It is also a timely reminder that the discussions the UK parties have already had on extending devolution need not – in fact should not – be the last word. The forthcoming negotiations on strengthening the powers of the Holyrood Parliament are a matter of great historical significance in the wake of the independence referendum, and we must ensure that the thinking involved in this process has the breadth and depth required to be equal to the moment.
The merits and demerits of new legislation on gender balance for MSPs will no doubt be hotly debated – it is a highly emotive subject with strong views on both sides of the argument. But at present, Holyrood is not entitled to hold that debate. The necessary power to make the change – or, indeed, to consider and reject it – lies with Westminster. The cross-party alliance that is raising this issue today would like the devolution of this power to be discussed by the Smith Commission, which will shortly begin negotiations with all of Scotland’s parties, and wider Scottish civic society, on which new responsibilities should come Holyrood’s way.
On 18 September, a day that will be written indelibly into the history books, Scotland voted to stay within the UK. But it did not vote for things to stay the same. All sides in this process have to accept the reality that the final weeks of the referendum campaign, culminating in the high turnout and closer than expected result, have changed the Scottish political landscape. And that new landscape poses a challenge to all senior Scottish and UK politicians involved in this process, as well as the wider Scottish civic society.
The Labour and Tory plans for further devolution were prepared at a time when the Better Together campaign anticipated a comfortable win. They were a significant step forward in improving Holyrood’s accountability, responsibility and effectiveness. But they were a disappointment to many, including this newspaper.
Our verdict at the time was that they were a useful basis for further discussion and bolder thinking. The time has now come for that further discussion, and that boldness. The No camp only won Scotland’s independence referendum because in the final days the UK leaders vowed a much stronger Holyrood, and Gordon Brown made a series of barnstorming interventions – clearly under the No campaign banner – that raised voters’ expectations on what might be on the table. There can be no doubt that at a time when the polls had the campaigns neck and neck, it was this heightened expectation of a powerhouse parliament at Holyrood that won the day for the pro-UK camp. Fully one in four No voters later cited this as their main reason for backing the Union.
And yet this weekend the signs are that this message has not fully sunk in. True, our news story today reveals that Labour is likely to review its rather grudging plans for income tax powers, and the Tories are likely to match Labour’s offering on welfare. But neither of these parties is talking about what new powers and competencies can be included to meet the raised expectations of the public. This is a mistake, to say the least.
Also missing from the debate is a recognition that the restructuring of the UK proposed by the Prime Minister, with English votes for English laws in the Commons, is a further change to the dynamic of the negotiations which are about to begin. This proposed rebalancing of the UK constitution removes much of the pressure on the Smith Commission to consider how English voters might view the idea of new powers being devolved to Scotland. Devolution all round, settling the West Lothian Question for once and for all, liberates the debate and allows a more unfettered examination of Scotland’s options.
In an analysis in our news pages today, leading constitutional academic Professor Alan Trench cautions against new elements being thrown into the mix during a very tight timetable. This is a valid point. But it may well be overtaken by the political need for the UK parties to come up with a new blueprint for Holyrood that is demonstrably a big step forward, to satisfy the new Scottish mood. Because make no mistake, the public appetite for significant change is now strong. The new settlement must satisfy not just the 55 per cent of Scots who voted No. That is insufficient to the task. The aim of the Smith Commission must ultimately be to produce a settlement that the vast majority of Scots – at least three out of every four voters – can welcome as a genuine step change in Holyrood’s capabilities. This must include the substantial number of Yes voters who backed independence because they had abandoned hope of Westminster delivering more powers within the UK.
The bar of expectation is therefore set high. Higher than Labour and the Tories appear to realise at the moment. A mindset which may have seemed sensible six months ago will no longer do. If principle will not lead to a change of mind, then self-preservation may have to. If Labour digs in its heels, the price is likely to be heavy losses to the SNP at the general election next spring, a setback that could jeopardise the party’s chances of ejecting David Cameron from Downing Street. The attitude of the SNP will also be crucial. In a tricky challenge for the likely new leader of the party, Nicola Sturgeon, a balance has to be struck between narrow party advantage and the wider Scottish national interest. She can – and should – press for extra powers, but Scottish unity ultimately depends on the nationalists being able to give the commission’s conclusions its backing.
A key task of the Smith Commission is to end the divisions of the referendum campaign and unite Scotland around a new future. That is only possible if that future meets the hopes of the majority of the Scottish public. As things stand there is much work to be done before that goal can be achieved.