Open Forum

ANDREW Marr said recently in the Observer that the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly was ''built up by amateurs from scratch, until it changed the whole game of British politics''. This is true, if by amateurs you mean people who are not professional politicians. It is strange how little comment there has been about this remarkable event. Even the tenth anniversary of the publication in July 1988 of A Claim of Right for Scotland passed without remark, although it is probably the most influential political document published in Scotland in this century.

I can speak about this from the inside because I was involved in the events which led to it. When I came back to live in Scotland in November 1980, after working abroad, it was to a subdued and pessimistic country. The Yes majority in the 1979 referendum had been by so small a margin that it could safely be disregarded. This was precisely what the new Government under Mrs Thatcher proceeded to do, despite all their previous promises of a stronger and better Act. The Labour Party was preoccupied with its heavy defeat and its own internal problems. Blame for the failure of the Labour measure was unfairly attached to the SNP, and its support drained away for some years. Scottish Home Rule disappeared as an issue from the press. It seemed that Scotland had had its chance and had blown it.

But there were people who refused to accept defeat. Shortly after my return I went to a meeting of the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly with Jack Brand as convener and was enlisted in its executive committee. This was a very small organisation at first, but we gradually involved like-minded people all over Scotland. Brand was succeeded as convener by Jim Boyack and then Alan Armstrong. Such people as Hugh Millar, Alan Lawson, Greg McCara, and Peter Finlay worked long and hard. We did the usual things - leaflets and public meetings which filled places like the Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh - but we aimed at more constructive measures.

Other countries in a similar situation had used the device of a Constitutional Convention. Gordon Wilson, then leader of the SNP, had once proposed it for Scotland in the House of Commons. It offered a sensible, co-operative and democratic way forward. Hugh Millar has reminded me that the decision to work for it was taken at a meeting in my flat, but the real problem was how was it to be achieved. Here, Alan Lawson was a key figure. He had given the campaign a public voice in his admirable magazine, Radical Scotland, and he was ingenious in devising the machinery and establishing contacts with the political parties. It was, I think, his idea that we should establish a Constitutional Steering Committee of ''prominent Scots'' to make practical recommendations.

This committee, after some months of steady work, issued its report in July 1988 as A Claim of Right for Scotland.

In this steering committee we were very fortunate in both our chairman, Sir Robert Grieve, and our secretary, Jim Ross, the late Sir Robert Grieve, the distinguished town and country planner, was, as always, patient, amiable, and open-minded. He kept the business moving forward but never stifled debate. Jim Ross is a former senior official of the Scottish Office who had been concerned with the Scotland Act of the 1970s and is a long-standing member of the Labour Party. He was the real author of the report. He tabled drafts of each section in turn, listened to the discussion, and for the next meeting produced a revision which miraculously incorporated a mass of ideas into a text which was lucid, coherent, and even eloquent.

There were 14 other members of the committee with a wide range of experience such as Maxwell Craig, Nigel Grant, Joy Hendry, Isobel Lindsay, Neil MacCormick, Una Macintosh, and Judy Steel. We all participated as individuals and not as party members. As it happens, because it was not deliberate, our report was closer to the views of the SNP than of Labour. In reading it again, I recognise many points which I suggested: ''The Union has always been, and remains, a threat to the survival of a distinctive culture in Scotland''; ''the British Prime Minister has in practice a degree of arbitrary power which few, if any, English and no Scottish monarchs have rivalled''; ''the UK has been an anomaly from its inception and is a glaring anomaly now''; ''we believe there are good arguments for returning to the traditional usage of Parliament rather than Assembly''. It did several things: it made detailed

proposals for ways in which a Constitutional Convention could be set up, but it was also a clear statement of the inadequacies of both the Scottish and British systems of government. Neal Ascherson said that it was ''the most penetrating constitutional critique of the United Kingdom which I have read in this decade''. We were building on a century of debate, but after A Claim of Right I think that the constitutional status quo became simply untenable.

Discussions between the CSA and the political parties began immediately after the publication of the report to see if they were willing to create a convention either by direct elections, or by involving existing elected MPs and councillors, or in some other way. At first, the CSA was fairly confident of the SNP and of the Liberal Democrats. We were less sure of the Labour Party and it was crucial because of its dominant position in Scottish politics at that time. Labour hesitations disappeared when Jim Sillars won the Govan by-election in October 1988; it has always been more pro-Scottish when it perceives a threat from the SNP. It opted for a Constitutional Convention formed mainly from existing MPs and councillors which gave it a strong majority in it. Partly for this reason and partly because Labour insisted that the objective was to strengthen the Union by devolution within the UK, the

SNP felt obliged to withdraw. The Liberal Democrats stayed on board.

Many people felt that the SNP withdrawal was a mistake and I argued against it myself. But the SNP had bitter memories of 1979 when it worked harder for a Labour measure than Labour itself, only to suffer the blame when it failed. We could hardly be expected again to participate with Labour in an attempt, according to it, to strengthen the Union from which we wanted to escape.

By the usual timescale of such events, subsequent events have been very fast. A Claim of Right, July 1988; Constitutional Convention established, March 1989; its agreed recommendations, November 30, 1995; Government White Paper, July 1997; Referendum, September, 11, 1997, Bill, December, 17, 1997, and now completing its parliamentary process.

The clear verdict of the Scottish people was achieved with the strong support of the SNP. The Government had refused to include a question on independence as an option, but the SNP made it clear that it advocated a double Yes vote as a step towards independence. The referendum, therefore, demonstrated an overwhelming majority for a Scottish Parliament but left open the decision whether it should remain devolutionary or move on to independence. Whatever the outcome, I have little doubt that future historians will regard A Claim of Right of 1988 as a constitutional statement of considerable importance.