THERE was very nearly was no Smith Commission report. As we explain in our news pages today, a last-minute argument about whether power over abortion should be devolved to Holyrood almost scuppered the entire process, with Labour threatening to walk out if it was included in the final document.
The abortion saga is a useful aide to understanding the challenge of modernising the devolution settlement, 15 years on from the re-convening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999. The suspicion is that some members of the Smith Commission wanted abortion powers for Scotland simply because they wanted all powers for Scotland, and abortion was one of them. Not enough thought was given to the question of what would happen if abortion was devolved, and whether these scenarios were desirable. It was a power, therefore it should be devolved. It was not “powers for a purpose” – a phrase used by both Labour’s Johann Lamont and the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon to describe the Smith process. For some around the negotiating table, powers were the purpose.
This way of thinking has surely been overtaken by events. For good or for ill, Scotland is a devolved nation within the wider UK state, and will be for the foreseeable future. What this nation seeks now is a set of powers that meets Scotland’s needs and ambitions; but at the same time the division of powers has to be coherent and legible in our current constitutional context. In the process of negotiating Scotland’s place in the UK, it is no longer sufficient to say: “Let’s have all the powers” – that option was rejected in the referendum. Nor, it is becoming increasingly clear, is it sufficient to say: “Let’s have as many powers as possible”, in an undiscriminating way. The division of responsibilities between Holyrood and Westminster has to be designed to respect the roles of both legislatures, and to minimise the scope for conflict and antagonism.
So, has Smith achieved this? To a remarkable degree, and against most people’s expectations, he has. His blueprint for Devolution 2.0 is not perfect, but it is a paradigm shift for Scottish self-government. Whether or not it can be called federalism is debatable, but it offers Holyrood more power than most devolved legislatures across the world, including those in federal states. Yes, some aspects were fudged – for example on the rights of Scottish MPs at Westminster. Yes, some provisions are messy – such as the delivery of powers over welfare. Yes, it could and should go further in several key areas, including assigned revenues and additional fiscal levers. But in a five-sided negotiation against the clock, neatness and comprehensiveness was never going to be likely. Yet make no mistake, this is a power shift that would have been hard to contemplate a year – or even a month – ago. Different people can take different things from it. Nationalists can see it as a step towards their ultimate goal. Labour voters can see it as a shield against Tory excesses at Westminster. For Lib Dems it is pretty close to their century-old federalist dream. Tories can take satisfaction in Holyrood being responsible for raising much more of the money it spends.
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The Smith Commission will not, of course, satisfy those whose sole motivation is achieving the prize of independence. But for most Scots it represents a new era in Scottish politics, with greater responsibility, greater accountability and greater scope to get to grips with what ails us as a nation. If it is enacted into law – and vigilance will be required to ensure it is not derailed or neutered in the legislative process at Westminster – it will mean Holyrood is responsible for all taxation on property and on earned income, as well as having the power to control or vary all aspects of welfare. Taken together, these powers will allow any Scottish Government to walk the walk on redistribution of wealth and the fight against poverty, if that is what voters choose.
There is one major reservation. With Britain heading down a more federal road – given the likely advent of English votes for English laws and new powers for cities and counties south of the Border – the Smith Commission recommendations may all too soon look as if they are behind the constitutional curve. Reticence about devolving certain powers may lessen as this more federal Britain takes shape, and the assumptions about what constitutes “central government” evolve. In this sense, the growing desire for English devolution should be seen as a facilitator of more Scottish devolution, not as an impediment. Smith makes it clear that the report published last week need not be the final word, and further devolution is possible “where doing do would aid the implementation of the [Smith] consensus”. This should be remembered in the months that lie ahead.
For the SNP in particular, this moment in Scottish history is tricky. For three and a half years the party has been fixed laser-like on the prospect of independence. In the process it seems to have mislaid the deftness of touch it displayed in the 1990s and 2000s that allowed the party to take a twin-track approach – argue for independence, of course, but at the same time present the SNP as the “petrol in the home rule engine”. It was this thinking that took the Nationalists from the fringes of politics to majority government. This useful duality was not much in evidence last week. Nicola Sturgeon sounded grudging in “welcoming” the Smith report. She showed no enthusiasm for the new powers or what they might achieve in SNP hands. She missed the opportunity to take ownership of a significant advance in Scottish self-determination, perhaps pointing out that it would have been impossible without the SNP pressure on the Unionist parties during the referendum, demonstrating to voters what can be achieved within the UK by backing the SNP. In short, she missed the opportunity to reclaim the old SNP slogan of being The Power For Change in Scottish politics. By way of contrast, Scottish Labour has been quick to suggest some of the ways the new powers could be used to better the lives of ordinary Scots. Sturgeon now risks allowing Labour – under its likely new leader Jim Murphy – to claim ownership of the second iteration of Scottish devolution in the same way it claimed ownership of the first. This is the clear aim of yesterday’s calls from former prime minister Gordon Brown to “reset” Scottish politics and Labour’s place within it. To counter this, the SNP needs a home rule narrative that is just as sophisticated and sincere as its independence narrative. Stepping beyond the rhetoric of the referendum, it needs to engage with devolution intellectually and emotionally, and not grudgingly. It needs to reject a new fundamentalism.
For all the SNP’s current supremacy in the polls and its extraordinary surge in membership, it is making mistakes. The Nationalists’ expectation management has been askew. By playing down expectations that “the vow” would be delivered, they have actually increased Smith’s chances of making a good impression. Some Yes voters who swallowed the “No means nothing” rhetoric during the independence campaign have been puzzled – even pleasantly surprised – to discover that No has actually meant a substantial step forward. For the SNP a strategy is needed that is equal to today’s battle, not yesterday’s.
Those Scots now hoping for an end to constitutional wrangling will be disappointed. The push for independence has taken on an evangelistic quality. The battle over Smith will now continue to Westminster, against the background of a general election campaign where a rampant SNP aims to use the constitution to win dozens of seats from Labour. Scotland’s constitutional battles will continue. But they will now be fought in a new and exhilarating political landscape.
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