Monday, January 21, 2008

I've been Wendied.

I’d like to give you the inside story of last week’s historic summit meeting in London of new Scottish constitutional commission. Unfortunately, the leading light, Wendy Alexander, isn’t speaking to me any more. Something I said, apparently. Now I know what it is to be ‘Wendied’.

As it happens, all participants are pretty tight lipped about the commission and its future. Which is a pity because it is potentially a highly significant development in Scottish politics. For the first time in my lifetime, there is now no major political party in Scotland arguing for the constitutional status quo.

The meeting in London of the “Scottish Six” - the leaders of the Scottish Tories, Libdems and Labour and their Westminster equivalents - has finally entrenched the principle that devolution is a process not an event. As of January 15th 2008, we are in the era of permanent devolution, a rolling process of constitutional change.

Not that all Labour MPs would quite call it that. Some of them say they expect the constitutional commission to strengthen the Union and possibly to take back to Westminster some of the Scottish parliament’s powers. In their dreams. Powers are draining away, day by day, like water down a stank. One of the great untold stories of the early months of the SNP government is the extent to which transfer of powers is being accelerated even with Brown in charge of Number Ten.

There is now defacto recognition, for example, that nuclear power is a responsibility of the Scottish parliament. The Scottish Office minister, David Cairns has, I am told, accepted that Scotland has now a veto on any new nuclear developments north of the border, despite the fact that nuclear power is one of the key powers reserved to Westminster. The next to go will be firearms, as the Scottish government demands and gets powers to ban air-weapons.

There is also going to have to be a deal struck very soon over elections. The Scottish parliament has voted to transfer not only the administration of Scottish elections - following the May debacle - but also legislative responsibility for them. That’s a pretty big step. It might mean that the Scottish parliament could authorise a referendum without Westminster’s agreement. But there seems little prospect of Holyrood being denied this new responsibility. There is now almost a constitutional precedent that votes of the Scottish parliament automatically change the constitution.

Of course, Westminster still legislates on the all big issues like defence, economy, foreign affairs, and passes a lot of legislation on Scotland’s behalf through things like Sewel motions. But the drift is clear: towards a kind of federalism. The Scottish constitutional commission - assuming it becomes a reality - may find it has to struggle to catch up with a trend that is already well established. The idea that it could act as a brake on the process of Scottish autonomy, is fanciful.

Having placed themselves in the centre of the constitutional mainstream, by endorsing the need for more powers, the opposition parties who make up the commission will now have to deliver something concrete, or else face ridicule or irrelevance. Above all, they will have to address the root of all constitutional evil: money. The Liberal Democrats have long supported the repatriation of an array of financial powers to the Scottish parliament, and Wendy Alexander has herself ruminated in the past about new taxes for Holyrood, saying she favours greater financial responsibility.

The Scottish Conservatives are also now talking about the need to make the Scottish parliament more accountable for its actions through raising at least some of the money it spends. A sound Conservative principle after all. This is the key area of consensus, and the commission must deliver on this if nothing else. Perhaps by proposing that the parliament is given a share of VAT, stamp duty, excise duty or something similar.

The SNP leader, Alex Salmond, is sounding remarkably relaxed about the commission. He told me last week that he welcomes the initiative as a contribution to the debate, even though the opposition parties explicitly reject independence and have ruled out any referendum. The constitutional commission is explicitly a unionist project; an attempt to marginalise the SNP, and there are serious questions about whether the Scottish Parliament could actually provide funding for a party political exercise. But these are questions Salmond is not asking - at least not yet.

By rights the nationalist leader should be in despair that, after nine months in power, only 27% of Scots support independence, according to their own polling organisation YouGov last week. . ‘Devolution plus’ seems still to be the default choice of the Scottish electorate. But Salmond argues that any progress on constitutional change will further the cause of nationalism, on the grounds that more responsibility builds the confidence of the Scottish people in their capacity to govern themselves. Salmond also thinks that the constitutional commission will have to put its proposals to the people in a referendum, at some time in the future.

And he’s probably right. I can see no way that a new constitutional commission could propose significant changes to the constitutional relationship between Holyrood and Westminster without putting it to the people of Scotland for their approval. This is what is happening in Wales, as it seeks to alter its status. Referendums are the accepted way of resolving constitutional issues in Britain, at regional and European level, and if a referendum is ruled out, so is any significant change. In which case the commission will be condemned to irrelevant obscurity.

Now, of course, it may be that some Labour and Conservative politicians would be happy for the constitutional commission to be just a talking shop. Labour’s game plan for the next Scottish election is to have the commission up and running, but without too many specific proposals, so that they can promise the Scottish voters that there will be significant change if they return a Labour government in 2011. Somehow I don’t think that will wash. People in Scotland have long memories and recall the Tory Lord Home promising that if people voted against the 1979 devolution proposals, the Tories would give Scotland something better. They got Margaret Thatcher.

This time they would get Wendy Alexander. Or her successor. She hopes to paint the SNP as “tartan Tories” who, when they aren’t trying to break up Britain, are only interested in Donald Trump, cutting business rates and handing tax breaks for the well off, such as the inheritance tax cut we report today. Mind you, if Labour are so concerned about the poor and dispossessed, the obvious question is why they didn’t do more for them in the decade they were in office.

Labour certainly hope constitutional commission will will neutralise the “Scottish Question” for them. But as I say, this is not going to fly unless they come up with something specific, something concrete - and in good time for the 2011 election. It may well be that they hold the future of Scotland in their hands since a majority of Scots seem to prefer permanent devolution to outright independence. But if the constitutional commission doesn’t deliver, it will be dismissed as a waste of space.

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