Thursday, November 13, 2008

A Calman Influence

Sorry about the infrequent posts of late. Don't worry – I haven't caught the travel, quitting or simply taking a breather bugs like many other Scottish blogistas. I've actually been trying to get back to normal after several lost weekends in Glenrothes, restoring in the process a modicum of domestic order (Saturday long-lies, how I've missed you). That, and dipping into the recent submission of HM Government to the Calman Commission.

Calman was a response to the Scottish Government's 'National Conversation'. Initiated by Wendy Alexander, it represented a shift away from the 'no change' position on the constitution under which flag Labour sailed to defeat at the last election.

Regular readers are probably already aware of my scepticism towards Calman, and more casual surfers would probably be able to work it out in short order. Essentially, the Commission was based on the same ploy as the Constitutional Convention - exclude the SNP from the outset, and thereby some of the minds which have thought most deeply about how Scotland could be governed differently. Draw together a group of the politically reliable great and good, whom after weighty deliberation will come down for a suitably safe and minimalist solution, which will then be portrayed as a sensible consensus position with which only the fringes could possibly take issue.

Calman, which claims to be 'evidence based', will listen to any opinion unless it supports independence. However, constitutional arguments are based on principle foremost. Even if all the evidence gathered pointed to independence as the constitutional settlement superior to all others, they would in principal hold key powers back, because its participants have been chosen on the basis of being ideologically thirled to unionism come what may. In that respect, it's a contrasting approach to the Conversation in that subject to a referendum, the Conversation at least held out the possibility of navigating towards a settlement which fell short of Independence.

Surprise surprise, the HM Government submission states its belief that 'devolution within the Union is working well for Scotland'. Further, it believes that 'the Union benefits all parts of the United Kingdom'. We also 'benefit from a strong economy and share critical common interests, in respect of national integrity and security, in facing global challenges which are played out on an international stage'. Furthermore, with our 'strong set of shared values', we 'share in a British identity, represented by a common culture and institutions, which further serves to unite people across our historic nations'.

Stirring stuff. I'm not going to criticise these sentiments here in any way because for many, they will indeed be held deeply. It's hardly a surprise to find that the Labour Party in government continues to support the fundamental principals behind the Scotland Act which was amongst its first pieces of legislation in office. However, what I will criticise is the way in which what purports to be an impartial submission from government has been allowed to become an outlet for Labour Party point scoring.

Essentially, all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds, with the current settlement, if not quite perfect and holy in all ways, then pretty damn close. While there might be a prima facie case to consider, at the margins, some further executive devolution in the interests of sound government and administration, the case for re-opening the Scotland Act is as yet unproven. Although the time may be right to consider the successes of devolution to date, the climate for change is not opportune. There are a number of difficulties which must be overcome. Frankly, given the extensive nature of the powers already devolved, it is hard to see which further powers, if any, it would be desirable to transfer.

Sorry, I was paraphrasing there while half-watching an episode of 'Yes Minister' on DVD, but you get the drift. All this would be fine in itself – after all, as a nationalist, It'd be ludicrously easy to present my case for Independence against a backdrop of no change, rather than against a moveable feast of further devolution which would be trimmed in accordance to how big an electoral threat the SNP happened to be at the time. No, it's the political posturing which has been allowed to creep into a government document in which gets me.

What on earth has the future of council tax benefit following the introduction of a local income tax got to do with the possible reconfiguring of the constitutional settlement? Why are planning laws clearly devolved to Scotland being cited in connection with nuclear power? Is it because they might be used? Why is the Treasury talking of 'assigned revenues' – which would remove the stability of Barnett without replacing it with the benefits of fiscal powers – unless to hint that further change would be used to put Scotland at a disadvantage? And so on and so forth.

As you'd expect from Whitehall, it's a polished and unified presentation. Allied to the natural reluctance of the lesser spotted Permanent Secretary to lose any influence over his Bailiwick, I suspect the dead-hand of Scotland Office special advisers and their Scottish counterparts elsewhere in Whitehall, ensuring that the views of Gordon Brown prevail, not just on matters constitutional, but also to make further political points on issues largely unrelated.

I can certainly appreciate the artistry involved, if not the politics or the principle. Nevertheless, the interesting bit for me is how all this will play back amongst the devol-unionists in Scotland, whom you can split broadly into two categories – the tacticians, who only want to do what is absolutely necessary to blunt the SNP challenge, and the genuine devolvers, who think that granting further powers is the right thing to do irrespective as to how well the SNP performs.

Unloved in Downing Street from the outset, following Ms Alexander's fall from grace the Commission has lacked a patron. However, even if the Commission surprises us all and comes up with a substantial package of fiscal and political powers to transfer, the signs for success, if you define proposals turned into actions as success, seem limited.

Westminster is where the legislation has to take place. Clearly, there is scant appetite in government and amongst Labour MPs for further significant devolution. Also clear is the lack of influence which anyone in the Labour parliamentary group at Holyrood has over their Westminster counterparts. As such, what leverage will there be amongst participants to actually implement the proposals of the Commission if they turn out to go much beyond what this document seems prepared to concede?

If you only want to dish the nats, then that's something you can live with so long as they cease to be a political threat. However, it's unlikely to please Calman supporters whose leverage, on their own, is negligible. The greatest influence they have, if only they could realise it, comes from the prospects of further electoral success for the folks they were so determined to again exclude from the outset.

People have long known that you need to vote SNP to get independence, but what a bounteous electoral reward awaits if the penny drops that the route to a stronger parliament within a reformed union also lies with a strengthened SNP. It doesn't suit the occasionally tribal nature of Scottish politics to recognise, but there's much more common ground out there than many are prepared to admit. The next Westminster election could be about to get very interesting indeed...

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