Thursday, January 21, 2010

A Will To Settle Unfinished Business

Hibernation over. Here's a column for the Scots Independent, due to arrive through all good letterboxes shortly...

Devolution – the 'settled will of the Scottish people' according to John Smith, who famously regarded the creation of a devolved parliament as being 'unfinished business'. If you believed the Labour mythologising, that business was finished in 1999 when they and they alone passed the Scotland Act. Scotland had her Parliament, and the precise balance struck between powers reserved and devolved was perfect in front of God, enabling us to have those much fabled 'Scottish solutions to Scottish problems' while retaining all the benefits of our place in the UK.

Although a few enlightened figures such as Donald Dewar were prepared to pay lip service to the idea that devolution was a process rather than an event, a concerted attempt was made to cast the die. Woe betide any unwary nationalist who dared to upset the new consensus by suggesting that the new 'settlement' might not be the final act in the play.

The prelude to this mood music being struck up was there for all to see beforehand. At the 1995 'Great Debate' in the debating chamber of the Old Royal High School between George Robertson and Alex Salmond, the then Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland tuned up his unionist fiddle. Devolution would kill the SNP 'stone dead', he crowed. Attempts by the SNP to build on the powers of the Parliament by seeking independence would be to 'wreck' the new institution, 'without even giving it a chance'.

Nostradamus he most certainly wasn't. But moving on from the political ghosts of arguments past, I have a rule of thumb when it comes to the reporting of opinion polls which canvass on independence. If the poll is portrayed as representing a 'fresh blow' to the SNP, 9 times out of 10 the coverage is hiding something far more interesting behind the headline. And so it is with the latest work produced by the Scottish Centre for Social Research.

The research showed that on a question asking whether Scots wished to become "separate from the UK", only 28% were in favour, with 56% stating a preference for the present set up and a stubborn 8% wanting to see the parliament done away with altogether. Nevertheless, the devil, as ever, was to be found in the detail.

It's an article of faith for many unionists that an independent Scotland would be unable to support itself economically – an obviously false conclusion for anyone possessed of even half a mind and a stamp or two in their passport. Given the steady stream of ill informed newspaper articles and blogposts which take it as an article of faith that Scotland is somehow subsidised by a UK running a record deficit, the numbers are revealing – 31% of Scots believe that independence would improve our economy, 32% believe the effect would be negative while a further third are either unsure or don't believe it will make any difference.

It's clear that the SNP has taken its supposed Achilles Heel of the economy and played opponents to a draw. Seen like that, the prophesies of economic doom and gloom serve only to further entrench the never likely to be converted into their existing prejudices, leaving nearly two thirds of the electorate as fertile territory for the independence message.

Elsewhere, the message is equally positive for the SNP. When it comes to control over tax, almost 60% believe that Scotland should take the important decisions about tax, while an identical number believe the same about the benefits system. Only in the realms of defence and foreign affairs were the numbers reversed, with 60% preferring Westminster control to the 31% who wanted to see these matters managed from Edinburgh.

So, in the space of a decade, Scots have moved decisively away from acceptance of a constitutional settlement which saw taxation, public spending and welfare decided at Westminster, to expressing a view that these are matters which should be managed by the Scottish Government. Even if it still places voters behind where the SNP would prefer them to be, it's clear what the direction of travel is, and which party it is that is exerting the motive force in the constitutional debate.

It's evident that Scottish voters retain an attachment to the idea of the UK, which we can see expressed clearly in those particular numbers. Nevertheless, Scots obviously want to be a lot more independent than they already are, or are being given the chance to be. However, there is also clearly a great deal of 'cognitative dissonance' going on – the psychological discomfort which comes from holding two contrary views at the same time – when it comes to the figures for defence and international relations.

Most Scots were against the war in Iraq, remain opposed to nuclear weapons, and are supportive of Scotland having a direct voice in Europe, even if not yet the wider world. In view of the fact that it is impossible to have control over the procurement of weapons, the deployment of armed forces or the stance which Ministers adopt in international negotiations without independent statehood, there is considerable scope for the SNP to win these particular arguments in the future as well, providing they are set in the context of what independence might mean in practice.

If further devolution happens, it makes independence seem less of a step. With Gordon Brown having kicked Calman into the post-election long grass, if it is shown that Westminster can't even concede modest advances in devolution, the potential for moving the numbers on independence upwards becomes even greater.

But returning to John Smith, it's clear that he was at least half-right. Now, the only settled will of the Scottish electorate seems to be that the devolution we already have is itself unfinished business. It's going to be an interesting few years.