A new parliament,a new beginning

26th December 1997 at 00:00
Future generations, studying Scottish history instead of just the English Tudors, will have the simplest of key texts to remember: "There shall be a Scottish parliament." It is much less complicated than, say, the National Covenant or the Act of Union of 1707, which in effect it replaces.

The officials who spent 60,000 man hours writing the home rule Bill have had to include clauses virtually incomprehensible to the layman, for that is the way to frame cast-iron legislation. But their insistence (or was it the Secretary of State's?) on the clearest and briefest statement of principle is commendable. After a referendum which established the clear will of the people, it has an emotive as well as constitutional significance. It will be a helpful reminder when MPs are bogged down in line-by-line examination of complex financial provisions. It may even be useful if there are difficulties from Westminster's "little Englanders" .

There are two ways to express a devolutionary principle - the inclusive and the exclusive. In 1978, the ill-fated Scotland Act tried the inclusive approach, spelling out the powers an assembly would have. Far better from a Scottish perspective is the approach chosen by Donald Dewar for the White Paper and continued in the Bill. Certain powers are reserved to Westminster - in defence, foreign affairs and economic policy. Although the detailed list in the Bill may look formidable, since it must leave no loose ends, it gives the new parliament a psychological advantage in that its powers over "everything else" are sweeping.

Constitutional historians love to debate where Scottish sovereignty has lain. Perhaps wisely, the Bill does not give a legislative ruling on the argument that devolution is just that - a passing of certain powers from one body to another. The sovereignty question would only have to be tackled if Scotland were embarking on independence, and by then political force (the election of a majority of pro-independence MSPs) would have swept aside constitutional nicety.

Mr Dewar is a practical minister. He pointed out the real significance of devolution: "The basic areas like health, education, housing - the areas which matter - are the absolute backbone of the new parliamentary system." In other words, the areas of policy which were at greatest issue during the general election are to be determined in Edinburgh.

If we make mistakes in future, they will be our mistakes. If we spot opportunities for change and progress, we will be able to implement them at our own will and not have regard to the implications at Westminster and in Whitehall. There will of course be limitations on spending, but the politics of prudence and necessity will impose more restrictions than the constitutional boundaries of devolution.

A word about education: it is the easiest function to devolve because administratively the work has already been done. Repatriating the universities some years ago has made the home rule Bill easier to write - and removed one of the prickliest problems of its 1978 predecessor.

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