Brian Monteith: Chance to rediscover Britishness

Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond. Picture: Jane Barlow
Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond. Picture: Jane Barlow
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Unionist politicians must get their vision for Scotland after the vote across to the public, writes Brian Monteith

It IS Easter recess at both Westminster and Holyrood and it is the ideal time for our politicians to use the spare time on their hands to think thoughtful thoughts about what shape Scotland could look like after the independence referendum.

For all the talk of membership of the European Union or Nato, what currency we might have and whether we will still be British or not, there is still a great deal to be heard from both the Yes and No campaigns about what their visions are.

The onus is on those who want change to describe how our institutions will change to better suit working in a small independent state. It’s not impossible to describe what should be put in place. There are plenty of examples about, either in Europe or as far afield as New Zealand, and yet when Alex Salmond talks about the constitution he would rather discuss lofty abstract rights to free services than how the laws by which we are governed will actually be made.

Designed as it was to cope with the limited workload of devolved matters, surely the current Scottish Parliament will not be able to cope with the additional responsibilities that Westminster handles, such as foreign affairs, welfare, defence and more?

If the referendum delivers a Yes vote, will we need a larger parliament with more elected members so that there is a large enough pool of talent for any government to draw upon and for the opposition to man the necessary legislative and scrutiny committees? If that’s the case then, horrors, we will undoubtedly need an extension to the parliament building and a refit of the existing chamber.

Is the spectre of the huge expense of the new parliament what haunts the SNP and prevents it from talking about such matters openly and honestly? And it does not end there, for it is perfectly reasonable to ask if we are to have a new sovereign parliament should we then have a second, revising chamber?

There are many who believe the quality of legislation emanating from Holyrood is relatively poor and would benefit from greater inspection and lengthier consideration, but again it would require more politicians, more expenses, more accommodation and increased pension payments to the legislators. Good democracy does not come cheap, but thanks to expenses scandals at both parliaments the cost of politicians is not something the SNP will be keen to raise.

It is not as if the SNP should feel any loyalty to the current Holyrood model. Having not taken part in the Constitutional Convention, it is not their design. The SNP’s hands are relatively clean with regard to any faults inherent at Holyrood and should not wait until after a referendum to present their thoughts.

For all the case for change needs to be presented by the Yes campaign – and will become more explicit when the Scottish Government publishes its White Paper on an independent Scotland this October – there is also pressure on the No campaign. Polling continues to suggest the Scottish public is not satisfied with the status quo and the three main unionist parties have all now come round to the view that even though more powers have been ceded by Westminster in the latest Scotland Act, further reform is still needed – especially of financial powers. This may even go so far as to redefine how England is governed too.

Resolving the West Lothian question could result in certain days when only English business is conducted in the House of Commons, while a reformed upper house could provide 60 or so elected Scots peers or senators who could act as a second chamber meeting in Scotland.

This may seem a pipe dream, but just what will Scottish MPs be doing on the days – possibly weeks – that they are not actually needed? What will elected Scots peers be doing if the legislation being discussed is solely to do with the rest of the UK? In such a quasi-federal system all avenues should be explored by the unionist parties.

If the referendum records a No vote, and there is to be further institutional reform in Britain as well as Scotland, will we need both MSPs and MPs? Can we not merge the positions and have Holyrood sitting for, say, three weeks and Westminster sitting for five, or some such arrangement? This would allow us to reduce the total number of politicians and keep some control over the cost of democracy. It’s not an original thought, for something like it is already being suggested by a group called DevoSimple.

The DevoSimple website may not offer all the solutions that Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson will be looking for but as the commission led by Lord Strathclyde which she appointed starts to consider what changes the Conservatives would favour, there is much in what DevoSimple proposes that should appeal. Combined with greater clarity about tax-varying powers and more assigned taxes, its suggestion for reducing the number of politicians must strike a chord.

In London, meantime, while we Scots consider the institutions necessary for Scotland’s future, David Cameron could take a leaf out of Davidson’s book and consider how to extend the reform of Britain’s political institutions – irrespective of how we vote in 2014. He should not limit his Easter recess thinking to the relationship between Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and not just to Lords reform, but also the relationship with other territories such as the Isle of Man, the Channel Islands, Gibraltar and the Falklands.

If the French and Italian parliaments can have overseas constituencies, what is to stop a UK parliament making such arrangements – both for overseas residents and the territories and former colonies? Pulling the wider British family closer together while loosening the domestic constraints at home would rectify the long-term neglect of London’s metropolitan elite that serves to undermine the British identity.

Unionists should see the referendum as an opportunity to rediscover their Britishness and to redefine what it is at home and abroad. In taking such an approach, the positive justifications for remaining British will be seen more easily and the optimal institutional arrangements can then be designed.