Joyce McMillan: Reform in haste, repent at leisure

Two months is too short a time to plan Scotland’s future, and Lord Smith should make this clear, says Joyce McMillan

The Constitutional Convention had a decade to hone its demands. The Smith Commission has seven more weeks. Picture: TSPL
The Constitutional Convention had a decade to hone its demands. The Smith Commission has seven more weeks. Picture: TSPL

The Smith Commission, set up in the aftermath of the independence referendum to consider proposals for enhanced devolution to Scotland, is now seeking views from organisations, institutions and individuals across Scotland, about how it should proceed. Here is my submission to Lord Smith of Kelvin, the Chair of the Commission, in the form of a letter.

Dear Lord Smith,

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First of all, may I express my appreciation of your willingness to take on the role of chairing this commission, at such an unprecedented moment in Scotland’s history. The divisions highlighted by the referendum run deep, and there are profound feelings of shock, anger and alienation on both sides of the divide – often as deep, I note, on the winning side as on the losing one. As a veteran of the 1990s Constitutional Convention process which gave rise to Scotland’s present devolution settlement, I am also acutely aware of the complexities surrounding the whole question of Scottish self-government within the UK, and of the levels of goodwill which are necessary to make such arrangements work, inevitably imperfect and asymmetrical as they are – goodwill which may currently be in short supply, on both sides of the debate.

I am conscious, too, of the prolonged ten-year process through which the Constitutional Convention developed its proposals, and, above all, of the extent to which that self-organised process spread far beyond political parties, into community groups and women’s organisations, religious organisations, trade unions, green groups, and many others. In the light of this history, I think it is fair to say that the hurried reintroduction of enhanced devolution proposals into the referendum debate, in the last fortnight of a two-year campaign, showed little respect for the complexity of the issues, or for Scotland’s tradition of civic debate on these matters.

That lack of respect is no more than another example of Westminster’s deafness to Scotland’s political discourse which also includes the continuing failure to grasp that Scottish discontents with current UK government are not entirely, or even mainly, constitutional. The broadly-based Yes movement, written off by the Deputy Prime Minister this week as a Ukip-style movement, was in fact – as you will be well aware – largely a centre-left campaign preoccupied with issues of peace, democracy, economic and social justice, sustainable development, and local empowerment. These are goals which are also shared by many who voted No; and I would predict a short life for any devolution settlement which does not help the Scottish Government to address many of these issues, and to explore genuine alternatives to current UK policy.

So with those caveats in mind, I would suggest the following priorities for the Commission. The first concerns the top-down nature of the its structure, with two representatives each from the political parties who currently sit in Holyrood, but no formal representation from other parts of Scottish society. The Commission has made an excellent start in seeking views from the widest possible range of organisations an individuals. You are likely to find, though, that the parties ranged round the table – three of the five in serious decline in Scotland, the others wholly committed to independence – are often poor guides to the real priorities of citizens across Scotland; and this may require you either to think laterally about reforming your own structure, or to play very hard ball indeed with political parties who seem to be consulting their own interests – for example, on the devolution of a very restricted range of tax powers – rather than seeking to devise an improved system of government for Scotland as a whole.

Secondly, for the above reasons, you may feel that you are unable to take full account of views across Scottish society within the timescale available. I realise that the demand that you establish heads of agreement by 30 November, with details of proposed legislation to be published by 25 January, is written into your basic remit. If you find, though, that this timescale does not allow for full consultation across Scottish society about such a major set of changes, you might perhaps consider making it clear that in your view, powers devolved in such haste are not likely to be devolved well. Of course, by saying so, you might be prising the current Westminster party leaders off a hook of their own devising, in a manner they hardly deserve; but the long-term good governance of Scotland is more important than the transient pleasure of watching the current generation of political leaders struggling to meet their Vow.

And finally -– well, you may wish to say nothing at all about the governance of England, which lies beyond your remit. Yet since the Prime Minister himself has raised the question of “English votes for English laws”, you might wish to point out that our asymmetrical Union can only survive if the largest nation generally accepts that special arrangements for the smaller nations are necessary, in order to counterbalance the general dominance of English votes and MPs, and to bind the smaller nations into the Union by will rather than compulsion.

Once the language of aroused English nationalism enters the fray, on the other hand – and the English polity begins to demand “equal rights” with Scotland or Wales or Northern Ireland, regardless of its massively greater electoral strength – then the Union is effectively over, however long it takes to dissolve. And if David Cameron is too young, or too unschooled in British statecraft, to realise that, then it’s perhaps time for someone to remind him of it; someone whom he might respect, for taking on an exceptionally difficult job at his request.

In that job, meanwhile, I wish you well. I also wish you the courage and breadth of vision you and your Commissioners will need, if you are to look beyond the sharp immediate passions of this unique year in Scottish public life, towards those underlying goals that are always the very stuff of progressive politics – the real empowerment of the people, and the building of institutions that help both to meet their deepest needs, and to fulfil their most deeply-held hopes.

Yours with best wishes, Joyce McMillan