Ian Swanson: No need to rush powers through

WHEN Gordon Brown launched his barnstorming round of meetings in the last ten days of the referendum campaign, arguing passionately for a No vote, it seemed as if the former prime minister had found his calling – to save the Union.

After two years of lacklustre campaigning by Better Together and with the party leaders at both Westminster and Holyrood looking increasingly panicked by adverse polls, the seasoned politician had returned to the field to put some fire into the battle.

He spoke from the heart about the strength of communities standing together, about the history of people combining for the common good, of the experience of struggling miners who discovered to their own cost it was harder to rely on help from a country with a population of five million than one of 60 million.

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Serious arguments on a serious issue seemed to hit home and contrasted with the unconvincing “love-bombing” of Scots advocated by David Cameron and his colleagues.

Mr Brown’s campaigning led first to a cross-party pledge on a timetable for further devolution – though without saying what the powers would be – and then the famous “vow” signed by the three Westminster leaders, setting out promises on new powers for the Scottish Parliament.

When the results came in on September 19, the vote was a clear No. Gordon Brown, it seemed, had saved the day. Alex Salmond certainly saw it that way. In his resignation announcement later that day, he said the promise of more powers seemed to have persuaded many people to opt for a No vote in the belief they would see an expansion of devolution.

But now research suggests the vow and the prospect of extra powers for Holyrood was not so decisive after all.

After studying data on voting intentions, what was motivating people and how these changed in the final four weeks before polling day, Professor Ailsa Henderson of Edinburgh University says the belief in more powers did increase towards the end of the campaign – but only slightly.

Other factors were also at play. Support for No among the elderly and women was firming up, and those who had been undecided were finally making up their minds.

At the same time, the research suggests the Yes side was gaining support from a lessening of fears about the economic consequences of independence and a positive response to the idea that independence could create a more equal society.

Prof Henderson says the findings indicated that if the campaign had gone on another week, the result could have been closer.

But with the majority No vote, people are now demanding those promises on more powers are kept. Whether or not the vow secured the anti-independence parties their victory, they are under irresistible pressure to deliver.

There is some justifiable scepticism about the Smith commission and its drive for cross-party agreement on the issue – not least because the timetable set by David Cameron seems challenging to say the least. Lord Smith of Kelvin, who chaired the organising committee for Glasgow 2014, is expected to conduct a public consultation exercise, gather the views of civic Scotland – unions, businesses, churches and others – and get the political parties to agree a single package of proposals, all by the end of next month. Henry McLeish has called it “ludicrous”.

Such major long-term decisions about the shape of our democracy should surely not be rushed through just to meet an arbitrary deadline.

But that is what the parties signed up to and any backtracking from it will be regarded as betrayal.

It will be ironic if Scotland, having rejected independence after a prolonged campaign, with an avalanche of reports and studies on separation, and widespread debate, now finds itself having to accept a “more powers” package cobbled together in a hurry behind closed doors and without any serious research or discussion. Can that really be democracy?