give us the best results – being so close to Labour that we are seen as indistinguishable from you is not a vote winner in the Scottish context”.

ELSEWHERE, the papers show how the opportunities devolution offered to Scottish politicians brought new challenges to Westminster chiefs. “Scotland is going to be a very difficult area for me,” Ashdown told Blair, hinting at disagreements in direction over the upcoming campaign for votes and telling him that “the Scottish campaigners for our party are (for good tactical reasons) jealous to guard their independence in the forthcoming elections, even if they realise privately that there can only be one acceptable party (you) to work with afterwards”.

But Ashdown’s ardour could be met with a frostier reception, the papers show. Blair’s chief-of-staff Jonathan Powell told his boss he’d informed Ashdown he was “pushing his luck” in one call, while another tells how Ashdown called Blair’s office “in a state” after being defeated in a vote on education at the LibDem conference. “He was worried you would think he could not control his party (we knew that already),” Powell wrote.

It was also Powell who warned Blair that tensions were likely to rise in the Commons in March 1998, when he said parliament “will be largely devoted to devolution”, adding that he’d been advised “the question of inward investment could get messy, with English MPs vexed that the Scots and the Welsh are getting away with too much”.

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In other papers, “the Scots and the Welsh” are instead referred to as “territorials”, as are the Northern Irish. The word appears several times as London staff discuss matters across the borders. On taking chunks of the budgets from the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish offices to pay for support for farmers caught in the post-BSE income crunch that drove many into desperation, Blair’s official Angus Lapsley writes that Agriculture, Fisheries and Food Secretary Nick Brown is “playing around with the territorials in a way that could yet turn out to be very bad politics”.

Lapsley told Blair that agriculture was “probably THE flashpoint for the devolution settlement” and urged him to “fudge” funding for 1999, despite also saying: “If it were not for the elections in Scotland and Wales, we could even do the dirty on their hill farmers.”

This was all going on against a backdrop of New Labour infighting. The files show how Blair spin doctor Alastair Campbell called on him to pull up International Development Secretary Clare Short for calling fellow cabinet members “vultures”, while Powell warned about his suspicions that Chancellor Gordon Brown was breaching rules on ministerial standards. “How, for example, is Gordon paying for his newsletter to all party members and his receptions (almost certainly in breach of the ministerial code),” he asked in February ‘98. “He is not the only one.”

Liz Lloyd, Blair’s policy adviser, noted that she was “worried about” what another adviser, Anji Hunter, referred to as “the sleaze factor” thought to be damaging the government.

“Gordon has a whole political programme in his mind... which he is not sharing with us,” Powell cautioned Blair. “You need to find another way of making him do so.”

The National: Scottish First minister Donald Dewar at his first Scottish Question time in the Scottish parliament since being taken into Glasgow Royal Hospital for tests on his heart..

Meanwhile, Scotland Office figures were applying for permission to take on special advisors to help them transition to the new way of doing politics. They included Sam Galbraith and Wendy Alexander. While Galbraith had been an MP for several years and a Scotland Office minister, Alexander had been brought in as a special advisor to Scotland Secretary Donald Dewar (above) after the ‘97 general election win. All three would go on to join the first coterie of MSPs, with Dewar taking his place as First Minister and appointing Galbraith and Alexander as ministers.

In October 1998, both Galbraith and Alexander sought to have a special adviser “attached to them” as they worked “on the transition to a Scottish Executive after the elections next year”. However, there appears to have been some reluctance with the government team to take on that work. “We should try to help them,” Powell told Blair adviser Pat McFadden, “but I’m not sure we could get willing volunteers. Any ideas?”

Dewar had also sought to put more hands on deck six months earlier. The new recruit approved was ex-Daily Record and STV journalist and future MSP David Whitton. Dewar’s team asked Blair for permission to change his job title to “the Secretary of State’s Political Spokesman” to reflect his importance to the operation.

The hire was made amidst heightened scrutiny over the use of special advisers. One of those questioning the practice was one Liam Fox MP. The Tory politician had been made constitutional affairs spokesman by Major and would later hold a number of top political posts. In 2009, he’d become best-known for being the cabinet minister with the largest over-claim of expenses, money he’d have to pay back to the taxpayer.

But in summer 1998, he was holding the Labour government to account on the sum it was spending on spads. Something that had cost £1.8 million a year under the Tories in 1996-7 now cost £3.6m, with 20 advisors working in Downing Street, and 49 others spread across departments, including the Scotland Office’s three. It was a point Blair’s administration was sensitive about and it decided to “respond robustly” to defend its practices.

Meanwhile, Ashdown continued to push Blair for greater access behind the curtain. There was serious concern amongst the LibDems over the number of Scottish politicians. Orkney and Shetland MP Jim Wallace, who was to become Dewar’s Deputy First Minister, sought assurances over representation in light of proposals to cut the number of MPs once Holyrood was running, and over future reviews on the matter.

“The number of MSPs was a VERY hard fought part of the agreement between Jim and Donald,” Ashdown wrote to Blair in winter ’98. “I want to be able to say that the government have honoured our pre-electoral agreements.”

On Wallace’s position, Ashdown went on: “He readily takes the point that we cannot leave it to the Scots to reduce their own numbers (which they will of course never do) nor can we simply leave it to Westminster (which will probably be equally resistant).” It was a point Ashdown continued to push, even calling No 10 to ask Blair that if a concession was to be made, in Powell’s words, “please make it to the Liberals not the SNP”.