It was the so-called ‘Pro-life’ group of MPs who proposed the change. and I’m guessing that they did so more because they thought that they’d get the result that they wanted than because they really care whether the issue is decided in Scotland or not. And the opposition came from Labour, on more or less the same basis – they don’t want the law to change, and were concerned that the Scottish parliament might just do that.
It seems to me that deciding where the decision should be taken on the basis of where you think you’ll get the answer you want is exactly the wrong reason for seeking to devolve, or not devolve, any issue. For those of us who are instinctive decentralists, a decentralised decision-making process must, of necessity, include the possibility that devolved legislators will take decisions with which we disagree. Power only to make those decisions considered ‘right’ at the centre is no power at all – it is mere administration.
The Scottish Secretary commented there was "no reason" why the Scottish Parliament should not be able to decide on "an issue of this significance". It’s a curious argument for a Tory to have advanced given their recent history on devolution. If it’s the ‘significance’ of the issue which means that it should be devolved, then many of the powers retained by Westminster are of at least equal significance – and many of those already devolved are much less so.
The Labour Party’s argument against seemed to me to be equally strange. Their spokesman said, “We believe a woman's right to choose should be determined by robust medical evidence and not by where you live. There is no reason why a woman in Edinburgh should face a different experience to a woman in Exeter.” If it’s ‘equality of treatment’ that determines whether something is devolved or not, then the same applies to many of the powers already devolved to Scotland.
It is, of course, the classic argument against any form of devolution of anything. Why should anyone in Edinburgh face a different experience to anyone in Exeter? But equally, why should anyone in Exeter face a different experience to anyone in Essen? The answer of course is that they’re not in the UK – but it’s not much of an answer. An argument based on the ideal of equality doesn’t stop at a border.
Despite everything that has happened to them in Scotland, it seems that Labour still see every issue as being framed in UK terms – they struggle to contemplate either a narrower, more local context, nor a wider, more international context. They are wedded to what is, rather than what could be. That might be quite an apt epitaph for the party, in Scotland at least.