Leaders: SNP’s abortion dilemma

There are subtle political difference between demanding all powers and demanding some powers. Picture: Neil Hanna
There are subtle political difference between demanding all powers and demanding some powers. Picture: Neil Hanna
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Different strategy required for home rule agenda, and Nats must make plain how they will use devolved powers

WHAT is the SNP position on the constitution? This is not a trick question – not yet anyway. The answer, of course, is independence. But what is the SNP position on the constitution when independence is temporarily off the table, having been rejected by 55 per cent the voters in a referendum? The answer to this one would seem to be home rule, a term that has meant various things to various parties over the past century and a bit, but which is now defined by the SNP as “everything except defence and foreign affairs”. This poses a number of practical problems for the SNP. One is the subtle but important political difference between demanding all powers and demanding some powers.

The demand for all powers can be dressed up in all kinds of noble rhetoric about self-determination and national destiny. But when demanding individual powers, the unavoidable question requiring an answer is: “What will you do with this power?” If the answer to this question is: “Nothing, really. We have no plans to do anything with this power,” then the supplementary question will inevitably be: “Then why should it be devolved?” This is the dilemma now facing the SNP over abortion.

The part that abortion played in the Smith Commission discussions is still something of a mystery. It seems clear that Labour commissioners told Lord Smith of Kelvin at the 11th hour that they could not sign up to an agreement that included a commitment to devolving abortion. So a curiously worded fudge was agreed, making clear that the Smith consensus was that abortion should be devolved, but falling short of a formal recommendation. Instead, all the parties, including the UK Government, committed themselves to new talks on devolving this power. These talks will begin to take shape this week, when Alistair Carmichael, the Scottish Secretary, writes to the five Scottish political parties and invites them for discussions about giving Holyrood the full power over the law on terminations.

This is where things get tricky for parties, such as the SNP and the Scottish Greens, whose commissioners argued strongly for abortion to be devolved. Because new scrutiny will inevitable focus on what they might do with such a power. The SNP health minister up until last November, Alex Neil, was in favour of a tightening of the law to make abortion harder to obtain. And today one of Scotland’s most vocal anti-abortion campaigners, Sister Roseann Reddy, calls for abortion to be devolved so that it can be outlawed. What is likely to become manifestly clear is that it will not be sufficient for politicians to say: “We want this power to be devolved, because we want all powers to be devolved.” Voters will want to know what politicians are going to do with this specific power. All parties will now have to set out their position.

There are many in the SNP who apparently believe they can switch seamlessly from campaigning for independence to campaigning for home rule. This is not the case. Just as the SNP needs a coherent and thought-through strategy for independence, with economic, social, political and philosophical underpinning, so they need the same for advancing Scotland’s interests within the UK. There is little sign of this at the moment, which is perhaps understandable given the SNP’s recent laser-like focus on full independence. But with a UK general election just a few short months away it needs to happen soon.

Some interesting policy initiatives – such as Nicola Sturgeon’s view that any one of the four home nations could veto a UK exit from the EU – are political orphans, because they do not derive from a fully-formed SNP policy on British federalism. In between independence referendums, is the SNP a UK federalist party? If so, where is the detail of what it believes? Is there an agreed policy? Or is the party making it up as it goes along?

David and Goliath no more

JIM Murphy this weekend gives a very big clue to his key strategy in Scottish Labour’s desperate struggle to regain the ground it has lost to the SNP. The nationalists, he says, have enjoyed a unique position in people’s minds as both “incumbents and insurgents”. Although in power at Holyrood, they have still presented themselves as the doughty underdog at Westminster, snapping at the heels of the UK government.

This has been an attractive proposition for Scots voters, who like nothing more than a plucky David taking on an unpopular Goliath. Murphy’s strategy is to cement the SNP in voters’ minds as a governing party running an administration that has too often fallen short of what Scots expect, especially on schooling and the NHS.

Why, you may ask, did this not occur to Labour before? Is it not rather obvious? Indeed, but the problem under the leaderships of Iain Gray and Johann Lamont was that Scottish Labour still had the mindset of a governing party – albeit one that, inexplicably in the minds of its senior figures, seemed to find itself out of government. As such, it spent its time in opposition making the tough decisions that are usually the lot of ministers – such as looking at ways to cut universal benefits to free up cash for frontline services. What it was not doing was what we normally expect from a nimble opposition – harrying government, making ministers look leaden and out-of-touch, while making promises that are eye-catching but conveniently vague.

Murphy is undoubtedly changing that, ditching the ‘cuts commission’ and focusing critically on Nicola Sturgeon’s handling of the NHS when she was health minister. The health service is such a big and complex target, finding some aspect to criticise is not difficult. But Sturgeon will find it hard to explain why the rate of growth in funding the NHS in Scotland has lagged behind England, where the Tories hold the purse-strings.

There are legitimate questions about whether Murphy’s new policy programme can be presented as coherent, and – given his New Labour political antecedents – whether he sounds convincingly sincere about its Old Labour elements. But increasingly, Scottish political ­campaigning is taking place on a level playing field.