Ian Smart said an interesting thing this week. Which is not so unusual but this was very interesting.
On Newsnicht he stated that devolution was an agreed settlement between Westminster and Scotland and that if we want to improve that settlement, there is no need to put that to a referendum. “If it’s agreed, it’s agreed”, he said with typical avuncular Smartian logic. And while Ian would not claim – nor necessarily want – to be speaking officially for Scottish Labour on this or any other issue, his remarks rather gave Labour’s game away.
Devo plus/max won’t be on the ballot paper, not if it can help it. And the party’s strategy for the moment consists of doing everything it can to achieve this.
Hence, the remarkable sight of the party’s UK and Scottish leaders standing shoulder to shoulder with the Tories, parroting Unionist lines. And unlike the Tories, who say no to independence because they are Unionists and believe in the line they have drawn in the sand, Labour’s position is utterly dishonest.
It has nothing to do with principle and everything to do with power and its pursuit. Scottish Labour thinks it can persuade the Scottish people to vote no to independence on the promise of an improved devolution settlement once they are returned to power. It is prepared to abandon the principle of home rule upon which its party was founded for the time being because power trumps people.
In casting itself adrift in the referendum process and into constitutional no-man’s land, it appears the party is prepared to gamble its all on a high stakes strategy that is fundamentally flawed.
Success is predicated on Scottish Labour, and indeed UK Labour’s, ability to win elections in 2015 and 2016. Ian Smart is right: we do not need a referendum to shift some of the powers listed so assiduously in Schedule 5 to the Scotland Act 1998 from Westminster to Holyrood. But we will need a UK Government willing to offer a further legislative opportunity.
To deliver more devolution to Scotland, Labour will have to win the next UK General Election. Granted, we are three years out but the party is in a parlous and near mutinous state. Eds Miliband and Balls may have begun what they see as an essential policy triangulation process in order to make their party electable again but the core support has erupted in protest. Think back to when Labour won the 97 election: Tony Blair had spent three years by then, on the front foot, with his party looking and acting like a government in waiting. The current Labour party is nowhere near that stage of readiness.
Even suppose Labour wins in 2015, it would also need to win the 2016 Scottish elections, or at least win enough seats to form a majority administration (presumably with the Liberal Democrats). Again, a lot could happen between then and now, but the SNP is sitting at record levels in the polls, with sky-high approval ratings for the First Minister, Alex Salmond. The thinking appears to be that the Scottish electorate will be so grateful for Labour’s offer to save it from the clutches of independence and appreciative of the offer of jam tomorrow, in the form of an as yet undefined devo plus/max settlement, that it will vote no en masse and flee from the SNP’s side and back into the Labour fold
If this is the intention, it is so convoluted and contrived, dependent on so many fanciful notions and winds of fortune, as to be utterly incredible. It forgets that Labour has lost the trust of the Scottish people. The ties that bind have been broken not just once, but twice in recent Scottish elections. Moreover, it presumes that all those people who say – consistently – in opinion polls that they’d like more powers for the Scottish Parliament are prepared to wait until Labour – and Labour alone – offers them. It also conveniently ignores all the threads that the SNP wove so convincingly in its 2011 election campaign to such emphatic effect – positivity, hope not fear, and the offer to the Scottish people to have their say, for them to determine their future. And crucially it is blind to the fact that already between 30 and 40% of people are prepared to vote yes to independence and some of them would need to be persuaded back to supporting the status quo.
Kenny Farquharson, in a powerful piece in this week’s Scotland on Sunday, accuses Labour and the Liberal Democrats of “currently prioritising their own narrow political interest over what’s good for the Scottish national interest”. How else to explain their reluctance to offer up a third way for the referendum?
Not necessarily to demand a third question: that is potentially counter-productive. An indecisive result across the options would be the worst of all worlds, in political and legal terms. Imagine a 38/37 split between devo plus and independence! We’d still be recounting and squabbling over spoilt papers in 2015.
No, the solution is to soup up the Scotland bill currently before Westminster. Add in all the powers recommended by the Scottish Parliament Scotland bill committee and create a new status quo from which to make the case for and against the final step to independence. It would mean that ultimately the Scottish people would triumph, their wishes having been enacted and fulfilled by their elected tribunes, and we’d still have a two question referendum asking voters straight out whether to twist or stick.
It’s going to be a long haul to the destination in autumn 2014. The process matters and the most important issue to be settled is the question or questions to be put. But as with all chess games, once opening moves have been made, there comes a point when a tactical exchange of pieces must ensue, to allow the battle proper to commence.
And that battle is one in which the Scottish people cannot be treated as mere spectators, but be invited to participate fully, on the terms that they want. Which is to determine the extent, and not just the notion, of power and control over their lives in the future.
If Scottish Labour wants to emerge on the other side of the referendum with any shred of electability, respectability, credibility or indeed, any ability at all, then it must remove itself from constitutional no-man’s land and start to think in terms of a just war. One which has a just cause, fought for a good and just purpose and not for self gain nor the exercise of power.