In the wake of the No vote in the vote on Scottish Independence on 18 September 2014, the Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, along with Labour Party leader Ed Miliband, and Liberal-Democrat Party leader, Nick Clegg, signed up to “The Vow” in which they promised to deliver sweeping increased devolved powers for the Scottish Parliament.
To ascertain what powers could be devolved, Lord Smith of Kelvin – a former Director of the BBC – was appointed Chair of the newly-formed Scotland Devolution Commission, devoted to producing a report on these powers.
The Smith Commission Report was finalised on 27 November 2014, with details of what powers are intended to be devolved. In what can only be seen as a shock move however, Scottish powers over abortion legislation were removed at the eleventh hour – and there are accusations that Labour in Scotland were behind this move.
According to a report in The Herald, dated 30 November 2014, it was claimed that the draft proposal, dated at 11.15am on 27 November, stated that abortion would be included in devolved powers, after a majority vote of 4 to 1 of the Commission approved it, with only the Labour Party objecting. What followed, according to the Herald, was that the Labour Party pressed Lord Smith to remove it and it was once more put before the parties. The Conservative Party then sided with Labour, and abortion was removed from the proposals.
More damning however is a report in The Scotsman dated 30 November 2014. In this it is claimed that Gregg McClymont telephoned Ed Miliband on 27 November to seek permission to make abortion a “red line” issue – effectively one upon which a party will not negotiate on the basis of being party policy, nor would sign up to, and this was duly agreed by the Labour leader.
McClymont, it is claimed, had a private talk with Lord Smith at 7:03pm on 22 November. At 7:05pm – a mere two minutes later – they returned to the Commission, Lord Smith asked if there were any final points. McClymont then made his objection, Smith asked the parties to drop their commitment to devolving abortion legislation to Scotland, and the issue was conceded.
In a further development, Labour tried to claim that the Scottish National Party (SNP) used a “backdoor approach” to make it appear their John Swinney MSP did not want abortion powers handed over. Bizarre considering that the SNP negotiator Linda Fabiani MSP was the main ally of Maggie Chapman MSP of the Scottish Green Party, who were strongly in favour of abortion being devolved.
So, why should Labour have such a strong opposition to abortion legislation being devolved to Scotland? Well the first is historical. Following the vote in favour of a devolved Scottish Parliament in 1997, while the then Labour government were drafting the Scotland Act 1998, outlaying the provisions of devolution, then Secretary of State for Scotland, Donald Dewar MP was fully in favour of devolving abortion, but he was overruled by then Prime Minister, Tony Blair MP, who refused to include it. His reasoning was that the extremely vociferous religious minority in Scotland, there may be calls for restricting access to abortion in Scotland. Opposition to abortion is one issue upon which both sides of the sectarian divide in Scotland are united. Given that the first administration in the Scottish Parliament was a Labour one, can we then surmise that Blair had no faith or trust in the Scottish branch of his own party, or for that matter, his own Scottish Secretary?
As regards the Smith Commission itself, it is claimed that the influence of SNP financial backer and devout Christian, Stagecoach Buses owner Brian Souter, there may be pressure put on the SNP administration in Holyrood to restrict abortion. Souter is known to let his religion steer his politics. At one time there was a law banning the “promotion” of homosexuality in schools, Section 28 of the Local Government Act (Section 2A in Scotland). When the then Labour Westminster government decided to repeal Section 28, Brian Souter funded and headed up the Keep the Clause Campaign, in which postal ballots of 3.9 million Scots voters were sought, and returned a mere 31.8% of valid votes, of which 68% were in favour of retaining the clause. As this was hardly a valid cross-section of the Scots electorate, the mainstream political parties, including the SNP – who supported the repeal of the clause – dismissed the vote.
More recently despite funding from Brain Souter – and his opposition, the SNP administration in Holyrood have passed the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Act, which not only facilitates same-sex marriage in Scotland, but also allows non-religious celebrants to carry out marriage ceremonies. This Bill is the most comprehensive piece of marriage legislation in Scotland ever, and is vastly superior to the English Same Sex Marriages Act, which has already come in for serious criticism since it was kicked through Westminster with indecent haste.
The SNP in Holyrood are also committed to the furtherance of sexual health initiatives in Scotland, including free access to sexual education, services, and birth control. Many of these issues were presided over by the then Scottish Health Minister, Nicola Sturgeon MSP, who has just recently succeeded Alex Salmond MSP as First Minister – Scotland’s first woman First Minister, who has brought in a cabinet which is 50/50 female/male.
To claim then that the First Minister of the SNP Administration would ever allow themselves to be influenced over abortion, or any other women’s issues (which the SNP are also very strong upon), is not only disingenuous, it is a downright insult to Ms Sturgeon personally and her administration in general. It is further an insult to the Scottish people to imagine we cannot decide over abortion without guidance from London masters (as decreed by a Prime Minister who converted to Roman Catholicism after leaving office). There is one thing for sure, Labour and their Conservative friends have just set women’s rights in Scotland back, at precisely the same time Nicola Sturgeon is trying to enhance and improve them.
The removal of abortion legislation from the Smith Commission Report is utterly disgusting. Even if the Conservatives did eventually side with Labour, that still left a 3 to 2 majority, which should have seen it passed. I personally would like to know what passed privately between Gregg McClymont and Lord Smith in these 2 minutes on 27 November, in what was supposed to be open government, and why it caused Lord Smith to so forcibly ask those involved to drop abortion at almost the last minute? Scotland has been stitched up like a kipper by London Labour and in a commission headed up by a former director of the BBC – an organisation which came in for a great deal of wholly justified accusations of pro-union and anti-Yes / anti-SNP bias in the independence referendum campaign.
Do Labour and the Conservatives imagine that Scotland cannot make their own decisions on important issues without the guidance of London bosses? If so, it seems they need to be reminded that the person who first tabled the Abortion Act 1967, was the Liberal Party MP for Ettrick and Lauderdale, David Steel, Scottish through and through, and who as Lord Steel of Aikwood, went on to become the first Presiding Officer of the devolved Scottish Parliament. Talk about compounding insult upon insult.
Or if Labour believe that only unionist parties in the devolved parliament can make those decisions, that firstly is an insult to both the SNP and the Scottish Greens. Secondly, given the intervention of Tony Blair in 1998 and Ed Balls in the Commission, they openly admit that they are not the “Scottish Labour Party” but merely a Scottish branch of a London-based party. Thirdly, in doing so they deny that the Scots are capable of making important decisions for themselves without being led by London bosses, and that highlights their attitude towards the people of Scotland – particularly Scottish women – in their entirety. Finally, it completely ignores the parliamentary procedures of the devolved parliament, where such an important matter would be likely to face a free vote, just as happened with the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Act.
If there is anything which has come out of this, it has been to highlight the strong case for the secularisation of politics. But the Labour Party, whilst trying to cast fears about religious interference in Scotland, at the same time will not take a strong stand upon it. Certainly they continue to support the Union, which includes 26 unelected Church of England clerics, the Lords Spiritual, with the power to vote upon and thereby influence legislation visited upon Scotland.
I for one am far more worried about those representatives of what is a minority faith in Scotland having a say in the day-to-day running of my life, than I ever would be about Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP presiding over abortion legislation.
Links below to the articles in The Herald and The Scotsman: