Or: “Was John Major the most useless PM of the last century?” A counter-factual.
The Returning Officer was intoning his usual ritual words about the total votes cast, the number of spoiled papers … Alex was elated. At last, all the years of work, the draughty halls and the wet nights out door-knocking had paid off. It looked like now, after so long, he would wield real power. Health, roads, transport, social work, education …he would be able to make his mark. For the SNP and for Scotland.
He looked back on how it had all come about, as a result of the constitutional changes in the 1990s, which had made all the difference, by transforming Scotland’s political landscape, and giving him his chance to escape the ineffectual and meaningless role of the Westminster backbencher. It had all started with the hapless John Major, and Alex’s mind turned to his self-serving and petty memoir (wait until he wrote his own, it would be far better…) with its account of the Scottish Question and its resolution.
In Major’s book, it had been sandwiched between two self-congratulatory chapters on the railways and on the Maastricht agreement and Yugoslavia.
What a conceited idiot Major had been in his recall of both. On the railways, he tried to take credit for heading off a hare-brained privatisation project: after all, no-one could never have taken it seriously, could they? Even the Tory backbenchers had described it as the “the Poll Tax on rails.” Major had tried to make a virtue out of necessity, as no-one surely would have been so foolish as to proceed?
And Maastricht? Major was attempting to fool the world into thinking that his surrender to the Social Chapter had been a price worth paying to prevent the European Community recognising the Yugoslav state of Croatia as an independent country. It was just about possible that Helmut Kohl had suggested such a deal, but Major’s claims that to agree to it would have started a Balkan War with massacres and genocides had been preposterous.
Major’s position had been unpardonable folly: no wonder the press had crucified him and he had turned his attention to domestic politics to try to regain the political initiative. Alex smiled to himself again: his own memoir would not blame the press but take responsibility for his own failings (although he was having trouble thinking of any just at the moment.)
And so the Scottish Question had come to the fore after 1992, when it was clear that the Scottish Tories were not going to recover their position of relative strength of the Thatcher Years. Since 1979, in fact, it had become clear to John Major that a steady head of steam had been building up for some form of devolution or Home Rule.
The memoir revealed how the different parts of his response had been put together.
First Major had beefed up the role of the Scottish Grand Committee. Its membership had been reformed to make it reflect the balance of MPs elected in Scotland, although it was still to be chaired by the Secretary of State. In this role, the previously abrasive (and counterproductive) Michael Forsyth had surprised many by showing his diplomatic and managerial skills.
But the real value of the modernised SGC had been its legislative powers. The key had been to transfer responsibilities from the House of Lords: both for revision of all legislation solely affecting Scotland and for promotion of its own Bills and amendments. Its sole executive power would be distribution of the block grant delivered to Scotland through the Barnett Formula.
This arrangement had guaranteed that never again would laws be passed against the wish of Scotland’s elected representatives. (Major had ruefully reflected on the Poll Tax, which had been such a disaster despite the fact that it had been introduced at the specific behest of his Scottish Conservative colleagues.)
This had also ensured that the sovereignty of the House of Commons was not compromised and indeed had proven to be such a popular move that there had been a successful lobby for the model to be copied in England, above all in London. And it was from Major’s own experience of London (as a Lambeth councillor) that he had taken his boldest move. He had recalled the Greater London Council and its relationship with London Boroughs and put it together with the existing pattern of regional government in Scotland. He had also remembered the Marshall Report produced for his old London colleagues Horace Cutler and George Tremlett and its principle “County Hall not Whitehall, and Town Hall not County Hall.”
In Cabinet he had garnered the critical support of his Deputy, Michael Heseltine, with his positive experience of regional powers in Liverpool. Norman Lamont (as Chancellor) had been sceptical about possible long term costs. Malcolm Rifkind, scarred by his own experience in the Scottish Office, had also been sceptical about the political dynamics.
However both of these had been finally convinced. To Lamont, the answer had been that the increased powers of the Scottish regions would be paid for by new Regional Income Tax (RIT) powers; and the fear of huge monolithic Labour fiefdoms had been quashed by the use of Proportional Representation (which Rifkind had himself supported in the early 1970s.)
Alex smiled to himself to recall that the strongest objection in this discussion came in the form of a sharply worded memo from Lamont’s special advisor, David Cameron. Major had recalled “Malcolm said to Norman: ‘He knows nothing about Scotland and never will.’ Norman replied ‘Yes, I know. We only gave him a job because he is married to one of the less serious Astor girls. I regret that.’”
So the final structure which went before the House of Commons had been for three new or reformed tiers of government for Scotland: the Grand Committee, enhanced regions elected by PR with virtually all of the old Scottish Office powers (including the NHS, economic development, higher education, infrastructure, planning and transport) and a powerful redistributive RIT; and district councils, enhanced by a downward shift of powers (including social work) which completed the old Tory mantra of “Town Hall not County Hall”, or in this case, “City Chambers not Regional Chambers.”
The response of the official Opposition was one of fury and frustration. Major had anticipated that the Shadow Secretary of State Donald Dewar would see the likely outcome: the foiling of his own plan to establish a powerhouse assembly in Edinburgh, and with it his own place in history as ‘the Father of the Scottish Parliament.”
The Government had argued successfully that its proposals would deliver more democracy and responsiveness to Scottish opinion at a fraction of the cost. The proof of this was that the Grand Committee could use the existing Assembly premises in the old Royal High School in Edinburgh at no extra cost, while a new Parliament building would have cost hundreds of millions of pounds.
Dewar’s case had also been undermined by the lack of support which he received from his own party both within and outwith Parliament. Prominent Labour MPs such as Robin Cook and Tam Dalyell saw the chance for real power in their own Lothian Region. Labour-dominated COSLA had followed suit: Glasgow’s experienced Jean McFadden asked “what would MSPs in Donald’s Parliament do? Legislate all day every day? Or would they interfere in and centralise local services?” Charlie Gray of Strathclyde Region had licked his lips and said thank you very much.
So the Government (Scotland) Act 1995 had been passed and the arrangements that came into being as a result in 1996 were kept in place by the incoming Labour Government. Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott had then adapted the regional powers and RIT model for introduction to the English regions.
Throughout all this, Alex had continued to argue for Scottish independence, although he knew it was not the will of the people. So he had bided his time and now stood on the edge of real power as the Returning Officer came to his declaration.
Alex had paid his dues. He had shown himself to be up to the job in his work on committees and on the backbenches. Now, in 2007, his chance had arrived. He had made his alliances, and he would at last achieve his ambition. He saw before him the status and the kudos that was his ambition, with the grand offices, the overseas delegations and the limousines.
With Tory support, Alex would at last form an administration. And in this way, he would become the SNP’s first Leader of Grampian Regional Council.