Friday, July 04, 2008

Calman, Have A Go If You Think You’re Hard Enough

Another Scots Independent column, albeit one somewhat overtaken by events - the 'Lib/Lab suicide pact', as one of my colleagues put it upon hearing the news that Nicol Stephen had followed Wendy onto his party's backbenches.

Still, the thrust of it still stands - However much they might wish it otherwise, the devol-unionist blethering classes can't simply wish away support for
independence; it's high time we learned what 'more powers' might actually mean; and that while the Calman Commission may indeed turn out to be a crock, it's still a gift for the SNP.

Do you remember the Calman Commission? Oh, come on… pay attention at the back, there. The Calman Commission – the one the unionist parties set up to produce options for constitutional change, right after they’d spent an entire election campaign saying no such changes were needed? The one which is now costing you as a Scottish taxpayer some £500,000? Still nothing? Oh, well…

This abstraction of your hard earned tax money started life as a plain ‘review’ before becoming, to the reported irritation of Gordon Brown, a ‘Commission’ on the future of Scottish devolution. Meantime, the Scottish Government’s ‘National Conversation’ on the future governance of Scotland continued along its merry way, boycotted by those behind Commission for supposedly being a ‘front’ for Independence.

There’s a crucial difference between the two processes, though. While the Government’s ‘Conversation’ has remained open to the possibility of people opting for a ‘settlement’ which falls short of Independence, Calman has excluded the independence option from the outset.

Amusingly, the first set of minutes state that “the Commission starts from the position that Scotland should remain a distinctive part of the United Kingdom”, before immediately contradicting itself by saying “The Commission will consider the distribution of powers between the Scottish Parliament and Westminster without preconceptions”. So, no preconceptions at all, then, except for those they already have…

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the Commission was set up in response to, and with the sole intention of trying to stymie the Scottish Government’s National Conversation. However, despite the shared aim of stuffing the SNP which exists in Labour in Holyrood and Westminster, the Commission has since its inception struggled to gain acceptance in Westminster.

The lack of enthusiasm for constitutional change starts from Gordon Brown down. Backbench Labour MPs are openly scathing, not least because they can see the erratic and unreliable hand of Wendy Alexander on the tiller, and because seeing themselves, as they do as still being ‘in charge’ of Scotland, they feel this is playing into the SNP’s hands.

In a sense, they’re absolutely right. If it hadn’t been for the SNP taking power, the Commission would never have been established so to that extent, its existence and the willingness of unionist parties to consider further powers is testament to their fear of being left behind by public opinion.

However, the most troublesome questions are not concerned with the principal of ‘more powers’ – that bit is easy. Rather, it’s the question of ‘which powers’ that is about to bedevil participants. I can’t wait to see how the respective positions of no-change unionists are reconciled with the federalist position of the Lib Dems. They may agree on what they don’t like – independence and the SNP – but what is it that they actually do agree on? And what about engaging with the public? Well, you know, I get the feeling that we’re not really all that welcome.

Public meetings have been ruled out as being too easily ‘hijacked’, and submissions which stray beyond the remit of the Commission (i.e. mention independence), may not even be published. The ‘experts’ on the Commission, some no doubt selected for their ability to bring empty minds to the problem, will deliberate, ruminate and cogitate. They will then hand down their findings to a populace which will remain forever grateful for being spared the temptations of independence, or the burden of being asked their opinion in advance.

That said, it’s still hard for me to see how the cause of independence can emerge from this twin processes of Calman and Conversation anything other than enhanced. Since the SNP took power, a direction of travel has clearly been established on constitutional reform and expectations set accordingly. Already, the Commission has every indication of resulting in a soggy, lowest common denominator compromise which satisfies none of the participants, let alone the rising aspirations of the voting public. It’s elitist, exclusive, top-down and prescriptive – the very antithesis of the democratic processes which were supposed to become the hallmarks of the new Scotland.

But here’s the rub. Since by definition the SNP will agree with every power recommended for northward transfer by Calman, to a large extent the Calman participants will be doing our work for us. For the SNP, the outcome will never be enough, but for Labour, the outcome is one on which they will never be able to agree as a final destination. And unlike independence, whatever Calman produces can’t be delivered without the consent of non-Scottish MPs.

On present evidence, that support is almost entirely absent. If Calman runs into the sand just before the 2010 Independence referendum, the British state will have been shown to be incapable of further reform, and people will cast their votes accordingly. On the other hand, if it does come up with a package of proposals, it will just whet the appetite for what seems likely to come. All told, it’s hard to see this as anything other than a win, win for the SNP.

Much as some might wish it otherwise, the issue of Independence won’t disappear on a whim of the devol-unionist blethering classes. There’s nothing so powerful in politics as an idea whose time has come and if those behind Calman really wanted to remove the legitimacy of a move for Independence in this Parliamentary session, they should have taken part in the Conversation so that the resultant fell some way short of what the SNP may have liked.

But they haven’t, and all told, that’s probably for the best. Calman was, in a former guise, the Chief Medical Officer for England. For a medical man, he seems to be taking an awful long time to recognise that his patient's case is terminal.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The position of the three parties in involved in the Calman Commission can be summarised easily.

1. Labour wanted devolution because they saw it as a way to keep Scotland as a Labour stronghold/gravy train forever and as a way to stop the rise of the SNP.

2. The Conservatives didn't want it at all.

3. The Lib-Dems saw it as a way to force Labour into coalitions in Scotland as a minority party in a hung parliament created by PR.

The problem for all three has been the rise of the SNP which devolution failed to stop. It's knocked Labour of its perch which has also upset the "permanent coalition" plans of the Lib-Dems.

What people forget is that devolution was never about giving any real power to the assemblies and parliaments which it created. It was to chop the country, (the UK), into provinces which were to be nothing more than regional local government. Scotland, Wales, NI and about ten English regions. The idea that devolution is based on the nations within the UK is strong, especially with the English devolutionists who call for an English parliament, but totally wrong.

The Scottish Parliament has its effective powers not from devolution but from the separate legal, education and government systems grouped under the old Scottish Office which pre-dated devolution. Where these powers were not already in place devolution did not create them as in Wales which got an assembly with no law making powers. Many commenters especially in England seem to think that Scotland's separate systems came with devolution.

So what is the conclusion?
Devolution was never about creating a structure in the UK where Scotland, Wales and NI became semi-autonomous in law, government and taxation. It was about creating regional local government which was very much subordinate to Westminster.

The Calman commission in thinking about extra powers for Scotland is going against the philosophy of devolution which is all about retaining power at the centre and is also against the natural unionist instincts of the parties involved.

It's true function was always to create a third, "spoiler", option on the independence referendum question, not to advance Scottish autonomy but Ms. Alexander even managed to wreck that one with her calls for a two question referendum. Unless the Calman Commision can come up with solid, costed and agreed proposals before the 2010 referendum it will be nothing more than a footnote in history, especially as any third option in a referendum will have to be accepted by the new Conservative government which will be in Westminster at that time.