MacAskill sees federalism as the answer for Scotland

MacAskill sees federalism as the answer for Scotland
The Times, by Hamish Macdonell


Federalism is a constitutional concept that has been much discussed but little defined in Scottish politics. There are many models available, from across the Atlantic in Canada and the US to European examples in Germany and elsewhere. Each is different yet in the main works well and has proved long-lasting. It is also a structure that many in Scotland are sympathetic to and which the majority of Scots may be supportive of if a vote was offered.


Yet Scots have never had the chance to vote for federalism. Previous constitutional conventions, whether under John MacCormick or more recently under Canon Kenyon Wright, didn’t do so. Votes in 1979 and 1997 were on limited devolution packages, and the referendum on independence was an all-or-nothing choice. Yet at each opportunity many would have preferred a more radical constitutional option without the risks of the ultimate one.


David Cameron refused a multi-option referendum on the last occasion, seeking to try to crush independence aspirations once and for all. In many ways a limited choice suited some on the other side, as it was clear the middle way of a federal structure was likely to have won and negated nationalist demands. However, as polls narrowed in the days before the vote, panic set in.


The vow of significantly increased devolved powers was made by all UK party leaders to quell fears of separatism succeeding. Even Gordon Brown was enlisted to shore up Labour voters careering toward a “yes” vote by alluding to a settlement that would be akin to federalism. Some voted “no” believing that. Others would have preferred that option in the first place, rather than the status quo they were required to support.


However, instead of quelling independence demands the relative closeness of the result simply fuelled them. That was compounded by Cameron’s begrudging response to the outcome. Rather than being magnanimous in victory and embracing the increased devolved powers that he and fellow party leaders had signalled, he concentrated on English votes for English laws, thus rubbing salt into nationalist wounds. The near wipeout for unionists in the 2015 general election was the outcome.


Instead, the political solution put forward by him was the commission under Lord Smith of Kelvin. It proceeded piecemeal and far from coherently. Moreover, it did so at the pace of those most reluctant for change. Consequently, welcome though some measures were, it was far from bold let alone radical. Scotland finds itself yet again discussing further powers being devolved or the option of another independence referendum.


All that is compounded by the uncertainty caused by Brexit. Further devolution is talked of as powers are repatriated from Brussels. Arguments for continued Scottish membership of the EU or the single market are made. Yet the current devolution set-up is neither clear nor coherent. Abortion but not drugs, justice but not firearms, and so on. Though additional powers have been devolved other ones, and especially key economic ones, have not.


Immigration and foreign representation that other federal structures have are not even considered. The distinct needs of Scotland on migration and access to markets mean they are essential. The proposed powers are still less than a German länder or Canadian province, yet post Brexit they are needed more than ever.


More powers are coming to the Scottish parliament, that’s for certain. Isn’t this, therefore, the right time to try to get ahead of the constitutional debate, rather than continually react to events? Why not establish the structure that a majority of Scots want, rather than piecemeal powers being ceded?


Moreover, for many in Scotland the trench warfare between pro and anti-independence forces is stultifying. The drip drip of powers is not addressing the legitimate fears of business, let alone the aspirations of many people. This is the opportunity to seek to break the constitutional logjam bedevilling Scotland and consider a bold and radical option, in a federal structure. Rather than simply alluding to it as some theoretical concept, this is the time for a Scottish Constitutional Convention to define it.


Previous conventions have come from the Nationalist community, as with MacCormick or Kenyon Wright and the STUC. However, there’s no preclusion on one being promoted by those on the centre or right of politics, or even from the business community or civic society. What’s missing is the will. But given the risks posed by Brexit and the current trench warfare of independence versus the union, surely the time is now to consider a new front.


A third historic constitutional convention, at a time of political impasse, offers the chance to resolve Scotland’s problems. Those who invoked and advocate federalism have an obligation to step forward and seek to help define it. Others should be welcomed and would doubtless take the chance to contribute to a better constitutional settlement for their country, or even just from fear of public opprobrium if they didn’t. Both the status quo and independence wouldn’t be on the agenda. The former isn’t tenable and the latter isn’t sought by a majority.
Federalism offers a potential route forward for unionists to improve the constitutional settlement and for nationalists to maintain the dream. It moves Scotland forward. It also allows a coherent structure for troubled times and one that has been sought by many for a long time.