Joan McAlpine: Drubbing at polls has taught unionists nothing

It IS exactly one month and two days since this country decided to elect its first ever majority government. If a week is a long time in politics, a month is an eternity. Stands Scotland where it did? One of the most perceptive replies to this question came from Professor James Mitchell of Strathclyde University in the pages of this newspaper. Realignment is the anticipated consequence of seismic political events, such as the SNP victory.

But Prof Mitchell found only retrenchment, at least on the part of the main opposition parties.

While the Liberal Democrats' declared intention to work constructively with the government on minimum alcohol pricing is to be welcomed, less flexibility has been demonstrated on other aspects of policy - particularly the popular desire for the parliament to have more economic powers. It is perplexing that parties whose own members favour, say, the devolution of further taxes, the crown estate or European policy, resist changes that might have won their support in the past. It's almost as though they have retreated into a laager of Union Flag-covered wagons.

Prof Mitchell called them fundamentalist unionists, and says they eschew the complexities of modern politics. They speak in the apocalyptic language of separation, parading the same battered "End is Nigh" placards that lost them the election. By contrast, the Nationalists are the moderates whose immediate priority is more devolved power inside the UK.

The new Scottish Government has - as promised during the election campaign - put off the referendum on independence until later in the parliament. The "bring it on" faction should note that an earlier vote would break this electoral promise. Those who argue that Westminster should "call Alex Salmond's bluff" run the danger of appearing contemptuous of the democratic process, and the right of the Scottish people to take their time to consider all aspects of their constitutional future.

As with religious extremists, the sect adores a lost cause. As Prof Mitchell notes, "They try to rebuild barriers that the electorate have smashed down again and again." One thinks of Willie Rennie, the new Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, railing against the "Nationalist bulldozer", or the London Labour response to defeat - give the Scottish party even less respect and autonomy than at present.

If the opposition could claim any silver lining from the election result, it was the chance of a fresh start. Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Tories were all wedded to the curious Calman proposals written into the Scotland Bill.Defeat would at least allow them to escape this straitjacket - the Liberal Democrats actually have far more radical federalist policies than those Calman backed. Lord Steel has said the Scotland Bill could easily be improved, so what is stopping his Holyrood colleagues?

Similarly, the Labour Party did well when it was perceived to be championing Scotland. Now its ultra-unionism puts it in the same camp as the coalition. If change is coming - either full fiscal control or independence - then surely Labour wants to survive to see it?

The latest "row" over the implications of the SNP's majority is a case in point. "Elected dictatorship" - the phrase used by Labour's Hugh Henry - has little resonance with the wider public. The SNP won a majority of seats and the largest number of votes; it did not stage a bloodless coup.

The majority party gains more committee convenerships - the trigger for Mr Henry's complaint. The opposition did not gripe about these rules previously, although it has long been observed that the Scottish Parliament's committees can appear less independent than those at Westminster. But everything has changed since 5 May. If SNP-chaired committees reject the partisanship of Wendy Alexander's Scotland Bill committee during the last session, then we will have progress.

Another example of ultra-unionism is the response to government concerns about the operation of the UK Supreme Court.

Since the Act of Union in 1707, even the most conservative elements of the Scottish establishment defended the integrity of Scots law. This is not a crude Scotland v England debate. It's about parity. It cannot be proper that the Supreme Court can only take an English case if given leave to do so by England's court of criminal appeal, while Scotland's appeal court is disregarded. This is because lawyers exploit a loophole in the Scotland Act to invoke human rights as grounds for further appeal in criminal cases even where there is no point of law to be settled or no new evidence has emerged. This is what is know as a devolution issue and there have been thousands of them in the past ten years.

In attacking Alex Salmond, the opposition condones an abuse of our justice system. Lawyers specialising in human rights are the only people who defend it because it is in their financial interests to do so. This is not to say our system cannot be improved. But law needs to be reformed - methodically. The Cadder judgment by the Supreme Court, for example, ruled that it was inadmissible for people to be questioned without a lawyer present. While that might seem reasonable, the effect could compromise individual rights that are protected by the current Scottish system. For example, it could lead to an extension of the detention period - as in England, and an end to the right to silence - as in England.It could interfere with the principle of corroboration, the foundation stone of Scots law.

It is the job of opposition to hold governments to account. But is abandoning any attempt to defend Scots law the way to go? The unionist fundamentalist lawyer Annabel Goldie seemed to think so - accusing the First Minister of "Little Scotlandism". Elements of the opposition parties increasingly look like they are championing "anti-Scotlandism". It can only lead to oblivion.

• Joan McAlpine is an SNP MSP for the south of Scotland

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