Leaders: Political landscape makes Smith’s job hard

It is less than a month since the unionist parties proclaimed their “more powers” vow. In that short period UK politics has been transformed. The earnest pledges may come to mean little in a parliament that looks set for an epochal fracturing.

It is possible that the election could see more than 20 SNP MPs at Westminster. Picture: TSPL

The surge in support for Ukip has brought the party its first MP and almost secured a second by running Labour astonishingly close in Heywood and Middleton. It is a signal moment in British politics. Many voters are now disengaged from the pull of the three main parties. There is talk of a “breakthrough” – but it may prove a breakthrough only to gridlock in the Westminster general election. No party may be able to form an administration without support of one of the minority parties. Indeed, there seems no certainty whatsoever as to which combination of parties could form a government. And any government may struggle to claim legitimacy if it does not fairly reflect the way in which votes were cast rather than the number of MPs.

A key player will be the SNP. The surge in membership after the referendum portends not merely a strong campaigning voice for the fulfilment of “more powers” for the Scottish Parliament but also a marked increase in the number of SNP MPs. It is possible that the election could see more than 20 SNP MPs at Westminster. Such an outcome would give it serious leverage in determining who ultimately moves into Downing Street. It may also prove critical in securing Westminster attention on the promises made to Scots. This must not be lost in the fractious factionalism of a turbulent and unstable House of Commons.

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If this prospect is not sufficiently challenging, consider the huge weight now resting on the shoulders of Lord Smith, who is charged with securing agreement on competing agendas for more powers by the end of November. It looks an impossible task, with the unionist parties themselves divided as to the type and degree of the further powers that should be devolved to Scotland while the SNP, in its submission, has called for full control over fiscal and tax policy including income tax, national insurance, corporation tax, capital gains tax, fuel duty, air passenger duty and inheritance tax, together with more powers over welfare and broadcasting. Other areas on which Lord Smith may have to secure agreement include immigration and energy policy.

There are many practical as well as political considerations to be weighed – not least on agreement on successor arrangements to the Barnett Formula. And it is not only the effect that major change would have on tens of thousands of businesses across Scotland that has to be weighed, but also on the ability of the tax authorities themselves to cope. The thousands who have been politicised across Scotland will not brook a delay in the delivery of more powers. But realism must rule.

Full steam ahead for nostalgia

IF ANYTHING can woo a sceptical Scottish public to the charms of Dutch firm Abellio, the new rail operator, it is its proposal to bring back steam trains. This is not, of course, for mainstream journeys – in case travellers thought they might be going into a timewarp on the Glasgow-Edinburgh route. The plan is to run some steam trains on some of Scotland’s most picturesque and scenic stretches of track.

It is investigating running steam trains on up to nine routes, including over the Forth Rail Bridge – the first time Scotland’s main train firm has run steam trains for 20 years. It hopes to build on plans for steam locomotives on the Borders railway after it opens next September. Other routes being considered include that between Edinburgh and Inverness, which runs through Highland Perthshire and the Cairngorms; and north to Dunrobin Castle in Sutherland.

Few sights are more pleasing than that of a steam train gracefully working its way through Scotland’s majestic scenery, or crossing a splendid Victorian viaduct. A return of such romance and charm is likely to prove hugely popular, not only with overseas visitors but many thousands of Scots, who have long mourned not just the passing of the age of steam, but the loss of many branch lines and routes through the Highlands.

And why stop at a few steam trains? A re-introduction of the observation car would also be very popular. And while Abellio is at it, why not reopen some of those branch lines, too, that the Beeching axe so cruelly closed more than 50 years ago?

It could re-energise the Highland tourist market and reunite us with a glorious past so cruelly discarded.