Ross Martin: The electorate needs strong constitutional alternatives
Discussions about the wording of the independence referendum reveal how far removed the parties have become from public opinion on future governance
The debate over the number and content of the options that should appear on the ballot paper for the referendum on the future governance arrangements of Scotland is enlightening. It displays the inner thoughts of our political class for unintended public consumption, at a time when the parties are only beginning to position themselves for what is shaping up to be a critical moment for our constitution.
It also, however, demonstrates how far removed from public opinion many politicians have become since the broad political consensus that delivered devolution at the turn of the millennium. We, the people, have moved on, as survey after opinion poll has clearly demonstrated. Our so called “settled will” has developed into a new “devolution default” position, which effectively demands that the Scotland Act be turned on its head.
It is surely clear to even the most blinkered politician that the Scottish people now see the natural order of things as being one where all policies are the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament, unless we decide otherwise: for example, sharing sovereignty over certain aspects of environmental legislation, defence or foreign affairs.
This is, of course, the opposite political mentality of the Scotland Act, which re-created the Scottish Parliament partially controlled by Westminster. But it is the strongly held belief system of the Scottish people at this time. This raises fundamental questions for all of our political parties, and we can examine these through the perspective of the framing of the questions for the referendum ballot paper.
Until now, the debate has been centred on the third option, sitting somewhere between the not-fit-for-purpose status quo and full-out independence, which has yet to attract majority support in a single survey of public opinion. However, given the distance between the two obvious ends of this constitutional spectrum, is there not space for a more nuanced debate about alternative options?
Taking the Calman proposals being promoted through the UK parliament at the moment as the unionist parties’ baseline position, it is easy to see a sliding scale of steps along the road to constitutional reform. Given that anywhere along the unionists’ constitutional continuum, which takes as its starting point the “reserved-devolved” mind-set of the Scotland Act, ultimate power rests at Westminster, this is surely what should be labelled as Devolution-Plus, or Devolution-Max if you prefer.
Towards the other end of the spectrum of possibilities, but crucially, starting from the mind-set of full-on independence – that is, that all power should reside at Holyrood rather than at Westminster – another alternative arises. This option is what was originally termed, and should still be known as, Independence-Lite.
It differs dramatically from Devo-Max and should not be conflated with it, as it takes its inspiration from the replacement of the Scotland Act made in Westminster, with one fashioned in the political furnace of Holyrood.
One way of visualising these options, and which actually provides a useful look at the probability of either of them gaining majority support in a popular referendum, is to place them on a normal distribution curve of public opinion (table, right).
At one end is the improbable state of the status quo, where the Scottish Parliament does not have the responsibility to raise the revenue to fund the public services it has been given the right to design, develop and deliver. This is increasingly seen as being an unstable state that will inevitably buckle under the strain of its in-built constitutional contradictions, and all political parties now at least accept that change must indeed occur. Although it is now a little unclear as to whether the newly elected leader of the Scottish Tories will seek to plant her standard into this particular patch of constitutional soil.
At the other end of the constitutional curve sits full-blown independence, with a similar level of public support, although it shows occasional signs of gaining momentum as the political mood of the sophisticated Scottish electorate ebbs and flows.
Here stands the heart and soul of the SNP, although in an ever-changing world it is devilishly difficult to define what modern independence may look like. For example, what happens if the euro does indeed fail, if there is a run on sterling, if Her Majesty the Queen has actually made her final trip around the Commonwealth, or if the UK Tories force a referendum on membership of the EU itself? Big questions, little sign of answers at this stage.
One thing, though, is crystal clear: this is the ultimate aim of the SNP, and it has, since its very creation, been consistent in its cause. An independent Scotland is its aim. No ifs, buts or constitutional maybes – if the electoral circumstances are right, this will be the only option on the table. However, just as the then Labour prime minister was keen to “lock-in” the devolution question on the 1997 ballot paper, with an additional one on tax-varying responsibility, so too is the current First Minister rightly keen to maximise his chances of success.
This brings us to the third possibility, Indie-Lite – not to be confused with Devo-Max. In public-opinion terms, this option sits somewhere between full-blown independence and the maximum support likely for any option put to the Scottish people at this time.
Although much of the detail has still to be designed, let alone articulated and argued over, this option may climb or fall to any point along that leading edge of the distribution curve of popular opinion. It is this option, although often wrongly described, which has made the early running in this race.
The SNP has been quite masterful on the field, taking advantage of the lack of leadership amongst its opposition. It will be intriguing indeed to see whether the battle will in fact be joined as those opposition foot soldiers are marshalled under their new political leaderships. Certainly the Liberal Democrats’ new Scottish leader, with the support of his federalist forces, has made an energetic start with some initial impact being evident. Another question, though, is whether the opposition will rally around a common constitutional standard or whether they will collapse into fratricidal farce. The standard around which the unionist parties should be gathering is logically the Devo-Max option. It would appear from the recent contribution of one of Labour’s absent generals, off fighting the Westminster war rather than being sent home to lead the opposition forces here in Scotland, that work is beginning to be done on designing their defences against the SNP’s “Holyrood hordes”, elected en masse earlier this year.
Taking as its basis the Scotland Act, as amended by the Calman proposals, and then adding a (perhaps Liberal Democrat) sprinkling of other measures, could these be the ingredients for success? Will a more Conservative approach help to cook up a constitutional option that will prove tasty to a Scottish electorate hungry for more power and responsibility? Or, will this heady mix, with mutual antipathy boiling over from Westminster, deliver nothing more than re-heated political porridge: colourless, bland and unappetising?
These questions and many more are the ones which matter at this time, well before we even begin to consider which words shall be printed on the constitutional ballot paper.
One thing is for sure, though, this will be a lively battle, so let’s hope that it can be conducted with honour, integrity and ingenuity rather than descending into a bloody quagmire where truth is once again the first casualty of war.
• Ross Martin is policy director of the Centre for Scottish Public Policy.
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