The ‘iron timetable’ takes no account of the fact that the rest of the UK has not been consulted, writes George Kerevan
I want to apologise to the people of Wales and Northern Ireland – not to mention the good folk of England. Without consulting you, and with absolutely no mandate, the leaders of the three main, pro-Union parties at Westminster have decided to tear up the existing British constitution and invent a new one on the back of the proverbial fag packet. Be warned: this cynical exercise will impact on wallets, freedoms and life-chances in Cardiff, Belfast and Newcastle every bit as much as in Glasgow, Orkney and Prestwick, should Scotland be beguiled into voting No.
For three years, the Westminster parties have berated the Yes camp in Scotland for (allegedly) failing to think through in detail the cost, mechanics and repercussions of creating an independent Scotland. Yet with breath-taking insouciance, these same critics claim they can reshape not just the constitution but the entire UK taxation and welfare system, between 19 September and January 2015 – when the so-called “iron timetable” promises a draft bill to enact what Gordon Brown dubs a de facto federal state.
Even if such a legislative package is put before parliament in January, every consistent democrat in these islands should shriek objection. As a Scot who desires more political autonomy for my nation, how can I approve of a manoeuvre that denies ordinary people in the rest of these islands adequate consultation?
That’s always supposing the Westminster oligarchs deliver. I have no doubt that the pro-Union parties will attempt to keep to their “iron timetable” on giving more powers to Holyrood. If they don’t, Labour in particular will pay a terrible price in lost Scottish seats in next year’s General Election – enough, perhaps, to put the Tories back into Downing Street. The problem is less that the pro-Union parties renege on their constitutional bribe than that this cack-handed project blows up in their faces, resulting in a political quagmire that is actually worse than the “clean” solution of letting Scotland go on 18 September.
For starters, the other parts of this semi-United Kingdom are going to protest very loudly that giving only Scotland (de facto) devo-max is unfair to them and a hopelessly unstable arrangement in an otherwise unitary state. Then there are the Labour MPs in Scotland who are going to lose out when (inevitably) Scottish representation at Westminster is cut, as a quid pro quo demanded by the Tories. Besides, Downing Street has no control over the mavericks in the House of Lords, and so cannot mandate a parliamentary timetable – especially with a general election looming.
However, I don’t want this article to read like a rant. Much as I distrust what is on offer, I am willing to test the proposition. Here are three questions I feel need answered – before we vote.
First: Are the pro-Union parties willing to entrench Scottish sovereignty? In other words, will they entrench the existence and powers held by the Scottish Parliament from future repeal by the House of Commons?
Gordon Brown says we are being offered as near to federalism as possible when our English neighbour has 85 per cent of the population. But true federalism implies power sharing, not (potentially reversible) devolution. Is that what the Tories are signing up for? If so, it means and end to the discredited and obsolete sovereignty of Westminster.
Mr Brown makes much of the argument that 18 September is not about nationhood because Scotland is already nation. But surely nationhood is not something that resides purely in the mind. Genuine nationhood expresses itself in the political agency of the people. If Westminster were to accept the choices of Scotland expressed via Holyrood were sovereign and inviolable, we might be able to move forward to a partnership of equals within these islands. Otherwise, a No vote on 18 September is merely an interlude before the inevitable next independence campaign.
Second Question: Are the Westminster parties willing to fast-track the appointment of a group of pro-independence supporters to the House of Lords, to take part in the debates over the new legislation for increased powers for Holyrood?
The SNP has always rejected nominating individuals for the Lords, on the reasonable grounds it is an unelected chamber. However, there is every prospect that the Lords could throw a monkey wrench into the timetable for enacting the new powers, never mind amend them out of hand. It is test of the good faith of the Westminster parties that they let Scotland have a direct voice in the Lords debate. The SNP and pro-independence representatives could offer to resign immediately the legislation was enacted, if that satisfied their consciences. Equally, I have always believed that it was important for the First Ministers of the three devolved elected parliaments to sit as of right in any upper chamber, precisely to represent their nations.
Third question: Will pro-Union parties extend their proposals to include giving Scotland and the other devolved nations some form of direct representation on the Court of the Bank of England?.
The pro-Union parties have tried to focus the independence debate on Scotland’s influence over currency, banks and interest rates – or alleged the lack of it. But surely direct influence over these economic levers is just as pertinent under devolution. In both the United States and Germany, the central bank has representation from the regions and states, the better to harmonise policy. Do the pro-Union parties accept that should be the case in the UK?
I doubt if I will get an answer to any of these questions. So the best hope by far remains for Scots to vote Yes and simplify the whole constitutional mess for everyone in these islands. Wales and Northern Ireland will soon demand sovereign autonomy, even inside a constitutional marriage with England.
Then the elected governments of the four sovereign nations perforce will work out a constitutional settlement. Those negotiations, conducted by elected governments each with a proper mandate, are more likely to produce a decent solution than the cynical exercise now being embarked upon by the Westminster oligarchy.