When immigration police in body armour broke down the door of the Vucaj family in Drumchapel on 13th September 2005, they didn't realise they were trampling all over the delicate constitutional conventions that are supposed to ease relations between Holyrood and Westminster. But they were.
The expulsion of the Kosovan asylum seekers provoked one of the most serious confrontations between the Scottish Office and Whitehall since 1999. For many it summed up the inadequacy of a devolution settlement which allows the Scottish Parliament to voice its unanimous condemnation of dawn raids, but also allows the UK government to disregard it.
In the briefing war that followed, the Home Office made little attempt to placate Scottish sentiment. Instead it bluntly contradicted the right of the Scottish Executive to interfere in the handling of such repatriations in future. The First Minister, Jack McConnell was given a severe kick up the protocols.
Dawn raids had become a highly charged emotional issue in Scotland. The Vucaj eviction was only the latest in a succession of increasingly brutal repatriations, including the removal of the Ay family in earlier in the year. It was all part of the UK government’s “robust” solution to the asylum problem. But the Children's Commissioner for Scotland, Margaret Marshall, said that dawn raids amounted to the "terrorising of children" and were “a clear breach of human rights”.
The Scottish Communities Minister, Malcolm Chisholm, agreed and stated publicly that they were: "over the top, unnecessary and should end". Pupils at Drumchapel High School mounted a highly effective campaign against dawn raids, and had - they believed - been assured that the First Minister would demand a protocol to abolish them. Girls from the school even won an award at the Scottish Politician of the Year awards.
So, there can be no excuse that the Home Office didn’t appreciate the strength of Scottish feeling on the issue. There is not the same political heat over immigration here and Scottish civic sentiment had been appalled at the handling of asylum seekers and their children in places like Dungavel detention centre in 2004.
Then, Jack McConnell had tried to insist that Dungavel was not the responsibility of the Scottish Executive. That immigration and asylum were UK responsibilities and that the Scottish Parliament had no locus. He was constitutionally correct. But if the Scottish Executive wasn’t responsible for the welfare of children in Scottish detention centres, critics asked, who was?
This time, Jack McConnell did not plead, a la Dungavel, that the Vucaj incident was nothing to do with him. He decided, instead, to express clearly and forcible the views of the Scottish parliament as expressed in the motion on passed on 22nd September which expressed “widespread concerns about practices such as so-called “dawn raids”, handcuffing of children, and the removal of children by large groups of officers in uniform and body armour.” Parliament was told that that Scottish ministers had had an "open and uninhibited" dialogue with their Home Office counterparts.
So when the Home Office delivered its rebuff to McConnell it was hitting him right in the credentials. The sequence of events has become confused in the retelling. But essentially what happened was this: In November, officials for the immigration minister, Tony McNulty, told the Scottish press prior to a ministerial visit to Scotland that there was "no question" of dawn raids being ended.
This happened to be in the very week that Jack McConnell had assured MSPs that he had indeed secured a new "protocol" governing such actions in future. That they would be humane, conform to UN conventions on care of children and involve social work services from an early stage. The First Minister used the P word several times. Everyone took it to mean that he had secured an agreement that dawn raids such as that on the Vucaj family would no longer be allowed in Scotland. Everyone was wrong.
McConnell took a lot of stick over his non-existent Protocol, and was accused both of misleading parliament and failing to honour his promises. Perhaps he should have avoided using the term since, “protocol” has a precise diplomatic meaning and refer to conventions regulating relations between sovereign states. Scotland is not a sovereign state. However, protocols have been used before to describe relations between the Scottish Executive and Whitehall departments. So this wasn't just a case of Jack getting carried away with his own rhetoric and making promises he couldn't keep.
There is evidence that McConnell was led up the garden path by the Home Office, who told him what he wanted to hear in private, but wouldn’t keep to the script in public. Tony Blair, with his eyes on the Sun and the Daily Mail, was not prepared to countenance any regime which might appear soft on asylum seekers. And that applied in Scotland as well as England.
The First Minister could scarcely disguise his fury at the way his modest proposals for making compulsory repatriation more humane were stamped upon by McNulty. "Cack-handed" was how one of McConnell's aides described the behaviour of the Home Office briefing machine. And while McConnell received a belated acceptance that in future social work services would be involved at an earlier stagein forcible repatriations, he secured no promise that the character of the raids would change. The matter is to be reviewed in Spring when it will become clear whether or not McConnell has got a 'result' or a brush off.
But the Drumchapel pupils were in no doubt. McConnell had been all mouth, they said, and had not behaved honourably. The opposition parties in parliament lambasted McConnell for his feebleness and his mendacity. Many Labour MSPs were privately appalled and LibDem ministers in the coalition were privately contemptuous. However, it should be recalled that the matter was negotiated by the deputy minister for Education, Robert Brown, who is a Liberal Democrat, and that it was he who said the HOme Office had been told dawn raids were history.
Even Tory MSPs like Bill Aitken were heard complaining - on BBC TV - that the Scottish Parliament had been "humiliated" and that Jack McConnell should have stood his ground against Westminster. That would have been almost inconceivable only a few years ago, when it would have been regarded as proto-nationalism to have demanded a separate immigration regime in Scotland. The asylum issue became part of the general debate in Scotland in 2005 about new powers for the Scottish Parliament. The Tories have now joined that debate, leaving Labour as the only party standing unequivocally for the for the status quo.
But for how much longer? The Vucaj episode drove a deep wedge between the Scottish Executive and Scottish Labour MPs in Westminster who made no attempt to hide their contempt for the First Minister's handling of the affair. Scottish Labour MPs like, Tom Harris and John Robertson, lined up to praise the system of dawn raids. Robertson, the MP for Drumchapel, said on BBC Scotland's Politics Scotland that handcuffing of teenage girls in their night clothes was necessary "for their own safety".
For those not actually pickled in the culture of West of Scotland Labour, this was must have seemed incomprehensible. Surely, elected representatives of the same political party are expected to agree in public, even when they don't in private. Perhaps Labour in Westminster have yet to come to terms with the reality of devolution. Perhaps it is resentment at the coverage which the Scottish Parliament has received in the Scottish, or maybe it's just that personal.
Whatever, this lack of respect for the views and sentiments of the Scottish Parliament, and its first minister, is nothing new. It goes back to the row about the #23 million allowances rebate in 2001 after the Scottish Parliament introduced free personal care for the elderly. Then there was Jack McConnell’s Fresh Talent initiative The First Minister’s plans to meet Scotland's population deficit by allowing more immigrants to come here to work were summarily squashed but the Home Secretary Charles Clarke.
To give him his due, McConnell has not taken this lying down. He managed to secure a concession that foreign students should be allowed to remain in Scotland for two years after graduation. This was seen as crumbs from the table at the time, but it has been a nice little earner for Scottish Universities. In fact, so lucrative has it become for our institutions of higher learning, that English Universities are now demanding that it is introduced in England. .
Times change. In 2001, Jack McConnell was a fresh face in Bute House and easily patronised by Labour MPs in Westminster. But many senior Scottish Labour figures have moved on - George Foulkes, Brian Wilson, Lewis Moonie - leaving relatively new and inexperienced MPs in their wake. Meanwhile, Jack McConnell has visibly gained in confidence in the past year. He is no longer prepared to be dismissed as a pretendy leader of Scotland. The Scottish Executive and the Scottish Parliament are becoming more confident and more experienced in the ways of government.
The dawn raids affair will remain as one of the key moments in the post devolution era. The First Minister, faced with a choice between a UK ministerial edict and the views of the Scottish Parliament, chose the latter. No longer is the constitutional division of powers immutable. Increasingly, the Scottish Parliament is starting to speak with its own voice and expecting the UK to listen.