Insight: The man who’ll deliver Scots devo powers

The man tasked with finding a post-referendum settlement wants his commission to 'get on with it'. Picture: Neil Hanna
The man tasked with finding a post-referendum settlement wants his commission to 'get on with it'. Picture: Neil Hanna
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LORD Smith of Kelvin tells Andrew Whitaker why he’s convinced a consensus on powers is possible.

For a man who has the weight of the nation’s expectations on his shoulders, Lord Smith of Kelvin seems strikingly relaxed as he stops off at a hotel on the outskirts of Dundee for a bite to eat during his whistle-stop tour of Scotland, in which he is attempting to gauge the mood of Scots on a post-referendum devolution settlement.

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The head of the commission tasked with delivering the “vow” of substantial powers promised to Scotland during the referendum if the country voted No to independence, he arguably has the most pressurised job in Scottish public life at the moment. Having served as chair of the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games organising committee, after a distinguished business career and a stint as Scottish governor of the BBC, many public figures would have perhaps opted for a more quiet life.

But the Glasgow-born peer seems unfazed by a role as referee amid the competing and largely contrasting demands from the Holyrood parties involved in the devolution talks.

Fresh from having carried out a series of engagements in Aberdeen and Dundee in the same day, and after a swift lunch in the hotel bar, Smith sets out the brief handed to him by the prime minister in a cheerfully optimistic way, perhaps not one traditionally associated with those tasked with leading inquiries into parliamentary powers.

Critical to the delivery of more powers in Smith’s view is the need for the party leaders at Holyrood to trust their appointed representatives during the commission’s work and in his words to “let them get on with it”.

“They should leave them to it,” the peer says as he admits to being “pleasantly surprised” by the line-up for the talks, which includes former party leaders in the shape of Labour’s Iain Gray, John Swinney for the SNP, Annabel Goldie of the Scottish Tories and Tavish Scott of the Scottish Lib Dems.

With the teams also including former Lib Dem Scottish secretary Michael Moore, esteemed Tory academic Professor Adam Tomkins, Labour’s Westminster pensions spokesman Gregg McClymont and SNP MSP Linda Fabiani, as well as the Scottish Greens co-leader Patrick Harvie and Edinburgh councillor Maggie Chapman, Smith is adamant he has a team of political “heavyweights” who all want a deal. “I’m seriously impressed by the calibre of people put up by the parties, which is a measure of how seriously they are treating this process. I couldn’t ask for better quality people, which is a signal that the parties want to do something.”

He insists the commission membership is one that can do business together and make the vow of more powers a reality. But in a veiled warning to the Scottish and UK leaders of the main parties, Smith says they must not attempt to overly interfere in the talks.

The process would be fraught with difficulties if the party leaders had not “empowered” their negotiators to bring something to the table. “If people kept leaving the talks to say ‘I have to consult’ it would be a problem”, he says.

“I believe that the people sat around the table take the decisions – that these people are entrusted.

“I believe they are empowered by their party leaders. They are people who know they have authority to do this.”

With just over a month to hammer out a deal on new powers between politicians who have spent the bulk of the last three years at war with each other in the mammoth referendum campaign, the difficulty in finding a consensus should not be underestimated.

There’s the inevitable predictions and fears expressed by some commentators that it will all end in tears, with no agreed deal and the much heralded “vow” of more devolution lying in tatters, with the promise of more years of bitter division over Scotland’s constitutional future dominating political discourse north of the Border.

However, Smith seems to be thrilled about heading-up the process that has seen all five Holyrood parties – unionist and nationalist alike – sitting around the table in uncharted territory, given the SNP’s refusal to take part in the Constitutional Convention of the late 1980s and early 1990s and the Calman commission on new powers of just a few years ago.

In between chairing weekly sessions of the cross-party talks, the Glaswegian businessman is going out “on the stump”, as he puts it, and attempting to listen to the “mood music” of the nation on how to broker a lasting devolution settlement to satisfy everyone.

But how can he find a way forward between the SNP’s devo-max – independence lite as some have dubbed it – and the Labour plan, set out in the party’s devolution commission, that would see Holyrood raising about 40 per cent of its own revenues? And what consensus can be found on income tax, with the Tories wanting Holyrood to have full control over this tax, and Labour insisting this could be used to bolster David Cameron’s plans for Scottish MPs to be barred from England-only votes at Westminster?

Again, Smith states that it’s the calibre of those appointed to the commission that will carry the day. “We’ve got people who led their party and who have been secretary of state. These are high quality people leading the negotiations. These are people who are very experienced and skilled. I was pleasantly surprised that the people are all political heavyweights, who can all contribute around the table. It’s a joy to work with people of such quality.”

The commission chairman also seems to be confident of riding out any potential falls-outs, suggesting that all sides know too much is hinged on the process to allow entrenched positions to scupper the chance of a durable deal.

“There will be challenges, but everyone around the table wants a deal,” he says. “These are people who can get on and are not taking entrenched positions.

“Everyone has got to make compromises and the people around the table all know that.”

Smith, by now, is used to batting off suggestions the process will end with a cosy backroom deal between the main protagonists, as he says the commission members are at least unified by a desire for a workable agreement in little over a month’s time – when he is due to report on a way forward.

Taking a diplomatic tone, Smith moves to praise the SNP’s involvement in what is the first active involvement by the party since the creation of the Scottish Parliament in a cross-party effort for enhanced devolution for Scotland within the UK.

“The Scottish National Party is still one day going to want independence, but there’s no doubt that everyone on this commission is working on the basis of Scotland being part of the UK”, he says.

Honest broker aside, Smith accepts he may need to step in to pull the sides apart in the event of any serious disagreement, particularly given the tight timetable for agreement.

“At some point I may have to say ‘that’s where the future lies’. Someone is needed to facilitate and step in and say ‘I think we’re coming around here’.”

It’s the first hint from Smith that there could be potential road blocks, despite his oft-repeated praise for the appointees serving on the commission.

But it’s when it comes to his time on the road that Smith looks like he has the potential to take a tough line with the parties, as he promises to take suggestions gleaned from his meetings with voters directly to the politicians on the commission.

“With politics sometimes it’s possible to live in a bubble of a kind and after arguing for the devolution of powers you can start from a narrow area.

“It’s a big opportunity and if people come up with ideas, I’ll put them to the parties.”

With stops to meet representatives from trade unions, charities and business, as well as non-aligned individuals, Smith has already spent time talking to people in some of Scotland’s major cities, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Stirling and Dundee – with Inverness among the next stops.

Having received 10,000 e-mails from voters on the way forward for devolution and with a country-wide road trip, Smith makes it clear again that he will move heaven and earth to prevent a lame backroom stitch-up.

He talks about getting “the word on the street” and “the mood music”, as he makes clear his determination that the voices of voters are as critical to the process as those of any minister or party leader.

The commission, he says, has had solid proposals on devolution “from honest to god real people, who have come up with ideas”, on how to “improve lives and make Scotland a more prosperous place”.

He adds: “There’s a lot of enthusiasm among people and I have to keep saying to people that I’m not a dictator who says what powers there will be.”

Despite the apparent grassroots element of the commission’s work, Smith is only too aware that any deal will require agreement between the parties.

He says: “These political parties are helping me, as it’s only through them that this can be delivered.”

But with the process only barely begun, Smith, whose stewardship of Glasgow’s hosting of the Commonwealth Games was widely praised, seems confident it will end well this time.

When asked about how he will draw on his career experiences to make the vow on devolution a reality, Smith says: “I usually get a happy ending”. «

Twitter: @AndrewWhitaker3