Joyce McMillan: Can Gordon marshal federal forces?

Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Picture: Jane Barlow
Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Picture: Jane Barlow
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THE ex-PM’s ‘Vote No for real change’ call is welcome, but the odds against it succeeding seem too high.

POLITICS, so we’re told, is the art of the possible; and it’s a phrase I often recall, as I survey the turbulent landscape of the independence referendum debate, with its rich and hopeful centres of grassroots argument here, its competing dreams and nightmares there, and of course, its small, trickling electronic sewers of unpleasant abuse. It haunts me in particular when I hear expat Scots arguing that their exclusion from the forthcoming vote is unfair; as if – even leaving aside the excellent arguments of principle for embracing a 21st century franchise based on residence and commitment, rather than birth and blood – there would be any practical way of enforcing a decision that Scotland should stay in the UK, if a majority of those living here had voted to leave.

And the idea of the art of the possible came to mind again, earlier this week, as I noted the apparent growing consensus, among liberal-minded Westminster commentators, that further constitutional reform in the UK – including more devolution of powers to Scotland – is now “inevitable”, if Scotland votes No in September. On Monday, Gordon Brown wrote a piece in the Guardian in which he declared that Westminster’s claim to undivided authority over the whole UK is already gone for good, regardless of how Scotland votes, and that a movement towards some form of federalism will necessarily follow any Scottish decision to stay in the Union; and his view was enthusiastically endorsed by a handful of senior commentators close to the Labour Party.

Yet try as I may, I cannot see exactly how, in practical terms, any such new phase of constitutional reform in the UK would come about. History suggests, after all, that the Scotland Act of 1998 – the act that set up the Scottish Parliament, and was perhaps the most radical single piece of legislation passed in 13 years of New Labour government – only became possible because of a rare conjunction between an exceptionally well-organised grassroots civic movement in Scotland with a well-worked out plan for devolution developed over a decade, and not one but two leading political parties who were prepared to commit themselves fully to that plan. Even then, the scheme would never have had any chance of implementation if Labour had not won a decisive victory in the 1997 general election, with a majority that sidelined the many Labour MPs who were unhappy with the scheme, and made back-bench rebellion largely futile.

It is already clear that not a single one of those preconditions is likely to be in place in 2015, in the aftermath of a No vote, and the next UK general election. On the contrary, as David Cameron no doubt intended when he insisted on a divide-and-rule Yes-No referendum, Scottish civil society will be deeply divided and disempowered for months or years after September 2014 – and made more so by the conduct of those who would rather play Cameron’s game by foregrounding and headlining the negative aspects of the independence debate than give serious attention to the positive discussions about Scotland’s future taking place in communities across the country.

Secondly, if there is a Labour-led government in 2015 – and the latest polls make that look increasingly unlikely – then its majority is likely to be wafer-thin, and its position precarious. It will, of course, experience more pressure to respond to Scottish concerns than any Tory government; but given the weakness of the party’s own devolution proposals, and the colossal economic and political pressures with which any incoming Labour-led government would have to deal, it is hard to see how it could possibly prioritise Scottish legislation that would, under the circumstances, be not only complex and controversial, but completely unnecessary. If the SNP remains weak and demoralised for even a few months after a No vote – an outcome that would be more than understandable – then there will not be a large enough SNP presence in the House of Commons, after the 2015 election, to put Scottish Labour under the kind of pressure that traditionally delivers constitutional change at Westminster.

As for a Conservative-led government, their record of opportunistic electoral commitments on devolution, followed by failure to act in government, speaks for itself. It is possible, of course, that the relative strength and clarity of the party’s devolution proposals, announced last week, will encourage the Conservatives to act; they at least have a plan that looks vaguely practical. It is also possible that they see a political opportunity in devolving tax-raising powers to Scotland at precisely the moment when, amid ever-sharper austerity measures, they cut the Barnett Formula, and force Holyrood to make the unpopular decisions involved in paying for the shortfall. Certainly, the three-way devolution promise involving the main Westminster parties, of the kind suggested last week, would slightly increase the day-to-day political pressure to act, as those in opposition at Westminster seek “broken promises” with which to taunt those in power.

Given the likely disposition of real political forces after a No vote, though, the idea that a new devolution settlement for Scotland is “inevitable” seems optimistic at best, and at worst disingenuous. More devolution of some sort in 2015-16 is possible; but there is almost no chance that it will take a form shaped by the wishes of the majority of people in Scotland, or that it will be genuinely designed to serve our best interests.

Meanwhile, the Guardian’s senior commentator Martin Kettle – well aware that Scotland’s discontents with Westminster rule are shared by millions across the regions of England – has suggested that the best response to a No vote would be a UK-wide constitutional convention, to develop ideas for systematic change; and he may be right.

I have a feeling, though, that if we seriously want to open up a discussion about good governance across these islands, then voting No – and handing the current Westminster establishment another richly undeserved champagne moment, along with a perceived green light for “business as usual” – will be not be the fastest route to that outcome; but the slowest, and the one least likely to succeed.