Scotland faces confusion on the slippery slope to formal separation

Scotland faces confusion on the slippery slope to formal separation
David Torrance, The Guardian

It all started with a “vow”. Although nationalist caricature has it that this, signed by the three UK party leaders days before the Scottish independence referendum, was hastily contrived, in fact it simply formalised pledges made by each unionist party months before.

The vow was carefully worded, promising “extensive new powers” for the Scottish parliament (which was also to be made “permanent”) and continuation of the Barnett formula for public spending in Scotland. On the basis of the Smith commission report, therefore, the vow has been delivered.

At least, so judged the Daily Record, the Labour-leaning tabloid that originally carried the faux-parchment vow on its front page. But while unionists involved in the negotiations are confident the recommendations – chiefly devolution of income tax, air passenger duty and some benefits – have “over-delivered”, they don’t expect it to put the issue to rest.

Having set up the Smith commission to fail by quixotically demanding “devo-max” (devolution of everything barring defence and foreign affairs), the first minister’s response was predictable. “It’s not so much the home rule that was promised,” said Nicola Sturgeon. “In so many respects, it’s continued Westminster rule.” She seemed unaware that the term “home rule”, even during discussion of the Irish Question a century ago, has always meant “continued Westminster rule”.

But then SNP critiques of Devolution Mark III (Mark I was the original 1997-99 settlement; Mark II the Calman Commission, reported in 2009) were always going to rest on their interpretation of the vow rather than the vow itself. The Scottish government also has to keep the process alive. Hence Sturgeon’s description of the commission report as an “opening offer” at Thursday’s first minister’s question time.

This enables the SNP, currently riding high in Westminster polls, to fight next May’s general election on the basis of strengthening Smith. The more SNP MPs, they will argue, then the more powers Scotland will receive. But then at least the SNP is consistent: for the past decade or so it has argued for, ultimately, independence – but if not that then “full fiscal autonomy”.

Nationalists, therefore, have been able to ride two constitutional horses at once, while their Unionist opponents have been left looking grudging and reactionary in terms of strengthening devolution. Indeed, were it not for SNP success in 2007 (and again in 2011) then this debate wouldn’t be happening at all.

The Smith commission also leaves the unionist parties in a confused position. Most voters understand what nationalists desire (independence), but what is the unionist equivalent? For the Liberal Democrats it is, as the Scotland secretary Alistair Carmichael put it yesterday, “home rule all round”, but for the Conservatives it seems their vision for the union is an increasingly looser one.

Meanwhile the Scottish Labour party, in the midst of a leadership contest, doesn’t really know what it wants, despite having created the Scottish parliament in the first place. As ever, its Westminster representatives are unhappy at what they view as yet another slide down the slippery slope to formal separation.

And in a way, they have a point, for the Smith commission further reduces the distance between the constitutional status quo and independence, exacerbating existing tensions over the Barnett formula and West Lothian question, and in the absence of a strong, compelling account of what the UK is actually for then the only party that can conceivably benefit from this is the SNP.

Unionists now face a PR battle: convincing Scottish voters, civic society and the media that Smith is not only coherent but stable. They have failed in this task before, and if they do so again then next May’s general election will fast resemble a proxy referendum on a question supposed to have been answered more than two months ago.

David Torrance is associate director of Dundee University’s Five Million Questions project and the author of The Battle for Britain: Scotland and the Independence Referendum