Editor's note

Written by Mandy Rhodes on 13 October 2014 in Editor's note

The Scottish question: Sturgeon knows a second referendum in the near term is untenable so is the party one of independence or devo max?

Everyone is agreed that the real success story of the referendum wasn’t the result – Yes or No – but the public engagement, or the re-engagement, of an electorate tired by old politics, disgruntled by Westminster, fed up with the same old, same old and looking for real change.

On their own, the numbers are phenomenal: 97 per cent voter registration; 86 per cent turnout; a three- and four-fold rise in membership of some parties; and the birth of a plethora of new groups, like Women for Independence, that have kept that momentum alive.

And now, the SNP, a party that not so long ago could still be regarded as a fringe show chasing an impossible dream, is the third biggest political party in the UK and almost made its dream a reality.

So while the answer was very clearly a ‘No’, the trajectory, strangely, appears to remain with Yes. It is, by any measure, a great result for the SNP and its allies in the Greens but that seismic shift in political interest wasn’t just about independence – it was about a better society, no matter what the construct. 

And the current rhetoric about which powers to pick ‘n’ mix is far removed from the energised debate about creating a Scotland where social justice is balanced by a prosperous and generous economy.

Had Scotland voted Yes, plans were already afoot for the Westminster parliament to have been immediately recalled. Its MPs, their holidays interrupted, would have found the House on a Saturday a rare and sombre place indeed as they discussed the break-up of Britain and all they hold dear.

But in the event, Scots voted No and politicians turned back to their sangria and sunbeds, believing Scotland had got what its people wished for: that Gordon Brown’s eleventh-hour promise to stick to a timetable on more powers would satisfy and that Lord Smith would find a political consensus that put the devolution question to bed. But they misjudged the mood.

The Right Honourable Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath may well have stuck to his end of a bargain that seduced many to vote No in the first place and secured a debate on more powers for Scotland. But the future of Scotland’s constitutional make-up does surely deserve more than the half-hour, un-amendable, un-voteable debate that an end-of-day adjournment allows?

It was Brown’s rage and frustration at Better Together’s seeming failure to address the real issues during the referendum debate that ultimately forced his hand. He made a unilateral decision – Ed Miliband, I understand, was not informed – and in a speech to Loanhead Miners’ Welfare Club, he made a vow, which bounced all the unionist parties into an unfeasible timetable on powers that had never even been discussed and was never realistic.

Sturgeon knows a second referendum in the near term is untenable so is the party one of independence or devo max? 

But things have moved on. And so tomorrow, almost a month since the referendum and under some duress, it is expected that the second reading of the Recall Bill will be pulled and the full parliamentary day will be given over to a debate on further devolution for Scotland. 

William Hague will open and Alistair Carmichael will close. In between, there will be calls for the party leaders to look the Scottish MPs in the eye while a cavalcade of English Tories make clear the view that Scotland can whistle while the rest of the UK explores its own relationship with the devolution of power. It will be an interesting spectacle, enhanced by the prospect of the first UKIP MP, Douglas Carswell, potentially making this Scottish-centric debate the stage for his maiden speech. Where then will be the position on English votes for English laws?

Westminster has already moved on. Party conference season has, as far as the UK parties are concerned, closed, despite the SNP conference still to come. Scotland will become a footnote in political history as Middle England, EU membership, the threat from UKIP, spending cuts and the deficit dominate the Westminster bubble. This week Brown’s adjournment debate on ‘the UK Government’s relationship with Scotland’ follows debates on getting Britain cycling and a national pollinator strategy. Whether he will even bother with this in light of Tuesday’s more wide-ranging debate is, well, debatable.

The whole thing is a mess; a function of a panic response from No parties and a UK Government that failed to have contingency plans in place. The UK parties have made an undeliverable and incoherent set of promises. The timetable trumpeted by Brown does not allow for the Smith Commission deliberations and the Smith deliberations do not allow for an engaged and politically literate civic Scotland to meaningfully contribute to its own future.

Meanwhile, the SNP, a party that lost a referendum but could take succour from the vote and the swell in its numbers, faces its own challenges. There’s no doubt that Nicola Sturgeon will be a good party leader but as First Minister, she now needs to turn her full attention to the good governance of Scotland. 

For electoral advantage, she may welcome comments from the likes of Ruth Davidson that she will take the party to the Left but she will also have to help corral an unprecedented level of party membership that has come from those ranks who may have no time for gradualism or the discipline required for government. 

Sturgeon knows a second referendum in the near term is untenable so is the party one of independence or devo max? That’s a big question and while, tactically, the SNP may continue to demand that the feet of the Unionist parties at Westminster are held to the fire on the timetable for more powers, strategically, it could have its fingers burned by forcing a process that was only ever designed to buy time for Westminster parties when Westminster was always at the heart of the problem.

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