Turning the constitutional debate upside down

Anyone who disappeared to foreign climes at the start of half-term last weekend might be forgiven for thinking they’ve arrived back in a different country.

This time last week, the Conservatives and Labour parties were busy warbling their way through a No pasaran type ditty in relation to the constitutional debate.  This far and no further, or to quote the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson MSP, the Scotland bill (which may or may not still be wending its way through Westminster) represents a “line in the sand”.  The inference is, of course, that the Tories are not prepared to devolve anything more to Scotland than what is already in that bill.

Indeed, last weekend, we were still labouring under the misapprehension that Ms Davidson and her Scottish Labour counterpart, Johann Lamont MSP, were leading the constitutional debate for their respective parties.

That was until Mr Cameron ventured North and delivered a speech which has fair set the heather alight.  Suddenly, the debate has been turned on its head.  Suddenly, the Prime Minister is prepared to consider giving as yet undefined and unstated powers to Scotland, continuing the process of devolution.  Assembled hacks gasped and gushed.

And now, former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling MP, has suggested that Scotland should become responsible for raising money as well as spending it.  Apparently, without his tongue in his cheek, Mr Darling reckoned devolving income tax would be pretty easy to do.  Now that he wants it to happen of course;  it was a different story, oh about a fortnight ago.

They might deny it, but this smacks of a pincer movement, orchestrated and apparently being led at UK level.  Which washes the Scottish leaders up on a beach some way beyond the line in the sand that was previously drawn.  I’m sure they’re wondering, like the rest of us, what kind of freak wave it was that caused them to land there.

It’s good that the debate has shifted so far and so quickly.  For one thing, the Unionist parties have woken up to the fact that the Scottish people want more, much more than they were initially offering.  Moreover, given the tenor and tone of Cameron’s speech and of the interventions Alistair Darling has made in recent months on a range of issues, at last, we have sparring partners who might give the First Minister a run for his money.

But where does that leave the Scottish Conservative and Labour leaders?  Putatively in charge of anti-independence campaigns for their own parties but facing the prospect of marauding alpha males marking their territory whenever the fancy takes them.  That’s not a good place to be and both parties’ Spring conferences will now be much more interesting as a result.

Of course, nice speeches and interviews promising jam tomorrow are all very well but they’re not likely to carry the day.  According to those nice men from the Union, we can have more control over some things in our life but not just yet.  Not until we vote no to independence, then they’ll be more than happy to have a think about it and give us some more powers.

Problem is, can we trust them?  After all, they’ve got form.  Some of us have long enough memories to remember empty promises before.  And even if we don’t, well every journalist in the land has filled in the gaps for us in the last few days.  1979, Lord Home.  Vote against home rule and we’ll give you something better.  Pah.

In any event, if this lot really meant it, couldn’t they have done it before now?  After all, Scottish people have been indicating for a few years that they’d like more please.  To some extent, it’s ancient history.  We are where we are, this week at least.  Which is pretty confusing for some.  Not least the SNP.

This time last week, they were the ones on the front foot.  Pushing against the intransigence of the coalition UK Government on procedural matters, subtly (and at times, not so subtly) hinting that “they” were being anti-Scottish, refusing to allow “us” to have this debate and referendum on “our” terms.  But in the topsy-turvy world we now appear to inhabit, that has changed.  What, after all, is anti-Scottish about offering the people what it is they say they want?  We’re listening to you is the message, “we’re” the ones who can deliver what you want, not “them”.  Suddenly, who is “us” and “them” is not quite so clear.

And here’s another neat twist.  For weeks now, the SNP has been bombarded with questions from all quarters.  Tell us about independence they cry, what does it mean?  Will we still be able to buy stuff?  Will they let us in or throw us out of Europe?  Will there still be an army?  What about Queenie?  Some of us actually want to know about more prosaic, everyday stuff, that, like, matters, but we’ll pass on that for now.

But doesn’t it sound familiar?  Who did we hear asking for some detail all of a sudden?  Ah yes, that would be the First Minister.  It’s not good enough to proffer more devolution without spelling out what that consists of.  And he managed to utter this with absolutely no hint of irony whatsoever.

See?  Who’d have thought that in a few short days, we would have travelled up and down and all around in the debate.  But at least, we do now have a debate.  The status quo is no longer what it was. The choice – when we get there – is undoubtedly going to be between some level of increased devolution and independence.

Devo plus, devo max, indie lite, full fat indy.  These are the options before us:  all we need to know now is what any of them actually means.



12 thoughts on “Turning the constitutional debate upside down

  1. Maybe I could put it more simply. If we ask, in relation the the SNP’s policy of independence, “will the Scottish parliament have control over X?” the answer is YES. Insofar as EU legislation permits. Corporation tax, Crown Estates revenue, income tax, pensions and benefits, foreign policy, defence, the list goes on and on.

    Questions about how that power will be used are relevant to only a limited extent. Do we know what UK corporation tax or pension benefits will be in five years time? No we don’t. In a similar way, nobody is in a position to say what that tax or benefit level will be in an independent Scotland in the same time period.

    The point is that it will be UP TO US. The Scottish parliament will be able to manage these things entirely for the benefit of Scotland according to the circumstances prevailing at the time, without having to look over its shoulder to England, or get permission from England, or indeed simply accept what England dictates.

    In contrast, Cameron is not telling us what powers he might “consider” giving the Scottish parliament. This is an entire order of magnitude different. He won’t tell us WHETHER we might have control over corporation tax, or pensions, or anything else.

    Do you see the difference?

  2. “It’s not good enough to proffer more devolution without spelling out what that consists of. And he managed to utter this with absolutely no hint of irony whatsoever.”

    Sorry Kate, but I really must disagree with you here (and agree with Morag). There is a very significant difference between what the SNP is proposing and what Cameron is proposing (or offering to think about maybe proposing, if we do what we say).

    We know what Salmond is proposing – the full transferral of powers from Westminster to Holyrood. There are a handful of points where there has indeed been a need for clarification, but these have been made over and over again: we will keep the monarchy for the time being, and we will continue using Sterling.

    Conversely, we don’t know what Cameron is proposing. “Further devolution” can be anything from changing the variable rate of income tax to 20p instead of 10p (which would be pathetic) to devolving the powers people widely (or not so widely) accept to constitute “devo max”, Full Fiscal Autonomy, or whatever you want to call what would effectively turn Scotland’s relationship to the UK into an almost federal one.

    The questions asked of the SNP are either ones that have been answered already (e.g. “what currency will Scotland use?”, which is STILL getting asked) or ones of process and implementation. The big questions are defence, the EU, the currency and welfare & pensions. Well:

    – We know Scotland will have a separate defence force, we just don’t know exactly how it will look (although Salmond has indicated a preference);

    – We know Scotland will look to remain in the EU, we just don’t know exactly how seemless the transition will be;

    – We know Scotland will keep the Sterling for now, we just don’t know exactly how that will affect our monetary policy (although even here, much of the debate is muddled due to people forgetting Gordon Brown made the BoE independent, despite many claiming it to be his single biggest achievement as Chancellor);

    – We know Scotland will have its own welfare & pensions system, we just don’t know exactly how it will look (and this is where we get into “it’s up to the first Scottish Government to decide” territory).

    It might seem like splitting hairs, but really, there is a difference. Without Cameron et al telling us which powers they envisage devolving, it would be the equivalent of the SNP saying they would answer questions about the currency, monarchy, defence, EU etc “after the people have decided if we are staying or going”.

  3. Is there anything Cameron could do that wouldn’t be playing into Salmond’s hands? The way this is panning out, I rather suspect there is a “what if” flowchart somewhere in SNP HQ, detailing every possible unionist move, and and the response necessary to channel events on towards the bottom line of independence. Someone on another blog remarked that the whole thing had a feeling of “mate in seven moves” about it.

    And no, I don’t see a problem with the amount of detail provided so far by the SNP. As we are constantly being told, there will be a full-fledged White Paper produced before the referendum. Nobody is saying people will be required to vote blind. Most of it is fairly self-evident anyway – a lot of the detail being demanded is unreasonable, because it involves matters the elected parliament of an independent Scotland should be free to decide. That’s what self-determination means.

    On the other hand, I don’t know what Cameron might mean, I have no idea. Control over air guns – or Trident? Income tax – or corporation tax or the Crown Estates or oil revenues? Do we get to set our own speed limits, while our FM is prohibited from talking to foreigners? This is a completely different level of uncertainty.

    I do like “Cameron offers to consider more powers – but only if Scots vote no to independence.” Oh, better vote no then, or else – oh wait….

    • Morag, you are not the first commenter, and won’t be the last to have no problem with the SNP’s lack of detail but in the next breath, excoriate Cameron for not having any detail to offer. I see the amusing in that. I have no doubt the SNP will come up with some detail but not all. And a good friend of mine suggested that before we get to the referendum we will get a full devo plus options paper put on the table by the summer of 2014. I suspect my friend is right. We’re a long way, away. I thought the events of last week highly entertaining. I must learn a little gravitas!!

      • I simply don’t see the “amusing” in wanting Cameron to come clean on WHAT POWERS he might consider devolving. And how seriously he’s going to consider them. We already know exactly what powers Salmond intends the Scottish parliament to have (all of them), and how seriously he wants this.

  4. Why does Cameron bother? Does anyone really pay any attention to him? And the unionist camp seem totally disorganised with their startegy. The nationalist strategy, despite it’s shortcomings, is at least consistent and focused.

    The easiest approach for the unionist side is to provide a clear and detailed description of what “extra” powers will be. But there are too many egos on their side, all wanting to take the lead. If Cameron had any sense at all he would leave the unionist campaign to Scottish politicians. At least someone might actually listen.

  5. Alpha males? You’re having a laugh – it’s more like an annoying, puberty-stricken big brother crashing into their room and breaking their toys when they’re trying to impress their friends.

    At some point the penny was always going to drop that making “no” seem more attractive is better than trying to make “yes” less so. If they weren’t so obsessed with pretending to be alpha males and not appearing to be being pushed around they’d have done it in the Scotland Bill.

  6. Don’t think it equivalent to contrast the present SNP lack of detail on independence with Cam’s jam tomorrow, quite apart from the dishonest distraction that Sir Alc Doggles Hum (as a contributor to the school magazine I edited once called him) once sold us.

    Despite po-faced ‘sincere’ protestations from sundry unionists, it’s not rocket science to posit a natural model for an independent Scotland by mixing Norway with Eire and a dash of Borgen. At least in transition, keep the monarch, pound and EU membership. Thrash out a deal with RUK over embassies, HMRC, DWP & the like. Ensure at all points friendly relations so no-one really sees much difference. What’s the problem?

    But further devolution has no obvious model and requires a deal of work to define just how far would satisfy the bulk of people. Don’t hink the two are equivalent and therefor that a lack of detail from one need condemn it for being a ill-defined as the other.

  7. Well according to one report, poor old Michael Forsyth is in a tizzy over Camerons intervention. Being pretty much in a “this far no futher” frame of mind, a promise to look at devolution and increase it’s powers has put him into a frothing fit.

    It makes keeping the devo-max question off the referendum a rather trickey thing to defend. If you’re against it, it may increase the suspicion that Cameron, like Lord Home before him, speaks with a forked tongue. It also creates another dilemma for Cameron and the Unionist camp. Having made the promise, they can’t start backtracking on it or people will believe it was a lie. If they can define what powers they would look at, people are going to suspect the offer to be a false one. If they even give the impression they won’t look at it seriously after the election (John Majors’ insipid “taking stock” exercise springs to mind)then people will turning against them.

    A lot of unionists feel that Cameron played a blinder – he did in a sense – he fluffed a pass and gave the ball straight back to Salmond.

  8. Why Cameron thinks that an undefined alternative can be offered *after* the referendum without sounding disingenuous is anyone’s guess, especially when they have the means of doing it now

  9. I like the “alpha males marking their territory” analogy, suspect we’re gonna see a lot more such behaviour…

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