Read this while you wait for the Smith Commission report

As relevant now as when it was submitted; perhaps more so when listening to the dancing on pinheads going on this morning about which bits of which powers Scotland should be allowed to have.  Jonathan Sher moved from the USA to Scotland 10 years ago and became a UK citizen earlier this year in order to vote Yes in the independence referendum.  This was his personal submission to the Smith Commission. It makes a lot of sense to me.

Dear Lord Smith,

Thank you for accepting this complex, but vital, assignment.

The Herald published three of my personal opinion pieces on the Scottish independence referendum (16 June, 4 July and 15 September), which provide a context for my submission to you today.

As I understand it, your intent is to reflect the will of the Scottish voters accurately in relation to the additional powers that will soon be devolved to Scotland. A majority of voters in last month’s referendum wanted at least ‘Devo Max’, so that is what should be delivered. [Note: I am using ‘Devo Max’ to refer to the powers articulated by the SNP and Scottish Greens in their submissions to your Commission]

What is known is that:

A. 55% of Scottish voters preferred to remain within the United Kingdom, thereby removing independence as one of the current options.

B. 45% of Scottish voters wanted all powers to be vested in the Scottish Parliament.

C. Opinion polls, both before and after the referendum, indicated majority support for at least Devo Max. If even as few as 1 in 10 No voters (5.5% of all voters) were persuaded by leading politicians to think they were voting for Devo Max, then a majority (at least 50.5%) of all Scottish voters made it plain that they want the maximum possible powers to be held by the Scottish Parliament.

D. Given this simple calculation (45% Yes voters, plus at least 5.5% No=Devo Max voters), there seems a moral obligation for you to insist upon an agreement that delivers as full a devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament as is possible without causing the UK to be unable to function successfully.

I am struck by the focus in much of the recent public and media debate on which specific powers should be devolved by Westminster to Holyrood. This seems back-to-front. Shouldn’t the focus be on reaching agreement about which specific powers must be reserved at Westminster for the United Kingdom to function well? Any power not explicitly reserved at the UK level devolves to the Scottish Parliament.

During the referendum debate, the key powers discussed as the defining ones to have a United Kingdom were currency, foreign affairs and the military. There may be a small number of other specific powers necessary for the UK to function successfully, but you are doubtless more aware of them than me.

This referendum was not simply the prelude to the best compromise that can now be brokered among the five political parties at your Commission’s table — based upon their priorities and preferences. In my opinion,  your Commission’s final agreement should embody and honour the expressed desire of a majority of Scotland’s voters to have the maximum possible powers devolved to the Scottish Parliament — a parliament whose existence must become permanent, i.e. one that can neither be abolished nor controlled by Westminster.

In practical terms, any agreement that delivers less than Devo Max would discount the votes of the 45% who voted for all powers to be held by Holyrood – and also discount the votes of all citizens who, while against independence, were voting for the greatest possible devolution of powers to Scotland within the UK.

With appreciation for your consideration,

Dr Jonathan Sher

They think it’s all over.. SNP leadership contest

So, Nicola Sturgeon is a shoo-in for next SNP leader.  Which means Scotland will have its first female First Minister.  Hurrah.

Various potential others have ruled themselves out.  Michael Russell, Roseanna Cunningham, John Swinney, Alex Neil and Humza Yousaf have all declared themselves not interested.  Some of them have also nailed colours to the mast by joining #TeamSturgeon.  So who’s missing?  Well, the not insignificant Kenny MacAskill for one.  Fiona Hyslop is another conspicuous by her silence.  Two big front-bench beasts who may just have taken the weekend off, rather than the weekend to take soundings.

Whatever, a meaningful contest to replace Alex Salmond now seems unlikely.  But Nicola should still be required to submit her nomination and set out her stall.  Hopefully, it will not just mark steady as she goes but also give an indication of where she aims to take the party in the future.  This bit is important, given the recent influx of new members to the party.  She will need to offer enough for all these new and eager Yes supporters to make it worth their while, but also ensure the old guard are taken with her.  No easy task actually.

There’s a lot of chatter about a post #the45 alliance of sorts, there’s also chatter about various bits of the movement setting themselves up as parties and a lot of chatter just generally on where next.  The SNP leader has a key role to play in harnessing all that energy and enthusiasm and ensuring that what emerges is a coherent offering all working broadly in the same direction. There’s an appetite for an alliance approach to the 2015 UK election, with the various, diverse elements of the Yes movement not standing against each other and thereby dissipating and fracturing the vote.  The SNP will have to give consideration to how it responds and how it engages.  To assume that the SNP gets to put forward candidates in all seats or in those seats it chooses would be full of risk – there is a need to keep the spirit of the swarm approach evident in the referendum campaign going.  Or else the SNP could be viewed as a block rather than a conduit to change.

And what change exactly?  Devo more?  Leading from the front for devo max?  Or biding time until the opportunity arises to push for full independence again?  Conceivably, all approaches could be part of the strategy but the point is that a strategy is needed that satisfies all appetites.  And that requires careful and inclusive consideration.  It cannot be for the SNP to determine on its own.

Nicola Sturgeon may be about to become SNP leader and Scotland’s First Minister but she is also inheriting a role – a leadership one – in managing, co-ordinating and driving forward the ambitions of a much wider coalition.  That’s a good deal more tricky.

But what of her deputy?  Well, most are agreed that this is where it gets more interesting.  There are several potential contenders and several options for the party.  Someone from the Holyrood group, an MP or even an MEP?  And if either of these last two, a constitutional difficulty to overcome.  The Depute Leader of the SNP has until now become Depute First Minister – there’s no rule on this, for DFM is a position voted on by the Scottish Parliament and it would be for the SNP Holyrood group to put forward their nomination.  So we could, in theory, have a separate deputy at party level and Ministerial level.  But what would be the point really?

Except that it creates a leadership hub.  Stewart Hosie or Angus Robertson could become deputy party leader, allowing Nicola Sturgeon to have a deputy in government and parliament of her choosing (if she’s smart she’ll take a keen interest in the party role too to make sure she gets someone she can work with and who complements her strengths and skills with their own).

So, John Swinney could become a DFM without portfolio, a wingman good at the detail and who could take charge of reform more widely, providing a much needed core approach to what has hitherto been for Ministers to determine how reform is approach and addressed.  Or a young yin could be blooded – Humza for example.  Or here’s a novel thought – the role could be offered to the Scottish Greens, as tangible evidence of a new approach to politics and the movement for independence/more powers.

But there are also other strategic and tactical considerations to be made on this, to balance two, not necessarily conflicting but also not clearly compatible demands either.  First, Nicola Sturgeon will want to put together the team to lead the SNP to a third victory in the Scottish elections in 2016.  Second, it is important to keep eyes on the prize of independence – or at least, devo max.  Who is best placed to work with her on these objectives?

I suggested Shona Robison would make a fine deputy leader and First Minister.  The two MSPs have known each other since they were teenagers and worked well and closely as a Ministerial team too. Shona was somewhat sidelined in the last Cabinet reshuffle but was able to devote her energies more fully to ensuring the Glasgow Commonwealth Games were a success.  They were.  Well done her.

She therefore has a proven Ministerial track record, but she also has a proven track record electorally.  She was elected on the list for North East Scotland in 1999 and then for the constituency of Dundee East in 2003.  She has turned a marginal SNP-Labour seat into an SNP stronghold.  Her success in Dundee East allowed the party to build and take Dundee West.  It paved the way for her husband, Stewart Hosie to become MP too.  A strong SNP council group eventually became the dominant force and has formed the administration with an overall majority since 2012.

And vitally, her city transformed its SNP support into Yes votes – unlike many other SNP strongholds.

In truth, there are many key figures behind the Dundee success story but Shona knows what it takes to build – and to do so methodically and patiently – to deliver success.

Moreover, she is East coast, Nicola is West coast.  The only demographic issue is that both are city MSPs.  Yet, that might be what is required – for long enough, the SNP has been dominated by rural, North East interests (which did not translate into support for independence) and for too long, did not seem to know what was needed to make the break through in the central belt or in working class, traditionally Labour areas.  A Nicola-Shona leadership would answer that and also allow for a different direction to be pursued by the party.

But if not Shona then who?  Her husband Stewart Hosie has been touted and he would satisfy some, if not all of the above.

Keith Brown, MSP for Ochil and Minister for Transport and Veterans is another name being mentioned increasingly frequently in despatches.  A safe pair of hands, unflappable and well liked.  Crucially too, he straddles the fundie-gradualist (for which read, Neil-Salmond) wings of the party.  He’s also a detail man and reliable and resilient.  He was every SNP councillor’s go-to man on points of procedure and always – always – returned calls. His constituency is a rural/urban mix, of the Labour working class variety.  He’s done a good job with his Ministerial portfolio and did I say he is liked by all?  He’s not a divisive character but a unifying one.

The fact that he’s currently courting SNP folk as Facebook friends suggests he’s interested.  Good on him if he is.