Subscribe to Holyrood updates

Newsletter sign-up


Follow us

Scotland’s fortnightly political & current affairs magazine


Subscribe to Holyrood
by Paul Sinclair
06 June 2024
Labour's plan to rebuild the Scotland Office is quite an ambition

The UK Government's offices in Edinburgh | Alamy

Labour's plan to rebuild the Scotland Office is quite an ambition

Change is coming, we are told. And it would appear that the chameleon of change is distinctly vanilla.

Granted, Angela Rayner’s package of workers rights may set free the employees of Anas Sarwar’s family firm over which he has no influence.

And GB Energy would appear to be the kind of chimera we have not seen since Alex Salmond promised to make Scotland the Saudi Arabia of renewables. No one has yet in this election campaign actually told us what the new company will do. How many jobs will it create? Think of a number.

But the third leg of Scottish Labour’s stool is to promise to beef up the Scotland Office and ensure that it influences all decision making in Whitehall.

Now I must confess I once worked there. Indeed, I have had dealings with it recently.
I also remember that when John Reid was appointed Scottish secretary in 1999 he famously phoned Donald Dewar and asked him if he could hear the echo on the line.

That, Dr Reid is alleged to have said, is because Dewar had emptied the Scotland Office of staff and resource, although he probably said it more colourfully.

The Scotland Office is a husk. Once it was a department that civil servants looked forward to working in for this simple reason: they had more power than in any other.

Civil servants in St Andrews House took decisions in Edinburgh while their ministers were in London attending the House of Commons. It was a well-run department, which is why civil servants like Sir Muir Russell perhaps found devolution and democratic scrutiny rather uncomfortable when pesky politicians got more involved.

But to rebuild the Scotland Office is quite an ambition. In a time when public cash is tight it would cost millions. It would also have to be very delicately done from two perspectives. First, it cannot be seen as a rival to the Scottish Government and yet at the same time it will be difficult for it to work in partnership with it while Holyrood is run by the SNP.

Secondly, with English nationalism on the rise it would be difficult to justify a Scotland Office involving itself in decision-making across Whitehall when Scotland, with its own parliament and all, already seems overrepresented.

I also have to say, having worked in Number 10, the idea that every decision could ever be run through one department has been imagined before. It is called the Cabinet Office and prime ministers have tried and failed, so good luck with that.

What would the Scotland Office do? According to Sarwar it will be Scotland’s “window on the world delivering investment and growth”.

That is both limiting and ambitious. In my opinion Scotland should not be looking through a window at the world but be part of it if we are to attract investment and growth.
The new secretary of state for Scotland – presumably Ian Murray – will inherit what Alister Jack did.

He had almost no presence in Scotland but acted as a filter trying to stop his cabinet colleagues from acting in a way that would provoke a reaction in Scotland. He burnt straw men before the SNP could light their torches.

So, let’s temper the ambition of rebuilding the Scotland Office with practicality. Having a Scottish secretary who is physically seen in Scotland will be a huge shift for a start. What the point of them is, is the next question.

And to decide that, we need to resolve something that goes back to the days of Reid and Dewar.
They once did a joint interview with one as first minister and the other as secretary of state. They were asked which one of them led the Scottish Labour Party. Having not prepared for the question they groped around before alighting on the answer that it was Tony Blair who was the leader of the Scottish Labour Party.

Deftly done at the time but if the new Labour secretary of state for Scotland walks with a swagger in Scotland – which they should – do they overshadow the Scottish Labour leader?
Does Murray blaze a trail that allows Sarwar to become first minister in his wake in 2026?
I am just not convinced that this has been thought through, although I would love the idea that there really is a plan beyond an easy soundbite.

The Scotland Office perhaps more than needing beefed up – which will not happen in these times of fiscal constraint anyway – needs to be reconceived.

Devolution was designed with the idea that Labour would be in power in perpetuity in Scotland and more often than not in the UK. It needs reset to reality. 

Scotland needs a powerful Scotland Office in my opinion, but it must be one that engages with, rather than rivals, the Scottish Government.

If everyone was honest, no one with ambition at Westminster wants to be secretary of state for Scotland. It is seen as Sleepy Hollow. And the questions it poses are best put in the ‘too difficult’ box. 

That is why it suited someone like Alister Jack who never thought he would ever be in cabinet but was grateful to make nothing of the job.

If the job of Scottish secretary is to be beefed up there needs to be more thinking behind it. That includes a better definition of why Scottish Labour thinks Scotland should be in the United Kingdom; what our role is.

From that argument the secretary of state’s role flows. Not the other way around.

Holyrood Newsletters

Holyrood provides comprehensive coverage of Scottish politics, offering award-winning reporting and analysis: Subscribe

Get award-winning journalism delivered straight to your inbox

Get award-winning journalism delivered straight to your inbox


Popular reads
Back to top