They always said there’d be days like this. Having sat through many dismal non-events in the press gallery of the Scottish parliament, it was a relief to see the Scottish parliament rising magnificently to the occasion. The speeches congratulating Alex Salmond’s on his elective coronation were witty, elegant and thoughtful, without a trace of petty party politicking. And I’m not excluding the defeated Labour leader, Iain Gray’s effort, which many observers in the press gallery said was his best ever parliamentary speech.
Gray congratulated Alex Salmond on his election landslide which he said marked another stage in “the coming of age of the Scottish parliament”. That was a pretty remarkable thing for a defeated opposition leader to say, but it seemed to reflect the mood of the chamber, and not just among the massed ranks of Scottish National Party MSPs, who seem to have squeezed all others to the margins. Everyone in the Holyrood debating chamber yesterday could feel “the hand of history” as Tony Blair once put it, on their collective shoulder. Everything has changed, as a result the May landslide, though no one is quite sure in what way, not least the SNP, who are still trying to work out what independence actually means in practice.
But what was on display in Edinburgh was a genuinely bold, self-confident, tried-and-tested national parliament, eloquent and surprisingly united despite the party divisions. Both Iain Gray Alex Salmond enlisted the words of Donald Dewar, the late ‘father of the nation’. Salmond also dragged in Woody Guthrie, Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun, Norman McCaig, Hugh McDairmid and others, suggesting that he intends to govern in poetry as well as prose. The newly reinstalled First Minister celebrated Scotland’s ethnic diversity, the multiplicity of languages spoken on the parliamentary benches, and attacked bigotry and sectarianism. It was a brilliant exercise in non-triumphal self-congratulation, which put the SNP election victory down, to “positivity”, rather than his own leadership skills or even his party’s policies. In hard times, the SNP leader said, “a positive message was even more necessary” , which could have sounded Pollyannaish or callous had it come from anyone else.
The word has gone out to all the SNP MSPs to forget their overall majority, and try behave as if they were still in a minority. Salmond was determined that his speech would not sound like that of the leader of a one party state. He listed six political objectives for the immediate future, carefully chosen from the opposition parties’ agendas, and all focussed on the UK government’s Scotland Bill, which is currently going through Westminster and Holyrood. Salmond’s call for the repatriation of capital borrowing powers, control over the Crown Estate and corporation tax were all in the SNP manifesto. But yesterday he added three more: excise duties, so that minimum pricing of alcohol can be introduced, control over broadcasting, so that Scotland can have its own digital TV channel, and the right to lead delegations in the European council of ministers.
Broadcasting was the big surprise, since we’ve heard very little about the proposal for a new digital TV channel since it was made by the Scottish Broadcasting Commission back in 2008. The UK Department of Culture, Media and Sport then dismissed it out of hand because it would almost certainly need a redirection of some of the BBC’s licence fee. The Scottish government believes the idea was still born because broadcasting is still a reserved responsibility of the Westminster parliament. So, repatriation of broadcasting will now be thrown into the Scotland Bill melting pot. Alex Salmond says he wants a media that holds up a “mirror to the nation”, one that reflects the new Scottish civil society. This will revive unionist fears that the SNP is planning to create a kind of “SNP TV” to promote independence. But it should be remembered that the principle of a digital channel was supported by a unanimous vote of the Scottish parliament in October 2008.
Clearly, the Scotland Bill is becoming a vehicle for the creation of what has been called “independence lite” - the kind of co-operative nationalism that the SNP is currently promoting. If Salmond gets his way, the Scotland Bill will lay the groundwork for a quasi-federal Scottish state with a considerable degree of financial autonomy. There is a certain irony here, since the Scotland Bill was based on the cross-party Calman Commission,which was the brain-child of the former Labour leader, Wendy Alexander and boycotted by the SNP as a unionist front. It is this constitutional opportunism, that infuriates Alex Salmond’s detractors. The cheek! How does he get away with it? But he’s been getting away with it for four years, pushing the envelope of devolution.
Will Westminster buy what we should now surely call the Scotland Lite Bill? Not all of it, I’m sure. But capital borrowing powers is already a done deal, and David Cameron has said he will “reflect” on devolving corporation tax, which is being considered for Northern Ireland. Europe is doable: there is already a precedent for Scottish ministers leading delegations on issues like fish and energy. Excise duty was hinted at in the Calman Commission and by the former Liberal leader, Lord Steel’s parallel constitutional commission, as was devolution of the Crown Estate. The Crown Estate is a quasi commercial body that manages the UK marine environment and owns the seabed out to the 12 mile limit. Given the importance of wind, wave and tidal energy, there is a very strong case for the Scottish parliament to have responsibility for it. I haven’t actually heard any Scottish politician give a fully argued case against devolving the Crown Estate, which doesn’t mean there isn’t one. But I can’t see the UK government going to war over it. I suspect, however, that David Cameron will veto a Scottish digital channel and it looks as if broadcasting, could become a key battleground in the next six months.
Did we learn any more yesterday about what the SNP means by independence? Not really. The Salmond approach to sovereignty is to take it one step at a time, and claim that each step has been laid by one or other of the unionist parties. He intends to use the kinetic energy generated by consensus to propel Scotland toward ever greater autonomy. When will we know, then, when Scotland is independent? Well, presumably, when Alex Salmond tells us it is.