These issues – of the question wording and the timing and the stance the SNP adopts – are crucial
DRESSED in a smart black suit, black shirt and black tie, Jim Murphy stepped out of his ministerial limo and strode into the Scottish Parliament. The Scottish Secretary was dressed up for one of the highlights of the political social calendar: an awards dinner where gongs are handed out to the great and good of the governing classes. But before then, he had some important business to attend to at Holyrood.
To sartorial purists, his choice of clothes was an unconventional interpretation of -the black-tie dress code that was to be observed by almost all the other guests heading to the Scottish Politician of the Year Awards last Thursday night. But Murphy's more sober attire was fitting.
At Holyrood there was some serious business to be attended to before he could head to Edinburgh's Prestonfield Hotel to collect his prize for best Scot of the Year at Westminster. Murphy was meeting the leaders of the Holyrood opposition parties to take part in discussions that will go to the heart of the nation's future – a new and radical reshaping of the Union that has bound Scotland to England for the past three centuries.
Elsewhere in the parliament, the idle chit-chat of the political classes was obsessed with the intriguing possibility that Kenny MacAskill might pick up the top award for freeing the Lockerbie bomber (he didn't). They were also talking about the latest economic forecast predicting that UK unemployment will peak at three million – one in ten adults – by 2011.
Outside, some members of the public would, no doubt, wonder why politicians were obsessing about constitutional issues while Scotland was suffering under that grim economic outlook. But that is precisely what Murphy, his Labour colleague Iain Gray, Annabel Goldie of the Tories, and the Liberal Democrat leader, Tavish Scott, were doing in a quiet room in Holyrood on Thursday afternoon.
With Scotland struggling with the worst recession for generations, the leading lights in pro-Union parties were plotting the next moves in a constitutional game that is set to dominate the political agenda over the coming days, weeks, months and years. Absent from the meeting, of course, was the other big player in this game – Alex Salmond, the politician who has no truck with Unionists and whose life's work has been to achieve Scottish independence. His plotting for independence was being done elsewhere, preparing for the referendum he wants to hold next year.
Scotland is now reaching a watershed moment in its constitutional future. The nation's fate will be determined by two white papers, to be published shortly, which will provide the framework for complex manoeuvring, shady deals and political fireworks, and possibly – eventually – a new way of governing Scotland.
On Tuesday, Gordon Brown's Cabinet will discuss the UK Government's white paper that promises greater powers for the Holyrood parliament while safeguarding Scotland's place within the Union. It was this white paper, announced in last week's Queen's Speech, that was exercising the minds of Murphy, Gray et al when they met in the guise of a cross-party steering group on the Calman Commission, the body formed by the Unionist parties that has recommended a radical extension of powers for Holyrood.
Up for grabs are Calman's recommendations that Edinburgh should be given the right to set income tax levels, stamp duty, aggregates levy and air passenger duty. The commission also backed new borrowing powers for Holyrood to finance construction projects and an extension of devolution to firearms legislation, speed limits, drink driving and running Scottish elections.
Also on their minds was Salmond's bill that is to be launched on St Andrew's Day, which will set out plans for his independence referendum.
The UK Government's white paper signals that Gordon Brown has given his backing to implementing the recommendations of the Calman Commission – a move that would appear to suggest that the more powers for Holyrood bandwagon is gathering momentum.
Murphy's mission was to get Holyrood's opposition parties together to present a united front behind Calman – a tactic to prevent Salmond's party from dividing and conquering the Unionist parties. His problem was that, although the Lib Dems are fully behind Calman, the Tories are in disarray on the issue. A question mark hangs over the Conservatives' commitment to the project – a question mark that looms larger as David Cameron moves closer to 10 Downing Street.
In Scotland, the party has been divided on the issue – a problem that presents Cameron with a dilemma. Some like Murdo Fraser, the deputy leader, are pro-Calman. While others, as one senior Scottish Tory put it, believe "Calman is the work of Satan". The apparent indifference of Goldie has been replaced by an enthusiasm that saw her sign up to the Calman project. But other MSPs believe there should be no move on Calman until the Conservatives are at least in their second term of office at Westminster.
The key question waiting to be answered is whether the prime minister-in-waiting is supportive. For the pro-Calman faction, the signs are not that encouraging. The Tory leader has made clear his concerns about more borrowing powers for Scotland, saying it would be "difficult" to allow the UK to get itself into more debt in a recession.
"It is entirely right that David Cameron should be very cautious at the moment. After all, people are deeply concerned about the economy and less so about the constitution," said one senior Tory. "There are people in the party who think differently at a theoretical level. But I think there is a fairly strong view across the party that this is not the time for radical change."
Cameron is playing his cards close to his chest but, even as the leader of a predominantly English party at Westminster, he is under mounting pressure to put them on the table. He could sell the Calman package to his back-benchers as a means of ending the subsidy of Scotland by English taxpayers, while coming out in favour of constitutional change could be prove popular in Scotland where Cameron is desperate to improve the standing of his party, which has only one MP north of the Border.
Another Tory MSP believed that, despite his colleagues' reservations, the momentum for Calman was becoming almost unstoppable: "We are engaged in ongoing discussions with the leadership in London. This white paper is coming from Labour and pretty soon we will have to have a response – that's what we are working on. What we end up doing is undoubtedly going to be influenced by what Labour are doing. If they announce that they are going to implement Calman in full, it will be difficult for us not to make a similar commitment."
But further complicating the political picture is Salmond's long-awaited independence referendum white paper. The announcement of a rival constitutional white paper from Labour was a blatant attempt to steal some of Salmond's St Andrew's Day thunder. But, as always, Salmond has his eye on the main chance. His minority government's referendum plan may well look doomed at Holyrood as it does not have the support of Labour, the Liberal Democrats or the Tories.
Nevertheless, Salmond's bid to stage a referendum next year will play a huge role in his strategy to consolidate his position as the top dog in Scottish politics.
Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have said they are against a referendum, because it is the wrong priority in a time of recession. Given the financial conditions, they have argued that Salmond's timing is wrong. They may disagree with holding a referendum before the 2011 Scottish election, but – crucially – neither party has ruled out a poll in the longer term.
That, according to John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University, is why the precise wording of Salmond's referendum bill will be so important in the coming months. "You might think it is dancing on the head of a pin, but it is absolutely fundamental," said Curtice. "These issues – of the question wording and the timing and the stance the SNP adopts – are crucial for the credibility of the opposition case."
If the eventual bill does not specify when the referendum ought to be held, then it becomes more difficult for Labour and the Liberal Democrats to justify voting against it. A similar argument applies if the bill advocates a multi-option referendum, which includes a form of devolution as recommended by Calman.
Salmond himself has repeatedly made it clear that he is willing to contemplate a multi-option referendum. A multi-option bill could lead to a scenario whereby a UK government at Westminster – perhaps even a Tory one with very few Scottish MPs – is imposing a Calman-style constitutional settlement on Scotland. But MSPs at Holyrood are denying the people of Scotland the chance to vote on the issue.
"If they were to put in the bill that was presented to parliament not simply a referendum on independence however worded, but a bill that made provision for a multi-option referendum, then they are saying we are willing to give the people of Scotland a chance to vote about their constitutional future and you guys are not," Curtice said."You can see the line already."
With these arguments, Salmond is confident that he will be able to claim the moral high ground as he goes into the 2011 election. He may not have the parliamentary arithmetic or the public support to deliver his dream of independence, but he will hope that his position has been strengthened.
As Curtice said: "At the end of this I suspect it will get voted down. But the point of all this is a positioning exercise (for the SNP] to try and maximise its position in Scottish politics… in terms of their moral position, their electioneering position."
It is a complex game that crosses Holyrood, Westminster and all the main political parties. It is being driven by political ideology as well as rational calculation, so mistakes will and have been made.
It is a game that requires mastery in arts that are even darker than Jim Murphy's black suit, shirt and tie.
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