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In the early hours of what was a sunny Sunday morning (how unlike today) I drove from Shropshire to London to appear on a London Weekend Television programme debating the forthcoming referendum on giving Scotland and Wales devolved governments.

It was the morning after the funeral of Princess Diana and all along the route into London you could see the remnants of the barriers and the floral tributes which lined the route of the hearse which carried her body from London to Northamptonshire.

In the LWT studios people were a little subdued and normal presenter, David Dimbleby, who had spent the previous day broadcasting the funeral of Diana had been replaced by another presenter whose name, I regret to say, I have forgotten. Even a Google search hasn’t helped.

I was there as a Scotsman opposed to the whole process and in my usual manner made my views crystal clear. TV producers always knew I was good value for money ever since I threw a copy of The Treaty of Rome at Edward Heath, accusing him of being a liar when he said that there was no intention for the Common Market to become a political union.

Anyway, the broadcast was lively with other participants including Alex Salmond (then SNP leader and now Scottish First Minister), Billy Bragg (singer and left-wing English nationalist), Michael Ancram (Tory Chairman) and George Robertson, then Secretary of State for Defence and earlier Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland.

Robertson re-iterated his previous view that “Devolution will kill Nationalism stone dead” and was roundly mocked for saying so, not least by Salmond. Given that the SNP are now in government in Scotland Robertson is probably regretting that comment.

At the time Labour and the SNP were appearing side by side to promote a yes vote in the forthcoming referendum but it was clear that Robertson was not really on side.

I pointed out that the distance from Shropshire to London, which I’d travelled in a couple of hours that morning, was pretty much the same as from the Isle of Skye to Edinburgh which trip would take about 7 hours by car. However the difference in the way of life and the concerns and needs of the residents of Skye were hugely different from people living in Edinburgh and the central belt, much more that any difference between London and the West Midlands.

In the previous devolution referendum in 1979 electors in the Highlands & Islands had overwhelmingly rejected a Scottish Parliament on the basis that they’d rather be ignored by Westminster than “buggered about” by politicians in Edinburgh. The former knew and cared nothing about the highlands whilst the latter thought they knew all about the highlands as their grandmother once visited the place but otherwise they too cared little for the place. Not enough votes apart from anything else.

I put these points to Salmond and asked how he proposed to deal with proper representation for the outlying highlands and islands. He replied that there would be more seats in the Edinburgh parliament for the highlands than their population deserved. I pointed out that this was the same argument put forward by Westminster politicians who pointed out that Scotland had far more MPs than it really should. However Salmond and his SNP colleagues rejected that argument as they claimed that there still wasn’t sufficient representation of Scottish interests in Westminster. What would be different in Edinburgh?

I got no meaningful answer and this point was picked up by other politicians over the following days. Of course the situation now is that it is Scottish ministers and Scottish MPs who now rule England where they have a vote on issues which don’t affect Scotland and indeed the Labour Party in the Scottish parliament often vote in the opposite way when the subject comes up for them to decide. Hmmm. Let’s not go there today.

After the broadcast as we had a buffet lunch it was interesting to listen to what was being said to George Robertson. Despite once having been an activist in the CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) who wanted to close down the nuclear submarine base in the Holy Loch, north west of Glasgow, he ridiculed campaigners who wanted him, in his capacity as Secretary of State for Defence, to close it down. “No” he said, “when Sadamm Husain or whoever starts chucking nuclear weapons around I want to have something to chuck back!” It didn’t go down well.

However was clear was his unhappiness at the devolution situation and I wasn’t surprised when he resigned not long after and became Secretary General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation taking the title Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, the town of his birth on the island of Islay.

2 Responses to “7th September 1997: Debate on Devolution for Scotland and Wales”

  1. sparks says:

    Hello! Thank you very much for that enlightening article.

  2. kevinmac says:

    What is your view on independence for Scotland now?

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