Brian Monteith: Independence not the only matter of moment
LET’S hope holidays help clear the minds of MSPs for more than the question of questions, writes Brian Monteith
As readers scout around for any sign of a summer this July, they might console themselves that it should at least be a little quieter now that the politicians at Holyrood have taken their holidays.
The parliamentary recess will hopefully give MSPs adequate time for contemplation, for there is certainly a great deal to think about. There is the dire state of the economy, the embarrassingly slow progress in delivering new infrastructure, the challenges facing our hospitals and schools in maintaining current standards – never mind improving them.
Where are the Scottish Government initiatives to reduce the burden of regulation that make running the same business more expensive in Dundee than in Dagenham?
I shall be pushing 70 by the time the A9 is dualled to Inverness but not yet 60 before Scotland is covered in wind turbines – why the rush? Might it be the fear that without lucrative and binding contracts with the British taxpayer the uneconomic reality of the nationalist government’s energy policy will be revealed before a referendum?
Some health boards are in utter chaos and yet the health secretary – who took up her post three prime ministers ago – appears immune to the concept of responsibility for what happens on her watch. Meanwhile the education secretary presides over the implosion of further education and has chosen to go to war with our universities while his focus must surely be to deliver Curriculum for Excellence as painlessly as possible.
The disparate opposition has a great deal to think about too, for they have taken far too long to start challenging the government or offer remedies that are already working successfully in other countries.
Unfortunately when the government and its opponents stretch out on their deckchairs instead of thinking about what matters to most Scottish people, they will instead dwell on the all-consuming preoccupation of the Holyrood and Westminster villages, namely “one question or two?”
For when they return at the end of summer the Scottish Government will report on its independence referendum consultation exercise – and the clock is already counting down to the point later this year when it becomes difficult for Holyrood to gain the necessary authority to make a 2014 referendum beyond legal challenge.
Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont has found her groove in challenging the First Minister to be the big man and go with the single question that he says will “let his people go”. The best antidote to bombast is a concoction of frankness and humour that ridicules the target and in Lamont Labour has someone who does this. Ruth Davidson’s riposte about Dennis Canavan supporting a single question helped add to the First Minister’s embarrassment.
The First Minister’s willingness to settle for greater devolution is nothing new – but it has become the button to press for unionists who wish to goad him into having a straight fight that they believe he will lose.
There are many who murmur, and not all of them are Alex Salmond’s opponents, that he has always wanted the second question for he has no faith that his own Plan A – asking the Scottish people to endorse independence – will work. It was just there for show. Instead, he has his own Plan B, but like Chancellor Osborne cannot admit to it.
By pushing hard for Plan A while nurturing the option of a second question, Salmond wants to develop a sense of victimhood that Holyrood is not free to run the referendum it wants. Legally it cannot, of course, but Salmond is looking for moral authority to insert a second question, not legal competence.
Jim Gallagher who, having drafted the Bill, should know a thing or two about the latest Scotland Act, argues that there is no need for a second question because the new legislation gives the Scottish Government the authority to negotiate further powers without the need for a referendum.
That this is so is supported by the self-evident fact that the Scotland Act – the largest transfer of powers away from Westminster in its history – was itself delivered without any request being put before the Scottish people, and it was conceived at Holyrood.
The substance of this argument is that the only reason a second question is needed is to save the First Minister from embarrassing defeat. This needs to be said more, but the unionists have to be careful in not creating grievances for they will be ruthlessly exploited, be they economic (such as VAT charges on a single police force that the SNP could have avoided) or political (such as who runs a referendum that both parliaments agree should be held).
Nor can they attack Salmond for offering a one-way ticket to an unknown destination on the Independence Express when they flaunt a one-way ticket to somewhere, sometime, somehow on the Devolution Sleeper – without being accused, justifiably, of hypocrisy.
That does not mean they have to frame further devolution into a referendum question but they do have to work on providing a formula that rebalances the opportunities and risks of being part of Great Britain so that devolution is not a never ending process that allows Salmond to work to Plan B.
If there is to be any further devolution it has to achieve something that such legislation has failed to do thus far – last for generations rather than a few terms of government. For this to happen there has to be a dimension that strengthens the glue of the union and some federal approach that takes advantage of Lords reform.
The objectives of Salmond’s Plan A and Plan B are independence; one would deliver it within five years, the other a good deal longer, probably long after the A9 is dualled and a start is made on tearing down those wind turbines that will become obsolete. The way to make both A and B irrelevant is for unionists to have a plan of their own – and I still cannot see it.
• Brian Monteith is policy director of ThinkScotland.org
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