THE Electoral Commission surprised us all on Wednesday when it went beyond spending limits and the wording of the question to press for clarity on the process after either result in the referendum. It did not ask us to negotiate a solution on the substance of our conflicting cases as pre-negotiations are impossible.
Yet, on reflection, I believe this will assist those who share my view that Scotland should remain in the UK.
Although the Nationalists say negotiations could be wrapped up in 16 months you only have to consider what would need to be agreed to realise it may take much longer. To start with there is Scotland’s place in the UN, EU and Nato, never mind the UK’s 15,000 international treaties. When would the deadline be for the redrafting of centuries worth of legislation and regulations? What would happen if Scots didn’t like the deal secured by the Nationalists?
Whilst the SNP has a penchant for expecting voters to follow its independence plans in the dark, the Electoral Commission’s intervention will shine a light on the bare bones of Nationalist plans.
It also means the SNP will have to confront the possibility that it might not win. It’s only right that, if Scotland makes its position on independence clear and votes to stay in the UK, the SNP must be clear about what happens next.
If Scotland rejects independence, Alex Salmond must accept the people’s will and work with all parties to open the door to more powers. The Scottish Social Attitudes survey showed most people want decisions on domestic issues to be made in Scotland, whilst benefiting from the strength and security of remaining in the UK. Consistent polling has shown most are not in favour of independence but do want to see a stronger, more equal relationship between the nations of the UK.
A consensus is emerging on what those powers should be too. Reform Scotland’s devo-plus and the IPPR’s devo-more share many common recommendations with Sir Menzies Campbell’s Home Rule in a Federal UK. We agree that up to two-thirds of Scottish Parliament spending should be raised by the parliament. Although there are some differences over corporation tax and VAT, tax assignation or devolution, volatility and opportunity, the objective is the same: a mature and responsible parliament should raise most of the money it spends rather than being dependent on hand-outs from another parliament.
But Liberal Democrats also believe, in addition to a transfer of substantial financial power, there should also be an equally substantial transfer of constitutional power. Currently the powers held by the Scottish Parliament are on loan from Westminster. I believe they must be permanent. This would raise the standing of the institution to being more of a partner as a first step towards a federated UK.
Lib Dems are striving for a strong economy and a fair society so that everyone can get a chance to get on. We want local power, allowing local people to best shape their own futures, while sharing with our partners for safety, insurance and security.
Our plans for the transfer of financial and constitutional power could trigger changes across the UK. It is up to the rest of the UK how they choose to govern themselves but I hope our plans may encourage them to accelerate that process.
Is all this possible? Yes. In addition to the emerging consensus on the detail we also have political developments. Labour publishes its interim report on powers in the spring. Many, including Douglas Alexander, talk passionately of the need for more change. Ruth Davidson has reflected on drawing a line in the sand and is moving the Conservatives into the right space. Fiscal responsibility with more powers is a consistent position for her party.
And despite Alex Salmond’s belligerent response to my inquiry about whether he would be prepared to join the movement for more powers, his deputy has indicated she would be prepared to discuss this in the event of a No vote. This needs to be more than a token discussion as I believe we need to move swiftly after any No vote to developing an agreed plan for endorsement in the 2015 General Election.
That agreed plan is not just for those who agree that we should stay in the UK. It’s for the Nationalists too. If we are to achieve a lasting and stable constitutional settlement it must if possible include all of the political parties and a broad consensus in wider society. Now that the question has been set and the rules laid out, we can begin to debate the big issues around Scotland’s place on these islands. Should Scotland vote to reject independence, leaders of all parties should grab the momentum to secure a stronger Scotland in a United Kingdom. «