Margo Macdonald: My lords, why the huge rush

IF THEIR lordships Foulkes’ and Forsyth’s contributions to the referendum debate are to be taken at face value, the campaign mood music of 2012 will be a reprise of It’s Now or Never.

I number both peers among my friends and have collaborated with them on several diverse projects, sometimes successfully. Both contribute to the work of the House of Lords, and I, for one, thought George Foulkes helped develop professionalism in Holyrood.

That said, I believe both mischief-makers should be stamped with a Government health warning until the referendum on Scotland’s future governance is past.

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Like nicotine, if their words on the subject enter the bloodstream, the result could be fatal to the hopes of any person hoping to see Scotland transformed from being a country to emigrate from, to one in which people put down roots.

That both men love Scotland as much as I do is beyond doubt. But they also believe that, however much autonomy we exercise on our own behalf, we’re all still better off as the junior partner in the United Kingdom.

This is where we split company. I believe the political Union of Convenience entered into by Scotland and England at the start of the eighteenth century now prevents Scotland from achieving her optimum potential, being unsuited to the demands of the global economy.

The other big difference between the Terrible Twosome and myself lies in their being steadfast, if sometimes misunderstood, members of their parties and my independent political status.

I support independence but am unfussed as to which parties share my belief, provided they are democratic.

That difference may explain much. Both are trying to re-establish their parties under their new leaders within Scotland’s much-changed political parameters without changing their subordinate status to the Labour and Conservative parties headquartered in London to a Lib Dem-type federalism.

For example, HM Government is currently changing the rules on, and therefore the value of, benefits to some specific groups. This is opposed right across the Scottish Parliament, although the Tory group doesn’t shout about it.

The SNP’s John Swinney has said he’ll do as much as Holywood’s limited powers allow him to protect disabled people from Westminster’s decision. George and Michael are hog-tied on this, probably because of the harm it can do their parties and their impotence in preventing it. It also emphasises the difference between Scottish consensus and its English counterpart.

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Just when we’re examining the powers that should be vested in the Scottish Parliament, from the Dynamic Duo’s viewpoint, transferring the benefits system to Holyrood is edging too close to transferring all taxation, because benefits and taxes are the two sides of the same coin. Also, it’s getting far too close to the Scottish council elections to suggest such a potential vote-loser.

This example shows it’s more important to get the referendum right, rather than fast.

The current clamour from unionists to have the referendum ASAP has nothing to do with Scotland’s economy being damaged by investors being uncertain about Scotland’s constitutional future. It has everything to do with the SNP’s slowness in fleshing out the bones of independence to allow Scots enough time to evaluate in which ways their daily lives would be changed by Holyrood being a sovereign parliament, and in which respects visitors from Mars, or a man from Motherwell, would notice no difference at all.

Alex Salmond is entitled to say the referendum will be held in the last part of this Parliament. He promised that before his government was elected, but he’s been wrong to neglect the ongoing production of clear, well-researched information on the reasons for, and implications of, all policies coming under Holyrood’s control.

For example, the defence and security implications are enormous. There’s a huge difference between the type of security and defence needed by a sovereign Scotland and our present obligation to pay for and support a pretend “world power” responsibility so that the formerly Great Britain can eke out a few more years at the world’s top diplomatic tables.

A referendum allows us to choose between that and spending our resources on care of the elderly and other health services. But before that, the allocation of assets and liabilities have to be negotiated, including our membership of the European Union.

Those who say let’s get it over and done with are failing to grasp the complexity of deconstructing the political and economic union and simultaneously laying the basis for a new, practical, equal partnership and working relationship between Scotland and the rest of the UK.

Little thought has been given to the rules governing the actual referendum, although my peer pals are cottoning on to the advantages to their side to have Westminster do so. And two questions will need two referendums.

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Scots alone can insist on independence, but more devolution needs agreement from the rest of the UK.