A few weeks ago the party breathlessly welcomed a poll suggesting the English are more enthusiastic than the Scots about the idea of Scottish independence. A curious thing for the SNP to be pleased about, I thought. Surely the point is to persuade people in Dundee and Dunvegan, not Doncaster and Dudley? This weekend a different poll suggests English people are feeling more English than they used to, and less British. Again, warm words from the Nats, with Angus Robertson talking about “a new relationship of equality between the different nations” that make up the British Isles.
I’m not underestimating the part English opinion might play in the forthcoming independence referendum. In fact, I think it could be extremely influential – although not in the way the SNP hopes. The Nats assume that, come the campaign, the message from England will be “here’s your hat, what’s your hurry”, as my mother used to say. On the contrary, I reckon English voices shouting “good riddance” will be in the minority. The English, in my view, will respond more readily to the arguments of solidarity, shared endeavour, diversity, tolerance and common purpose coming from those campaigning for the UK to stick together.
I do feel, though, that as we head for the moment of truth that is the independence referendum, we in Scotland are worrying far too much about the opinions of our southern neighbours. I’m particularly unimpressed with the increasingly common argument used against devo-max, that it would rely on changes to the way the UK works that might not be acceptable to Westminster politicians or English voters.
This way madness lies. Or, if not quite madness, certainly the Calman Commission. The key failing of the Calman process was that the great and good who made up its membership decided their job was to recast the British constitution. As a result, Calman made far too many unwarranted assumptions about what would or wouldn’t wash at Westminster, and shied away from solutions simply because they looked too much like independence, which was, of course, de facto, A Bad Thing.
This was a terrible miscalculation. Calman’s job should have been to turbo-charge devolution so it became more effective and accountable, acknowledging a popular desire for greater autonomy. But because he was constantly looking over his shoulder towards Westminster, the end product was never going to be equal to the task. Calman reflected the staleness of the Unionist parties’ attitudes at the time. Since then, a Tory prime minister has moved into Number 10 and Alex Salmond has won a majority at Holyrood. Yesterday’s landmark speech by Labour’s Douglas Alexander – “if the Scottish people believe that we hate the SNP more than we love Scotland, we will continue to lose” – shows the distance travelled since then. The unionist parties have to consider what is best for Scotland, and that alone. That has always been true. But it’s now even more of an imperative.
This means not getting unduly hung up on what the neighbours might think, and how they might react. Let’s not lose sight of the key principle at work when deciding Scotland’s future. It goes by the name of self-determination. It is not Scotland’s job to reform the United Kingdom. It is Scotland’s job to decide what it wants for itself. It is then the job of the United Kingdom to accommodate those wishes.
It is not true, as some SNP strategists argue, that independence is a cleaner and less messy constitutional settlement than devo-max. Any negotiations on independence – unpicking a relationship that is hardwired with centuries of complexity – will be a fraught and tortuous process, with each side quite rightly pressing its case to the utmost to gain the best deal for its own side. Boy, will it be messy.
But that’s not to underestimate the complexity necessitated by a move to devo-max. Many of the same fiscal headaches – who is liable to pay income tax, for example – apply to any extension of Holyrood’s powers. The real complication of devo-max is, yes, of course, how you tweak the governance of the United Kingdom as a whole to accommodate a federal Scotland.
Let’s not fool ourselves, this is a biggie. However, some of the radical solutions being mooted are unnecessarily alarmist and outlandish. One rococo example I read recently involved the creation of a senate to replace the House of Lords, with a senator being the only legitimate candidate for prime minister. There are far simpler solutions, and many international models from which to draw inspiration. (My own preference is the creation within the House of Commons of an English Grand Committee to deal with England-only legislation and to hold England-only ministers to account. Lemon squeezy.)
There are those who mutter darkly about all this, saying Westminster will not play ball. The Scots cannot dictate the future shape of the United Kingdom, they say. The English will not have it, so why bother trying? I disagree. Over the past 14 years, in Edinburgh, in Cardiff and particularly in Belfast, Britain has shown itself to be wonderfully adaptable. In any case, why should we as Scots not get what we want? I hesitate to quote Canon Kenyon Wright, the kenspeckle cleric who was convener of the Scottish Constitutional Convention, but his most famous quote, at the launch of the convention in March 1989, seems apposite. “What if that other single voice we know so well [he was talking about Maggie Thatcher, but today it would be David Cameron] responds by saying, ‘We say no, and we are the state’? Well, we say yes – and we are the people.”