The publication of the Scottish Government’s Referendum Bill has to be seen against a number of important truths now dominating contemporary Scottish politics: there will be no referendum this year or in the foreseeable future; the SNP is unlikely to make much impact, if any, on Labour in the forthcoming General Election; and support for independence or separation is at a very low point in the thinking of Scottish voters. This is where the political focus should be. There is no doubt that a rise in support for a stronger form of devolution in Scotland coexists with a decline in support for independence. This can also be seen in Wales where there has been a spectacular turnaround in public opinion. In 1979 Welsh voters rejected the Callaghan Government’s Wales Devolution Act in a referendum by nearly 80 per cent to 20 per cent. The Blair Government’s Wales Devolution Referendum in 1997 was narrowly supported by 50.3 per cent to 49.7 per cent.
Now recent opinion polls suggest Welsh voters want more not less devolution. Over a generation, there has been a seismic shift in Welsh voters getting a taste for greater self-rule. Scotland is also moving on.
For the Unionist parties in Scotland, especially Labour, this is a time of real opportunity. The danger is that complacency on the part of the opposition parties and a misplaced sense of political security and shortterm opinion poll relief will lead to the belief that the constitutional question is fading from the political scene. This would both be foolish and dangerous. There are two distinct political processes in Scotland: one for Holyrood; the other for Westminster. Over the next few weeks Westminster will inevitably dominate – Labour or the Conservatives and Brown or Cameron will be the choices for most Scots. It’s the old battleground with the “auld enemy”. But let’s not forget 2011 and the fact that the political landscape at Westminster may have changed by then and a completely new dynamic will be in place in the UK. The constitutional question will not go away! Labour and the other parties need to embrace the politics of identity, diversity and nationality (not nationalism) and evolve an intelligible and coherent alternative to independence.
This has to be a form of federalism. We need a solution for Scotland and not for any particular party; one that will secure all the practical benefits of independence while remaining within a UK union; will stop well short of independence as a political or constitutional reality; and offers the prospect of a radical reform of both Scotland and the Union.
Progressive politics in Scotland must confront the SNP with a popular constitutional alternative which appeals to Scots who are lukewarm to the idea of independence, but who may, over time, and in the absence of a credible alternative, start to warm to the softer, less aggressive and more inclusive approach of the SNP leadership. This is the real danger. This new debate in Scotland has to be focused on questions about the social, economic, cultural, political, monarchical and constitutional Union – and, in turn, the role of Scotland and that Union in terms of globalization and European integration post the Lisbon Treaty. It begs the important question as to whether the Union in its present form, and the independence being promoted by the SNP, are relevant to today’s world. We should be talking about creating something better.
Surprisingly the recent Referendum Bill may have given us an insight into what the shape of this debate might be and what the real alternative to independence might look like. There are few people in Scotland who still believe that the status quo, in the form of the current devolution settlement of the Scotland Act, is an option for the future of our country. The Calman Commission has provided a flurry of activity and the findings have been embraced by the Labour Government and are likely to appear in Labour’s manifesto. The proposals are a step forward, but do not, in themselves, represent a substantive alternative option for the constitutional future of Scotland. To be fair to Calman, this was never the intention. What we have got is some commonsense changes to the current settlement and the first stab at dealing with the fiscal responsibility gap at Holyrood. Of course Calman is unlikely to influence the governance of the UK or start a debate on the England question. There is also some doubt about the Conservatives’ response to the Calman report at Westminster as well as their continuing ambivalence towards devolution. That leaves us with only two significant alternatives for constitutional change, now known as “devo-max” and independence, which is where the final and decisive battles are likely to take place about Scotland’s constitutional future.
Devo-max represents an option which provides the maximum powers, some form of full fiscal responsibility and retains Scotland within the UK. Independence, in sharp contrast, transfers all powers to Scotland, with full fiscal autonomy and breaks completely the historic, constitutional and political link with the UK. There is now an opportunity for Westminster to join this new debate around a serious alternative. Federalism is the powerful alternative which will allow us to address the “England question” as well as the Barnett formula, the West Lothian Question and the unresolved reform of the House of Lords. After 300 years of the Union, there is no reason why it cannot be reassessed to give it a 21st century meaning. If the opposition parties in Scotland genuinely believe in the future of the Union and Scotland’s role in it, then there is some urgency in moving to a federalist solution. There are very sound reasons – tactical, practical, patriotic and political – for the constitutional debate to switch gear and move in a new direction. The Liberal Democrats, the only federalist party in Scotland, could lead the way. Surely they must be pretty despondent about being in opposition and must yearn for a role in government in coalition with either the SNP or the Labour Party with their leader becoming Depute First Minister. Will the Lib Dems use federalism to forge a link with the SNP and in turn pave the way for a referendum in 2015/16? Would this then lead to a referendum in which there is an overwhelming vote for staying with the Union but within a federalist structure? Any prospect of progress on independence disappears for at least a generation. We arrive finally at the “settled will” of the Scottish people. And where is Labour in this scenario? Readers shouldn’t worry.
This is only a political fantasy. Or is it?