You can imagine the shock for a valley girl – comprehensively educated, well travelled, reasonably cultured but essentially the product of a rural upbringing – arriving at St Andrew’s University. In my first 1st year French tutorial, I recall vividly how one doyenne from Dollar Academy made me feel. Tossing her waist length hair, crossing and uncrossing her legs, throwing her arms open to emphasise her point, pronouncing confidently on the meaning of the text, the importance of the characters, spending much of the hour talking in French. I shrank visibly and barely said a word.
By the third week, I’d worked out she hadn’t read the novel, her pronunciation was dodgy and she was basically talking shite.
But what she and all the others of her ilk did – and they were aplenty in St Andrews – was exude power. They lived, talked, socialised and worked (occasionally a few deigned to do so) with a sense of entitlement, with the kind of confidence only money and status can buy.
The reaction by some to the Smith Commission report has rekindled these memories – or more particularly, the attempts to shut us up in its aftermath, have
The outcome of the Smith Commission was inevitable right from its construct. The Unionist parties started from various points on a low bar, while the SNP and Greens were already at ceiling height. That the parties round the table were brought to the middle is testament not just to Robert Smith’s acumen in chairing the process but also in the willingness of the parties and the individuals around that table to reach agreement. The SNP entered those talks knowing it would not get what it wanted which was near as damnit independence and knew that the outcome would be far from what it wanted to achieve. The point of staying the course was to make the case for as much devo as could be agreed, to pull and in some cases, drag the others up the scale.
Its case was aided and supported by large sections of Scottish civic society. Trade unions, anti-poverty campaign groups, disability campaigners, voluntary organisations working with a wide range of community interests. All those whose work brings them into contact with the impacts of poverty and inequality were quite clear that Scotland needed most or even all revenue-raising and welfare powers. They were listened to much less than the ones who advocated large chunks of it all staying the same. In short, can’t beat can.
Partly this is to do with where power and resources currently lie. When you are a government department, an official of some years’ experience, with data and information available to you to produce as evidence, it is easy to construct an argument. When you are a campaign group run on people’s donations and grants, with limited access to the resources of power, it is harder to make your case.
Moreover, those who argued for fewer powers to transfer to Scotland have a vested interest in things staying as they are. All that upheaval, all that change, all those known unknowns, as well as the unknown ones, the surprises that would spring, the unintended consequences – you can almost feel some officials and some of those who do very nicely out of the current set-up – shuddering at the thought of it all.
And it is always – as we saw during the referendum campaign – much harder to make a convincing case for change when effectively what is being asked for is a leap into the unknown. You can only surmise and at best, model the results. Moreover, while advocates of much more devo were arguing for powers for a purpose, sometimes the purpose differed. And even when people were clear what their purpose was – to tackle poverty, reduce inequality – what they were effectively arguing for was potential: the political will to use those powers for an as yet unclear purpose is not a given.
And underneath it all is the ability to make the case for can’t with confidence, the sort of confidence power brings and so, the can’t brigade won the day. What has been delivered – or at least promoted, as we’re far from delivery yet – is more than those who voted yes might have believed would result, but less than it could have, and less than a majority of people in Scotland aspire to. A small matter of democratic accountability which appears to have been brushed aside.
So now it’s time for you all to shut up. You’ll have had your tea.
John Swinney was thoroughly gracious in his remarks about the report. The SNP welcomes the powers but we’re disappointed that civic Scotland wasn’t listened to and that the powers they propose do not meet our aspirations. Moaner, whinger, was the retort.
It didn’t take long for them to round on Nicola Sturgeon. When will she ever stop? (we are a right wing commentator away from “nagging” or “nippy” being introduced into the lexicon about our new First Minister.)
According to Gordon Brown, our de facto opposition leader even though he didn’t have the inclination to actually get himself elected to the role, it’s time to stop arguing for more powers and to work with what we’ve got. Eat your cereal, Scotland.
Yet, there is some point to what he says. We must focus some energy on working out what to do with the powers we’ve got, how to use them to their greatest effect. We’ve got the political equivalent of a chicken carcass, can we deliver 2 meals and a pot of stock out of its meagre offerings?
The Scottish Government has shown to good effect what can be done: stamp duty is now land transaction tax and aims to extract more revenue from those who can afford it most. But it also abdicated any attempt to reform council tax benefit when it was devolved, opting even to keep the administration of it the same, when having 32 local authorities run the same system slightly differently 32 times to apply the benefit is clearly not the most cost-efficient way of doing things.
But as always, this is about power and control. Having succeeded in repelling attempts to effect a complete transfer of power and achieved further success at guarding against real powers shifting from their current locus, now is the time to close down the conversation. This is the establishment doing what it always does best and holding on to what it thinks is rightly its own. Include in that, establishment politicians, establishment business and their well-heeled representative bodies and establishment government departments and officials (however well intentioned they were when they entered the civil service).
So now the establishment thinks it has got away with it again. Except it hasn’t.
Already, others are finding their voice. The devolution of air passenger duty has resulted in calls from North East and West England MPs for measures to support their airports. And there are some also calling for attention to turn now to these regions’ – and others’ – needs for greater control over resources and revenues. The failure to devolve corporation tax to Scotland is far from a done deal when power over the same tax is headed to Northern Ireland. The establishment’s edifice is crumbling and Scotland’s constitutional debate has not just resulted in a political awakening here, but it has encouraged others to be bolder, to ask for more. As it always had the potential to do and so, it should be.
At all levels of consciousness, this debate is about power, where it lies, who wields it, how it is used and for whose benefit. And it’s why those who currently have it threw everything they had into the No campaign to make sure they held on to it. They sense though that their victory could be hollow: Scotland has not retreated to lick its wounds and forget any notion it might have had about taking greater control and responsibility for itself. We’re still up for it. So now we’re being telt.
But just as I found in those French tutorials many years ago, once you’ve got the measure of them, once you’ve worked out they are all empty confidence, with very little substance behind them, there is no need to cede the ground to them.
Scotland has started to find the establishment out. We’re beginning to understand what this is all about. Power and control. They have it, we want it. We have found our political voice.
And they can tell us all they like to shut up but that isn’t going to happen anytime soon. Not until they put up.