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House of Scotland (September 2007)

This article was first published on The Guardian's Comment is Free

Why doesn't Holyrood demand a House of Scotland? Something like a Scottish High Commission in London?

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Dover House - headquarters of the Scotland Office - is charmer of Old Whitehall. In its bedrooms in 1817 Byron had pleasured Lady Caroline Lamb. Sobriety came with the restoration of the Scottish Secretary in 1885 - when the Duke of Richmond accepted what he regarded as a useless post because of this architectural bribe. But these days his Labour successor gets about 39 letters a month, and has a website that's more like a answering machine, saying "We're sorry Des and Anne are out. But please leave a message after the tone ..."

In Berlin the German federal länder have their Vertretung or representative offices. A lot goes on between them, since much policy is decided at the ministerial-conference level of "co-operative federalism" or in the Bundesrat which is effectively responsible for handling European legislation. Nothing like this happens in devolved Britain. Wise Unionists may now be regretting their failure to create federal bodies, or that they left the seeds of these scattered in the sleight-of-hand which was the Good Friday Agreement on Ulster.

The ultimate insult must have been that delivered to the present part-time Scottish secretary Des Browne by premier Brown. After echoing what he hoped was his master's voice, about no more concessions to the Scots, Des was swiftly contradicted by Gordon and "his" new Scottish Labour leader, Wendy Alexander. More concessions there could be, just as long as they were Labour's gifts and not the SNP's gains.

But this leaves the Labour position weak and, from a unionist point of view, getting weaker. SNP leader Alex Salmond proved not just an unexpectedly resourceful Nationalist, but a shrewd judge of political dynamics, acting on Shakespeare's advice "There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune." People are now thinking, not that this is unexpected, but that mediocre Scottish leadership has been a condition of Labour rule. As a friend who was once a down-the-line Labour supporter said when I argued as above: "But why bother about London? People in Scotland couldn't care less."

There is an element of illusion here. Whitehall still exerts considerable powers over "reserved subjects" such as media, Anglo-Scottish transport, defence, economic policy, social security, and so on. Some authority has seeped back south, via Sewel motions (in which Holyrood cedes its legislative power to Westminster). In media, London control has been strengthened through Ofcom: the front organisation for its media lawyers. These are subject to only desultory supervision by Scotland's 59 MPs, better known - and by English MPs deeply resented - as Labour's "majority-in-reserve".

As a solution to the immediate problems, why doesn't Holyrood demand a House of Scotland? Something like a Scottish High Commission in London, based at Dover House? It could provide offices for Scottish civil servants negotiating with ministries which deal with reserved powers, and combine the London offices of Scottish Enterprise and Visit Scotland with accommodation for the Scottish Council, CBI, TUC, and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. In the longer term it could incubate a Scottish consular department. Secretary of state Browne and his small staff could also be put up, in what unkind spirits might regard as a sort of granny flat.

Both sides would be taking a gamble. The Nationalist government in Edinburgh could strut its stuff at the Court of St James (Alex Salmond has cleverly got the royals on side), in the Commonwealth and the European Union. London ignorance of Scottish opinion would think twice before expressing itself. On the other hand Unionists might calculate that, once housed and fed in the capital, the Scots would calm down and get used to powers short of independence, taking the letter of Salmond's "national conversation" rather than its "living apart together" spirit.

More positively, the Scottish secretary might be induced to emulate the first minister rather than compete with him. He could strengthen his situation by curbing the centralisation of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, restoring an adequate, decentralised, UK commercial consular service and British Council representation at the expense of the big bow-wow embassies and the BBC. In an unfair world in which London has punched over its weight, Dover House would be the arts, crafts and culture showcase of the Scottish nation.

In the absence of federalism, the "additional powers" for Holyrood - being sought by Scottish Labour, Tories and LibDems - will arguably grease the slope to full independence. The UK isn't federally-minded; Anglo-Irish relations, between two independent countries, are better than they've ever been. The notion of a multinational "Atlantic Islands" bloc, adding some useful votes to existing regional representation in Europe and the UN, gives a not-so-little England a number of diplomatic advantages, once it has nerved itself to ditch great power status. Dover House might have its ultimate use as the secretariat of an Association of British States. Why not?

 
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