Alastair Stewart: Historical Amnesia and the Myth of Westminster Control

Writing about politics and writing about history are a Gordian Knot that few journalists are ever happy with. Academics are afforded the luxury of study and space; commentators the challenge of presenting those points in a digestible form that remains coherent, clear and, above all else, contextualised.

In Scotland today, the intersection between commentary and historical fact is embroiled in a mass brawl. Historical analysis has never been more subject to open interpretation because the political obsession of the day is what to do with Scotland’s future, rather than trying to understand its past.

There’s an especially curious amnesia in modern Scottish commentary about how Scotland worked within the United Kingdom before devolution. It’s seldom discussed, despite the fact that it offers a clear barometer of how much power the Scottish Parliament has now, and what it might want in the future. For the most part, it’s a remarkable story of consistent decentralisation in a unitary state, but this part of the story is overlooked, particularly regarding Scotland’s primary education system.

The primary education framework has deep roots, stretching as far back as the Parliament of Scotland Education Act of 1696 that ordered schools built in every parish, paid for by local landowners and the Church of Scotland. The subsequent pre-Union, Protestant Religion and Presbyterian Church Act of 1707, enshrined the Church of Scotland’s role in Scotland and guaranteed the continuation of Scotland’s parish school system in the Acts of Union and that followed.

From 1830 the UK Government began to fund school buildings with grants, and from 1846 it was funding schools by direct sponsorship – the funding increased throughout the nineteenth century. As early as 1833, capital grants were available from Westminster for those schools that accepted school inspections, which followed an improved curriculum and that recruited state-certified teachers.

By 1846, pupils over the age of 13 that taught at their schools while studying would be eligible for state subsidised scholarships for undertaking professional teacher training. By 1855, again by significant central funding, Scotland boasted some of the highest levels of literacy in Europe with 89 percent of men and 70 percent of women compared to 77 percent for men 70 percent for women in England and Wales respectively.

The Scotch Education Department was established by the 1872 Education (Scotland) Act and formed from the Church of Scotland’s Board of Education for Scotland. Based in London, it was the only board to have civil servants and to be accountable to a Minister.

The legislation brought in by Prime Minister William Gladstone’s Government stipulated the introduction of state-sponsored free schools, run by local school boards and made schooling compulsory for 5 to 13-year-olds, removing control from the parishes. Within 30 years of its passing, illiteracy was eliminated from both the Highlands and Lowlands, and by 1910 Scotland had more pupils in primary education than all other advanced European countries.

Previously in 1869, Scottish MPs had asked Gladstone to restore the position of Scottish Secretary, which was eliminated in 1746, to take responsibility for the boards. When the Secretary for Scotland Act did come in 1885, the most long-lasting constitutional impact of the 1872 Act had been for it to begin the process of centralising Scottish functions. The Scotch Education Department eventually came under the responsibilities of the Scottish Office established in 1885, and in 1918 the department moved to Edinburgh. The name changed to the Scottish Education Department.

Leading up to the 1998 Scotland Act, Scottish devolution operated in all but name. Scotland’s educational system was mostly autonomous from the rest of the UK, with its own curriculum, examinations and legislative framework managed through the Scottish Office until 1999, when the old structure passed into the hands of new Scottish Executive. Department names, ministers, and of course, governments have changed hands in subsequent years, but the constitutional framework has remained static within the Scottish Parliament.

So why has this amnesia happened?

Firstly, politics has outstripped history in the public interest. Education is one of several policy areas like law or local government where a high degree of ‘self-rule’ or ‘night-watchmen’ self-sufficiency operated in tandem with Scotland’s participation in a constitutional framework with the rest of the UK – what we would call devolution today.

The complexity of this overlap is at odds with the ‘need’ for a clear-cut, black and white, verdict on whether the Union since 1707 has been beneficial or detrimental to Scotland. It’s a never-ending debate, and rightly so, but one that doesn’t fit a media age that demands action, not discussion, and won’t accept ambiguity as an answer in itself.

Alastair Stewart is a freelance writer and journalist. He can be found on Twitter @agjstewart

Cover image: Licensed Creative Commons



One thought on “Alastair Stewart: Historical Amnesia and the Myth of Westminster Control

  1. Very interesting overview, but surely there is something of a category-error at work? Local administrative autonomy (which was in any case not unique to Scotland in the post-1707 state) is not the same thing as ‘devolution’, which requires some policy-making and legislative authority to be vested locally. These powers emphatically were reserved to the centre before 1999.


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