Powers with a purpose
'55/45 hasn’t proved as decisive as everyone had hoped'
Less than two weeks on from the referendum, and I had hoped to share my insight on where we go from here but given I was interviewed on Sky News hours after the vote, espousing the view that Salmond would not be standing down, minutes before he did stand down, I’m not sure how valuable my insights actually are.
But what I can do is explore how we got here because for many, despite Better Together’s clear win, it still feels like Scots lost. And while that may be our default position it is only because Westminster has form.
Two years ago, when we knew that a referendum would finally happen, I thought it would be interesting to interview some of the key politicians from the first time around in 1979, on the basis that if they were still alive they might have something to say that could inform where we were going and help us learn from any mistakes that had been made.
Which is what led me to Denis Healey’s door. Denis was Chancellor of the Exchequer under Callaghan, in what were the final days of a fag-end Labour minority government which was finally ousted by a vote of no confidence, leading to Margaret Thatcher coming in, a rigged Scottish referendum, and 18 years of Tory rule.
Healey told me his government had underplayed the value of oil for fear of fuelling support for Scottish nationalism in the 70s. And that one statement caused a political storm. We kept a tally in the office of how many times it was mentioned in FMQs. It was splashed across newspapers and television screens, was incessantly quoted by the First Minister and even referenced in the White Paper.
I followed up the Healey interview with one with Lord Kinnock who had been simply Neil, a youthful backbencher, when Denis was in the Treasury. It brought similar revelations; he had pushed Tony Benn and Michael Foot to establish a sovereign oil fund after visiting the Norwegian oil finds, only to find himself giving up on that pursuit as he became consumed by Labour’s warring factions and desperate attempts to simply hang on to power.
Kinnock told me it was a “tragedy and a regret” that an oil fund along the lines of Norway’s was never pursued and that Thatcher had then squandered the potential of oil in “one of the most untransparent and unfaithful acts of modern government”.
These too grabbed headlines, as did Andy Burnham telling me he didn’t want to drive on the right as a reason for voting No and the Tory, Michael Fallon, telling me he was the only person to ever beat Salmond in an election – albeit a university presidential one at St Andrews.
But at the end of the day, I was like any other voter in this referendum, albeit one that has had the privilege of a ringside seat on the history and tactics that brought us here, and I guess the overwhelming conclusion for me on my journey has been about trust. How can you trust politicians to tell you the truth when they simply want their side to win? How can you believe statistics when economists disagree? And how can you believe in promises when political giants talk more of the decisions they didn’t take than the ones they did?
Regret has littered many of the interviews I have done in the run-up to this referendum and I guess that what I hoped was that this time round, that whatever the result, there would be no regrets.
But that’s not really what has happened. 55/45 hasn’t proved as decisive as everyone had hoped. Last-minute offers now seem cynical and flimsy. Despite Gordon Brown stomping around Scotland like some Old Testament prophet as the ‘Keeper of the Vow’, we have a Prime Minister seemingly renaging on a timetable and a devolution commission headed by an unelected – although very reasonable and respected – Lord with an achingly impossible task of finding consensus on extra powers for Scotland among political parties that have just been at war.
It does seem as if Scotland went to vote for a nation and in doing so has been reduced to a region. Its vote has provoked a debate about English votes on English issues and it has given England the opportunity to examine its position without even asking for that right.
We are now arguing over powers, vows and timetables and bounced into making snap decisions. We have a party leadership campaign to face and I suspect it won’t just be from the SNP. We have a general election to fight amid a referendum result which Tristram Hunt described at Labour’s party conference as “Scotland having blown the British constitution to bits” and which provoked the former Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, to call for any future threat to the Union to be made illegal. And we have a Scotland that has been divided.
Up until a week ago, the question I was asked most frequently was ‘what do you think will happen?’ and now after all the campaigning, all the debating and all the voting, the question I am still most frequently asked is ‘what do you think will happen?’.
Has the constitutional question been put to bed? I doubt it. But what I hope is that given our debate about a more equal Scotland, whatever powers do come our way, that they pass that all important test of reducing poverty and creating wealth. With civic Scotland given just two weeks to make its pronouncements on what Scotland should now ask of Westminster, that feels like a clock ticking too fast.
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