Wendy Alexander’s lecture on Friday, A New Agenda for Scotland, was on one level an attempt to take the initiative on the devolution issue back from the SNP. Her proposed Scottish Constitutional Convention is clearly intended as a rival to the Scottish Government’s National Conversation:
This Commission should have a mandate from Holyrood, unlike the
SNP’s so-called national conversation. Hence next week Labour will use
its Parliamentary time to bring forward such a motion asking for the
support of The Scottish Parliament to set up such a Commission.
I believe any future commission must embrace the “listening”
objectives that were behind the first Convention. So letting the Scots
reflect on where we are 10 years on from our creation of the Scottish
It should have a strong UK dimension, in contrast to the earlier
Convention. Looking forward most Scots are looking to secure both the
devolution settlement and their common UK citizenship.
I would like to see a Commission endorsed by the Scottish Parliament,
and parties and Parliamentarians at Westminster so that it can draw in
the best ideas that the UK and Scotland have to offer. As with the
earlier Convention it will be vital to look beyond the politicians to
bring together business people, civic leaders, the wider public sector,
academia and the voluntary sector. (Scottish Labour)
In response, the SNP is arguing for Alexander’s proposals to be co-opted into the framework of their own plans:
"This announcement by Ms Alexander makes it much more likely that
there will be a referendum on Scotland’s future in the lifetime of this
parliament – as the SNP and over 80% of the Scottish people want.
task for the main opposition parties – who all now advocate more powers
for the parliament – is to define exactly which powers they mean, so
that the option can then be included on a referendum ballot paper.
"It would make no sense to define the ‘more powers’ option, and then not support a referendum so that the people can choose.
SNP have a clearly defined policy – independence and equality for
Scotland – and we are very confident that it will prevail in a
referendum when the people have the opportunity to choose." (SNP)
Clearly, there is a consensus that at a minimum, the Scottish Parliament needs new fiscal powers. I tend to agree with Anthony Barnett that if these are achieved, it would not be the end of the story:
I don’t at all believe – in fact it is an all-too-familiar British
trope – that things can stay as they are and that we have, more or
less, already arrived. I can foresee the Tories giving Scotland
complete tax raising and fiscal ‘autonomy’ while keeping their fingers
crossed that this is the case. But at some point this will lead to an
international, probably European clash over policy where sovereignty
What is less clear to me is the road to that first step. Given the competing processes put forward by Labour and the SNP, there must be a real danger that the devolution agenda will fall between two stools.
On paper, the balance of power betweeen the two parties makes for an intriguing contest. The SNP controls the Scottish Government but lacks a majority at Holyrood, while Labour controls the British Government and the UK Parliament.
However, the sheer disarray in which the Scottish Labour Party now finds itself must surely be a factor in favour of the SNP and its more ambitious independence agenda. Can the Tories and Liberal Democrats row in behind Alexander’s proposals, given that she is already beginning to look like a lame duck leader?
Any scenario for the immediate future in Scotland will have to address a number of questions:
Can the SNP get a referendum bill through Holyrood? Who will provide the necessary support?
How would a multi-option referendum work, what would be the options and which one would be chosen? independence, fiscal autonomy, or the status quo?
What will Westminster’s role be in negotiating/legislating any particular outcome?
I have my own thoughts on how this might play out, but I would be interested to hear others.