Leaders: Delivering devolution pledges is crucial

John Swinney (left) and Douglas Alexander at the service to promote unity in the wake of the referendum. Picture: PA
John Swinney (left) and Douglas Alexander at the service to promote unity in the wake of the referendum. Picture: PA
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AMID growing confusion in Westminster over the delivery of the promise of more powers for Scotland, it fell to the Rt Rev John Chalmers, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, to bring Scots together after an intense – and deeply divisive – referendum campaign. That he did magnificently, with words that caught the mood of millions anxious that the referendum leaves no permanent scars. Now, he said, was “a time to unite, a time to walk together”; to act with “magnanimity and graciousness to restore equilibrium”.

The service, marked by symbols of reconciliation and unity at St Giles Cathedral, was attended by more than a thousand people. Among them were senior political figures from both the Yes and Better Together camps, including shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander, Alistair Darling, and the SNP’s John Swinney.

It was an event sorely necessary after a two-and-a-half-year campaign that, while it was on the whole peaceful, was marred by intimidation, angry words, and aggressive behaviour. These negative aspects now have to be put behind us.

That, of course, will be no easy task given the confusion and doubts that have already arisen over the pledge signed by David Cameron, Labour leader Ed Miliband and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg last Tuesday to deliver more powers for the Scottish parliament. A motion to be laid before the UK Parliament today sets out a tight timetable.

But already there are divisions that cast serious doubt, not only on how quickly this pledge can be honoured but whether the party leaders can secure the support of their backbenchers for such legislation. The Prime Minister has insisted that the timetable would be followed, while Alistair Darling said it was “non-negotiable.”

However, there is marked disagreement over how the process of devolution legislation should be handled. Mr Cameron wants changes to move in parallel with plans to make sure only English MPs can vote on English laws – a major constitutional change for the UK. Mr Miliband, fearing that this could neuter the power of any future Labour administration, wants a slower process with further debate.

What is certain is that, whatever ambitious timetable will be proposed, any legislation will be subject to intense debate and scrutiny to ensure not only that it is robust but that it also marshals support across the UK as a whole and regions that feel neglected. That, after all, is what parliaments are for.

The Westminster leaders will need time to reach agreement. It will not be at all easy. But the major problem they face is that failure to deliver would unleash fresh bitterness and recrimination across Scotland: wounds not healed, but opened even further amid bitter cries of betrayal.

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