AFTER last year’s frequently intemperate independence referendum campaign, the coming together of political parties – both nationalist and unionist – to agree a new constitutional settlement for Scotland was hugely important.
Those who participated in the Smith Commission on greater devolution sent a clear signal that, despite vehement disagreement over the future of the United Kingdom, they could co-operate in the interests of the country. But the work of the commission was more than a powerful symbol; it created a blueprint for a more muscular Scottish Parliament, thus satisfying the desire of the majority of Scots voters.
Tomorrow, the new Scotland Bill – which contains the Smith Commission Agreement in its entirety – will be debated in the House of Commons for the first time. This should be a reasonably straightforward process. After all, the agreement was signed by the SNP, Labour, the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens. All of the main parties at Holyrood had their say, and all reached some consensus.
Since the SNP’s landslide general election victory in Scotland last month, there have been clear signs that what seemed like a settled agreement is no longer so. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and her colleagues have repeatedly suggested that the Smith proposals do not go far enough, and that the new settlement for Scotland should go further to reflect the result of the election.
This is an understandable tactic, but the reality is that the SNP’s victory does not expose a public desire for Smith to go further; it simply confirms that Scotland is now quite firmly divided on the constitutional question.
Writing in today’s Scotland on Sunday, Secretary of State for Scotland David Mundell is generous in his assessment of the First Minister and her deputy, John Swinney. He asserts that there is more that unites him and the SNP leaders than divides them (though Sturgeon and Swinney may not entirely agree) and looks forward to a co-operative approach. It is to be hoped that Mundell’s prediction is correct.
The Smith Commission proposes a number of important new powers for Holyrood and we hope that they can be transferred and – crucially – used for the benefit of Scotland without the process descending into recrimination.
Mundell’s party was, 18 years ago, opposed to the creation of a Scottish Parliament but, having lost that battle, the Scottish Conservatives accepted the outcome and got on with things. Now it is the SNP’s turn to be magnanimous.
It may tempting for SNP MPs, who will always argue for more autonomy for Holyrood, to use the debate over the Scotland Bill to push for more, to argue that – given the party’s mandate – the electorate is being short-changed. But such an approach, while it may have political appeal, is not in the interests of Scotland.
The new powers contained within the Scotland Bill are, as yet, untried at Holyrood. The Scottish Government will have the authority to set tax rates and to alter welfare payments and it would, surely, be wise to see how these new responsibilities translate into a fairer, more prosperous country before clamouring for more.
The SNP, under Nicola Sturgeon, does seem like a different party to the one led by Alex Salmond. Sturgeon’s more conciliatory tone chimes with voters, giving her popularity ratings of which opponents could only dream. We hope that tone can dominate throughout the debate on the transfer of powers.
The Smith Agreement is not, we are certain, the final word on devolution. The constitutional debate will continue for a very long time. It is the dominant issue in Scottish politics at present and it is difficult to see when that might change.
But, while we recognise that, in time, Holyrood is likely to win even greater autonomy, it would be wrong for this to be done in haste.
Representatives of all parties met under the chairmanship of Lord Smith last year to perform the impressive task of reaching consensus, through passionate argument and wise compromise. Those politicians must see to it that they deliver.
Now is not the time for rancour and point scoring; it is the time for politics at its best.
Tatty, slow trains won’t do
TOO many Scots live in relative isolation. While our national infrastructure serves those living across the central belt well (or adequately, depending on your point of view), others are at a disadvantage.
Long neglected roads and sub-par public transport are all too common problems for Scots who live in rural areas.
So the establishment of the Borders Railway is very much to be welcomed. This long overdue project – which has cost some £350 million – may transform lives, opening up employment prospects for those in the area who have found it difficult to commute, and creating wider leisure options as well.
The money invested in the Borders Railway is, by any measure, money well spent.
However, this project is not entirely without its flaws. Concerns have already been raised about the amount of single track line, built to keep costs down. This will, inevitably, mean fewer, longer journeys. And now, we learn the trains that will run on the railway are not to be new, but old stock dating back a quarter of a century and still awaiting refurbishment.
This does not fill us with confidence as train operators prepare to begin test-runs on the lines.
The Border region is among the most beautiful parts of our country yet the area’s potential as a tourist destination has long been unfulfilled. by its inaccessibility. The new railway should open up neglected parts of Scotland to visitors and we would hope the experience would be as attractive as possible.
Tatty old trains and a slow service simply will not do. As the chairman of the Campaign for Borders Rail, Simon Walton, says, first impressions will be crucial.
Scotland’s last major transport project – the creation of the trams system in Edinburgh – was costly and produced an unsatisfactory result. Budgets over-ran and the planned routes were severely truncated, leaving many feeling understandably short-changed. Understandably, many Scots were unhappy that what was promised and what was delivered were wildly different.
We hope that the Borders Railway does not leave Scots similarly frustrated.