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Robertson reflects: 20 years on from the devolution referendum

Lord Robertson of Port Ellen and Peter MacMahon, ITV Border Political Editor Photo: ITV Border

Ask most people about 'the referendum' and they'll probably think you're talking about the relatively recent Brexit or the independence plebiscites.

But there was another referendum which shaped the future of Scotland, though it seems like ancient history, of a different political era.

Nearly twenty years ago Scots voted overwhelmingly to back the idea of setting up a devolved Scottish parliament with limited tax-varying powers.

The late former Scottish Secretary and first First Minister Donald Dewar was at the heart of that process in the first year of the Tony Blair government - the referendum and the Scotland Act that established Holyrood.

But there's another Labour politician whose role in creating the Scottish parliament is often underestimated.

George Robertson, now Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, was Labour's shadow secretary of state for Scotland for four years in the run up to the 1997 election.

Over that time, drawing up a blueprint for a devolved parliament was a tortuous process.

A Constitutional Convention had been established involving Labour, the Liberal Democrats, unions, the churches, and 'civic Scotland' to draw up a plan.

The Tories had nothing to do with it and the SNP walked out because the talks would not include the possibility of independence.

Over that time George Robertson had to find a way to reconcile the demands of the radical home rulers in Labour and those who might be called 'devo-sceptics'.

It was, Lord Roberson told me in an interview for Representing Border, the most challenging and demanding time of his political career.

And to put that into context after the 1997 election he was made Defence Secretary and went on to become the Secretary General of NATO.

There were endless meetings of the Convention and it's various offshoots, endless meetings with not always supportive Labour MPs and the need to convince a certain Mr Blair who did not share his predecessor John Smith's enthusiasm for devolution.

When Mr Blair and Mr Roberson agreed there would have to be a referendum, with a second question on tax powers, all hell broke lose with cries of betrayal from not just the SNP, but Labour devolutionists.

At one point the party north of the Border even adopted a formal position that there would be two referendums.

Nonsense, of course, and the plan was soon abandoned as Labour colleagues were cajoled, persuaded and pressured into support for the principle and giving what became Holyrood the power to put up or reduce income tax by 3p in the pound.

Mr Robertson, along with others, had to do all that persuading and cajoling and by the time Labour won the 1997 election there was a plan ready to go, though Mr Dewar - a long time supporter of home rule - took the process forward in government.

How then does Mr Robertson now view the events of 20 years ago.

Looking back he accepts it was difficult but still believes that it was the right thing to do.

The referendum, he argues, effectively entrenched the Scottish parliament in the UK's unwritten constitution, even though in theory at least power devolved from Westminster was power retained.

But he also believes that despite the SNP rising to power in Holyrood and holding an independence referendum, devolution has halted what he calls "separatism" - a term the nationalist regard a pejorative.

I reminded him that then Mr Robertson once said that devolution would kill nationalism stone dead. Does he stick by that? Essentially, yes.

He told me:

Time will tell. I didn't say it was going to happen over night. What I was trying to say at the time in selling to a sometimes sceptical populace was the fact that unless we moved in a devolutionary direction, then we might get something that was actually worse."

– George Robertson, Lord Robertson of Port Ellen

The independence referendum deliver a 'No' vote, he points out.

And he argues that increasingly the SNP is being held to account, thought the Scottish parliament, for its domestic record which he, naturally, does not regard as impressive.

Time will indeed tell and it is true that Nicola Sturgeon has backed away from calling a post-Brexit vote indyref2, as it is known, any time soon.

Lord Robertson may indeed be right that devolution will not in the end lead to independence. Or he may be wrong.

But it is hard to see nationalism, or some version of it, dying a death any time soon.

Whatever Scotland's constitutional future the debates on it will be focused on the parliament that now sits at Holyrood, a parliament Lord Robertson played a large part in establishing.

By Peter MacMahon, ITV Border Political Editor

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