Joyce McMillan: Hasten slowly across this new land

Achieving consensus on new powers for Scotland will be a stern test of Nicola Sturgeon's leadership. Picture: John Devlin
Achieving consensus on new powers for Scotland will be a stern test of Nicola Sturgeon's leadership. Picture: John Devlin
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Without lengthy broad-based engagement, successful UK constitutional change is unlikely, writes Joyce McMillan

The indyref earthquake has come and gone; and now we find ourselves – perhaps for the first time since 1979 – in a completely new political landscape, full of deep, unexpected precipices, sharp new divisions, and unfamiliar alliances. Mapping that landscape is a process that will take years, not days or months; it is the kind of moment, full of confused currents of grief, shock, triumph, anger and bafflement, in which wise political heads, from Confucius onwards, have always counselled caution, and the avoidance of hasty action.

Yet in one of the thousands of fascinating paradoxes thrown up by Scotland’s remarkable referendum debate, we also face a situation in which extremely hasty action is exactly what the nation was promised, in those panicky last few days before the vote.

I’m not sure that many voters in Scotland were fully convinced by Gordon Brown’s timetable for new powers for Scotland’s Parliament, when he whipped it out of his back pocket just ten days before the end of a two-and-a-half-year campaign. Yet within days, all three main Westminster party leaders had signed up to The Vow, pledging more powers for Holyrood by 25 January next year (Burns Night, that is), in the context of a continuation of the Barnett formula, the budget agreement which currently gives Scotland higher per capita public spending than England or Wales, in return for Westminster’s continuing control over Scotland’s territory and resources.

The problem, though, is that the way in which these proposals were produced, and the sheer speed of the implementation schedule, render them all but useless, in terms of any real advance for democracy in these islands. The hurried introduction of the proposals, at such a shamefully late date in the debate, itself epitomises everything that is out of touch and dysfunctional about Britain’s current system of governance.

The proposals themselves are vague to a degree; certainly, all of Scotland’s elected politicians should seek to avoid any system which makes them responsible for an even larger tranche of Scotland’s vital public spending, while giving them control only over income tax, a hugely exposed and politically sensitive tax which they could not vary upward without inflicting a huge comparative disadvantage on Scotland within the UK.

And within the wider politics of the UK, it was always clear that any package of this kind would have great difficulty in making its way through a Westminster Parliament currently obsessed with the power of Ukip to stir the sleeping forces of English nationalism. Within hours, David Cameron was seeking to head off his angry back-benchers by linking new powers for Scotland to a simultaneous deal on “English votes for English laws”.

Meanwhile, the genie of possible constitutional change in England was well and truly out of the bottle, with a clamour of voices pitching for everything from a separate English parliament based in York, to devolution to England’s major cities on a scale to match the powers of the Scottish Parliament. In his closing speech to the Labour Party Conference on Tuesday, Ed Miliband could even be heard promising full reform of the House of Lords at last, a transformation of the Upper House into a 21st century Senate for Britain’s nations and regions.

The new debate on the UK’s constitutional future, in other words, is at best embryonic and confused, and at worst completely incoherent. The missing element, of course, is the kind of widespread grassroots movement for constitutional change that characterised the years before the Scottish devolution referendum of 1997, when a wide range of political parties, local authorities, and civil society organisations came together, over a period of almost a decade, to create what has proved a reasonably successful and robust scheme for the operation of a new Scottish Parliament. Without this kind of long-term debate and consultation, successful constitutional reform is unlikely. And although calls are now being made for a UK-wide constitutional convention to hammer out some of these issues – and Ed Miliband supported those calls in his conference speech – there is no chance that any such convention, even if convened, could reach any significant agreement on the complexities of UK constitutional reform within less than two or three years.

So for now, Scotland has to face the looming negotiation on its promised new powers alone, and deeply divided.

For Scotland’s politicians, the challenge must be to avoid the short-term trap of accepting new responsibilities without real additional power; the effort to achieve consensus on that will probably be one of the first and toughest tests of Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership as First Minister.

And for the rest of us, out here in a Scottish civil society now aroused and divided as never before, I guess we may do best if we bear in mind two basic rules.

First, that if the governance of Scotland is to be improved over the coming years, then we cannot wait for politicians to tell us what they plan to do; we need to clarify and articulate our own demands, through every organisation or party we belong to, and to use every means we can to shift the agenda of change in a more radical and democratic direction – one that might, for example, include serious reform of Scotland’s sclerotic local government.

And secondly, we should not forget that for the vast majority of people, constitutional matters are never more than a means to an end. The fact that it was “not about nationalism” was one of the strengths of Scotland’s historic Yes campaign. It claimed to be about a fight for greater social justice, and often was.

And now that the referendum is over, that same truth demands open minds, among both Yes supporters and left-leaning No voters, about how each of us chooses to pursue the cause of social justice, in the coming years. Some will join the SNP and Scottish Green Party, some will soldier on with Labour, many will throw their energy into local campaigns and initiatives.

For now, all we can do is be kind to one another, and look for a place to begin as we re-start the long trudge towards social justice and greater democracy, across this new post-referendum terrain.