Lesley Riddoch: Back to pursuing Smith proposals

Deputy First Minister John Swinney says Bill 'flies in the face of the spirit and letter of the Smith Commission'. Picture: Greg Macvean
Deputy First Minister John Swinney says Bill 'flies in the face of the spirit and letter of the Smith Commission'. Picture: Greg Macvean
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AS PROSPECTS for indyref2 recede, the fight with Westminster turns to the Scotland Bill, says Lesley Riddoch

So no-one in the Scottish Government is currently planning for indyref2. That emphatic statement was made this weekend by Alyn Smith MEP – also a member of the SNP’s policy-making national council – who says party leaders are “shattered” after the lengthy referendum campaign and general election and want to focus on running Scotland and winning the forthcoming Holyrood elections. The Euro MP, speaking in Brussels, also said he did not “for a second” think it was “automatic” that a UK exit from Europe would influence the timing of indyref2. Which is strange, because earlier last week he gave a much tougher message to the EU’s online magazine Euroaktiv, warning that “a Brexit could lead Scotland to leave the UK.” So which is it?

It seems safe to assume that a major change of direction took place on Friday when the First Minister fired the starting pistol on the SNP’s Holyrood campaign and insisted there would be “no short-cuts to independence.”

Three weeks before the SNP conference, the groundwork is being laid for a change of policy on the urgency of indyref2. As long as Nicola Sturgeon’s in charge, there will be no wild grab at a referendum re-run – no matter how often David Cameron’s actions inflame Yes supporters or former leader Alex Salmond appears to suggest the opposite.

Of course Sturgeon and Salmond’s soft cop/tough cop routine will likely continue and the Holyrood manifesto will warn about likely triggers for indyref2. But barring the unforeseen, it isn’t going to happen in the next five years.

It would be a mistake though, to conclude that David Cameron can now take pivotal decisions like leaving the EU or renewing Trident without fear of any constitutional comeback. Indyref2 is now on a slow rather than a fast burn as the SNP work to create a left alliance with Jeremy Corbyn and as many Labour MPs as he can muster to resist the impending clampdown on benefits and trade union rights. If that succeeds and helps create a few government defeats, the SNP will be the main victors. If that fails because Jeremy Corbyn is forced to shun the SNP MPs he sat with until last weekend, the SNP also win. Demonstrating credibility, the ability to govern and the extent of Scotland’s distinctive political culture are all part of Nicola Sturgeon’s long game to win over the doubting 55 per cent.

And even if indyref2 is off the table, there may soon be a flashpoint over the lacklustre Scotland Bill. Last week, John Swinney told Holyrood he may be unable to support it unless government’s proposals for further devolution get beefier, fast.

The deputy First Minister said: “The Scotland Bill is a series of missed opportunities. It could have given the Scottish Parliament powers over employment law and trade unions, or all of social security – protecting people in Scotland from the policies of the UK Government. As it stands, the Bill constrains our ability to use its limited new powers and retains vetoes for UK Ministers if they don’t like our plans. That’s not devolution, and flies in the face of the spirit and letter of the Smith Commission. It must be rectified.” And, he continued; “Without a framework that is fair to Scotland, the Scottish Government will not recommend that Parliament approves the Scotland Bill.”

That is a feisty and immediate way of reminding David Cameron that he is indeed living on “borrowed time”—even if the threat of an immediate referendum rerun has receded and he has a small Westminster majority. Both parliaments need to agree to the Scotland Bill for it to proceed and it’s not at all clear what will happen if Holyrood rejects the Bill, particularly if that move is backed by the Greens, independent MSPs, Scottish Labour and the Scottish Lib Dems. And that prospect is not unthinkable.

Just last week, Scottish Labour’s democracy spokeswoman Claire Baker demanded that devolution of the work programme should be added to the Scotland Bill which needed to be made stronger and did not meet her expectations. And on Friday Scottish Labour’s deputy leader Alex Rowley told Radio Scotland: “No ifs, no buts, Smith has not been delivered,” and continued; “We will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with SNP ministers to deliver Smith.”

So is Holyrood about to perform a surprising act of resistance? Certainly criticism of the lacklustre Scotland Bill has been gathering for some weeks – eclipsed by the refugee crisis, Labour leadership campaign and Indyref anniversary.

In evidence to the All-Party Parliamentary for Reform, Decentralisation and Devolution in the UK, the Vow’s chief architect, Gordon Brown said the UK Government was “…falling short on the delivery of the recommendations of the Smith Commission on Scottish Devolution” and added, “the case for action is enhanced if the government is unwilling to listen to alternative views.”

Then the Holyrood Scottish Devolution (Further Powers) Committee, which includes Tory, Lib-Dem and Labour MSPs, found; “the draft clauses do not meet the substance or spirit of the Smith Commission” and parts require “extensive redrafting”.

Last week a poll found that only nine per cent of Scots believed “the Vow” for greater powers had been fulfilled and this weekend, the SNP’s Westminster leader Angus Robertson MP responded to David Cameron’s taunt that Smith Commission powers had been delivered with a list of shortcomings on Universal Credit, benefits in devolved areas, top-up benefits, carers’ benefits, employment support and the Sewel Convention. John Swinney has also demanded a fair “fiscal framework”, linking the Scottish government’s budget to Scottish economic performance. And the SNP’s deputy leader Stewart Hosie has urged Jeremy Corbyn to back the transfer of powers over trade union legislation to Scotland.

In short, the battle lines are being drawn – not over indyref2 but over Scotland Bill1.

Is Scottish Secretary David Mundell ready to climb down and belatedly accept the amendments his government dismissed during Commons debate?

Is Scottish Labour ready to back the SNP’s game of hardball with David Cameron? Opinion polls suggest they face another SNP wipe-out in May, so they have little choice. Can the Lib Dems afford not to follow suit – indeed might Ruth Davidson even consider this a good moment to assert her own independent Scottish leadership?

Indyref2 may now be on the SNP’s back burner. But this autumn – constitutional challenge is still in the air.