THEY have been carping from the sidelines for many months. But at Scottish Labour’s conference in Inverness this weekend the devo-sceptic wing of the party’s Westminster contingent of MPs has finally been flushed out into the open.
And, to be frank, they are not an edifying sight. Under their unofficial spokesman Ian Davidson they have done all they can to put the brakes on Scottish Labour’s progress towards a policy of much stronger devolution for Holyrood. Unfortunately for these refuseniks, their position occasionally seems like a rather unappealing combination of self-importance and self-interest. Their biggest objection, after all, is the potential reduction in the number of Scottish MPs at Westminster. The way they have asserted themselves at the Inverness conference is a challenge to the Scottish Labour leader, Johann Lamont, and it is a challenge she must face down. Because while this Westminster faction – and it should be stressed there are many Scottish Labour MPs who are honourable exceptions – is entitled to its view, it does not have a veto. Recent changes to the Scottish party’s rulebook ensured that although Scottish MPs are an important component part, real power in Scottish Labour resides at Holyrood, and in particular with the MSP who is the elected leader of the Scottish party. Lamont has been handed this power. The time has come for her to use it.
Those with long memories will not be surprised that there is some resistance within the Labour Party to more home rule for Scotland. Although the policy has been marbled throughout Labour history since the time of Keir Hardie, there has always been a section of the party that has done all it could to resist moves towards greater Scottish self-determination. In the 1980s and 1990s powerful elements within Labour regarded committed home rulers such as Jack McConnell and Wendy Alexander as dangerous appeasers of nationalism. But it was the home rule arguments that won the day, won the majority support of voters, and ultimately won a parliament for the Scottish people.
Yesterday, Lamont, in a clear attempt to calm the nerves of devo-sceptic MPs, said: “I do not want a settlement that reduces Scotland’s influence in Westminster one iota.” This was carefully worded. She may not want it, but that may ultimately be the quid pro quo for more powers for Holyrood. And if that is indeed the case, then concern about a smaller number of Scottish MPs on the banks of the Thames must not become a red line for Labour. That would be short-sighted, and a potentially costly mistake.
Labour backing for a far stronger Holyrood is essential if the party wants to remain relevant in a country with an evolving sense of what autonomy it wants within the UK. It is essential if the Better Together camp in the independence referendum – of which Labour is an important part – is to have a hope of presenting a No vote to the electorate as a positive step forward for Scotland, and not a vote for standing still. And it is essential if the consistent majority view in this nation – the desire for a powerhouse parliament within the UK – is to have a chance of being heard in the debate about Scotland’s future. For any of this to happen, Johann Lamont has to lead from the front. Of course, she has a range of competing interests to juggle, but that is what leadership is all about. Home rule is the issue on which she has to prove her worth to her party and to her country.
For your information
WHETHER it is a blessing or a curse depends on your point of view. To most members of the public, the Freedom of Information Scotland Act, which came into force in 2005, allows a peep behind the scenes in the corridors of power and is a welcome addition to democratic processes. But for too many working in the public sector – paid for by our taxes – the Act is a charter for prying nosey parkers with an agenda to uncover the dark secrets hidden behind walls of bureaucracy. As our story today makes clear, many public organisations take this one step further by paying lawyers fees – again from public funds – to give them advice on whether or not they can deploy one of the Act’s many exemptions to prevent that information ever seing the light of day. But as Scotland’s Information Commissioner, Rosemary Agnew, makes clear, most of this advice could be obtained for free from her office and there should be no need for routine recourse to m’learned friends with all the expense – at least £400,000 and rising – that this entails. Clarity on what should and should not be concealed is the Commissioner’s job and a role Agnew and her staff are willing to perform. It is entirely against the spirit of an Act which has improved governance in our country to spend public money on keeping information which should be in the public domain from the public.