When the historians write about the early years of devolution in Scotland, who will be credited with driving forward constitutional change – Alex Salmond or Wendy Alexander?
At first glance, it seems like a no-brainer: the Scottish National Party has as its beating heart, the call for constitutional change, devolution always being considered a stepping stone to full independence. Alex Salmond, therefore, has obvious credentials. He is the SNP leader who brought his party into the devolution fold, by securing a decision to campaign for a yes-yes vote in 1997. He also led the SNP to an historic first ever term in government in 2007. Moreover, under his watch, the SNP established a credible referendum process that would give the Scottish Parliament a mandate to negotiate with the UK Parliament.
Yet, under Alex Salmond, support for the SNP has grown only incrementally and support for actual independence has see-sawed. It currently enjoys a relatively high point but there is no denying that a majority is still some way off. While it might be argued that parliamentary arithmetic denied the opportunity to hold a referendum during the SNP’s first term of government, others might suggest that Salmond bottled it – particularly when Wendy Alexander appeared to provide an opportunity for it to be staged. The national conversation only got as far as a draft bill and the pledge to put independence at the forefront of the SNP’s 2011 election campaign appears to be gathering dust on the shelf.
The SNP returned to refusenik status when it snubbed the Calman Commission and the Scottish Government’s engagement with the Scotland bill resulting from that Commission, has been curious. The powers and provisions proposed were largely ignored in favour of articulating the case for full fiscal autonomy, which was never likely to happen.
And what to make of the Murray endorsement, which is for the man rather than the party or the cause? Will it hinder or advance the SNP’s case for independence?
It will do neither, for it is not intended nor aimed at the SNP or its beliefs. It is entirely focused on the relative merits of the candidates for First Minister of Scotland and as such, is a political expedient, designed to return the SNP to a second term of government. But the proposition is inherent with risk for the SNP, for it makes it plain that Salmond the brand has become bigger than his party and its putative cause. The SNP can only be re-elected on 5 May because it has Salmond at its helm, not because people support its primary purpose which prompts the question, what will happen to the SNP’s fortunes when Salmond is no longer the leader? In short, the party might well be marginally popular than it was in 2007, but voters’ support for independence will not have increased and Salmond will have become indispensable as leader: dangerous territory indeed.
No matter the outcome of the election, by the end of 2011, Scotland will have moved further down the road of constitutional reform. If Westminster accepts the recommendations made by the Scotland bill committee, led by Wendy Alexander, then in one leap, the Scottish Parliament will have accrued considerable, additional powers, particularly in relation to controlling its own finances. The proposals are far from perfect and indeed, concern has been expressed about their feasability, both the original ones in the bill and the ones recommended by the committee. Yet, this bill will hasten the pace of change: if its measures work, Scotland becomes attuned to a much greater level of autonomy and assuming the remaining powers becomes a less frightening prospect. If they do not, well the only way to fix that is to move forward and embrace further change, rather than go back.
Wendy Alexander’s superficial credentials as Scotland’s constitutional change champion are less clearcut than Salmond’s. But in terms of practical achievements, hers is by far the more robust record. She was one of the original architects of the Scottish Parliament, leading the drafting of the bill that put in place which powers went where. Her intention as an avowed Unionist was to bestow upon Scotland a degree of devolution that would cement Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom, but even her boss suggested that devolution was a process rather than an event. The underlying message was get used to having some control and autonomy then see what is needed over time to smooth out wrinkles and creases in governing on everyday issues.
Her time as Scottish Labour leader was short lived but it did provide a significant opportunity to focus on constitutional reform with her now infamous “bring it on” call on the referendum. Salmond said no, inexplicably to some, and the moment was lost. However, she also established the Calman Commission and in doing so, achieved the remarkable feat of bringing on board the other two major parties. There is no doubt that it was another attempt to box Scotland into the United Kingdom but that is not what is happening. Scotland is travelling further and faster than many predicted in the heady days at the turn of the century.
After Calman, came the bill and the Scottish Parliament committee. Wendy could have played it safe. She could have recommended a little tinkering around the edges of the bill to resolve some of its more glaring weaknesses. She hasn’t. Freed from the burdensome prospect of returning to Holyrood, Wendy – and make no mistake, her fingerprints are all over the committee’s report – has challenged some of its absurdities and gone much further than her own Commission proposed, the UK Government has countenanced, and perhaps even her Scottish Labour comrades might stomach. Their response to the report, in particular, will be fascinating.
We do not yet know what will become of these recommendations. They are unlikely to emerge unscathed from the Westminster bill process but Scotland could end up with a compromise that still goes further than the original bill. Whatever, the Scottish people will emerge blinking into the middle of this decade with much greater control over their destiny and affairs than before.
Surveying the last fifteen years within the context of constitutional change suggests a tango has been danced by the two largest political parties in Scotland and by two of its most forceful and talented politicians. Their fortunes have been intricately entwined. Where one has led, the other has followed: without the advent of an SNP Government, Calman might never have happened, for example. Historians might reasonably consider the spoils shared, therefore, between Salmond and Alexander: if neither had occupied central positions on Scotland’s political stage, then we might not have reached this point at all.
Yet, for all that Salmond will be considered the more important and more dominant politician, Wendy might well be viewed as the more constructive architect. She has delivered, her achievements are tangible; Salmond has promised and wooed but has little of substance to show for all his efforts at leading the charge for constitutional change.
Unthinkable though it seems, in twenty years’ time, when we look back from a much more autonomous position than now, it will be Wee Wendy who can claim the big legacy on the issue of constitutional reform, not least because she followed her mentor, Donald Dewar’s guidance to treat devolution as a process rather than an event. It might well prove to be a bigger legacy than Salmond’s.