Barring a miracle, Scottish independence won’t happen in my lifetime (I’m rapidly approaching 78). And I’m not talking about miraculously becoming a centenarian. It’s the politics, stupid.
This growing gut feeling was reinforced on Tuesday, March 14, the evening of the final televised hustings with the three candidates to succeed Nicola Sturgeon as SNP leader and, hence, First Minister.
Asked by an audience member if independence would happen within the next five years, Kate Forbes, Ash Regan and Humza Yousaf obviously said yes. But it was a pretty hesitant affirmation by the trio that simply failed to convince – the audience in the Mansfield Traquair, the viewers and, more than likely, the 72,000 (we now know) SNP members who’ll decide this lacklustre election.
Throughout this peely-wally campaign the trio has only come alive when attacking each other or, now, the electoral process itself, with the Forbes and Regan camps’ demand for independent auditors to oversee the final count. “Ferrets in a sack,” says Blair McDougall lasciviously in his Notes on Nationalism (he would, wouldn’t he).
What concerns me is that the three have spent the last month in a virtual policy-free zone. Questioned on their views about closing the educational attainment gap, eradicating poverty/inequality, reforming/reviving the NHS, boosting sluggish productivity, funding public services and so on, they’ve mouthed vacuous platitudes. What proposals do they have for running Scotland over the next three years? Or do they secretly expect the SNP to lose at the general election next year and again in the Holyrood elections of 2026? Alex Salmond clearly thinks so:
Eddie Barnes, former Conservative spokesman now working with Gordon Brown’s Our Scottish Future, pretty much thinks so too: “The SNP knows that the independence campaign is, for now, on hold. Sturgeon’s doomed independence strategy reached the end of the road and unless and until the popular mood changes and there is consistent support for independence, there is nowhere for the party to go.”
His outfit has just published a paper setting out “16 concrete projects for the Scottish and UK Governments to collaborate on which could begin the moment Scotland’s new First Minister takes office at the end of this month.” But we should look beyond the immediate political agenda to consider a new constitutional settlement that facilitates in turn political and socio-economic renewal in Scotland and Wales as well as in England. (Northern Ireland is to my mind a separate issue likely to be settled within a 32-county, all-Ireland/EU context.)
A League of the Isles
Our occasional columnist Glyndwr Cennydd Jones, now with Welsh Labour after a period as a Plaid Cymru activist/thinker, has compiled a collection of thoughtful essays written over the past few years that make the case for what he calls confederal-federalism after looking at devolution, federalism, confederalism and independence. The name of the concept – and of the pamphlet, A League-Union of the Isles of Britain – indicates it may be tougher to digest than its author imagines. But he’s right: the federal horse has bolted.
The idea is not that dissimilar to that promulgated by the SNP itself in its 2013 White Paper, Scotland’s Future: sovereign authority delegated by the Four Nations to a confederal League-Union for matters such as currency, central bank, monetary policy, defence, internal trade, macro-economic policy. Other matters, including fiscal policy, would rest with the four national authorities. There would be separate judiciaries but a supreme court of the Isles. An elected Council of the Isles would oversee federal matters. And the whole edifice would be crowned by the current monarch.
“There is a crucial need for us to explore some form of broad, strategic compromise which embraces the concerns of both unionists and nationalists, moving away from a narrow ‘winner takes all’ answer to the constitutional question posed,” he writes. His own model stands federalism on its head by talking of a “union of sovereign nations” each, somewhat far-fetched, with a seat at the UN and the League retaining the UK’s permanent presence on the security council.
There is meat in here but my own view is that we need to revisit a constitutional convention that would, inter alia, examine a written constitution as well as reform of both Westminster and Holyrood, notably by abolishing the Lords in favour of an elected second Bundesrat-style second chamber (a rare good nugget in the much-criticised report of Brown’s Commission on the UK’s Future).
Henry McLeish, former Labour FM, has come up with some (largely overlooked) ideas of his own for Scotland, including greater powers for MSPs to hold the Scottish Government to account, not least through a more powerful committee structure. “The creation of a written constitution for Scotland, long overdue, based on the sovereignty of the people, as was envisaged in the work of the Constitutional Convention. None of this is happening,” he writes.
He adds: “Scotland must be honest with itself and replace wishful thinking about where we are and where we are going with a more considered assessment of constitutional alternatives. But so must Westminster. We are still on the foothills of transforming Scotland and not yet scaling the peaks of a settled will on Scotland’s final constitutional destination. We must embrace the long view.”
But, as Prof James Mitchell, one of our most-favoured columnists, has said: “Debate has shrunk to the constitution, everything is viewed through a constitutionalist lens.” So, as well as a rethink of institutional matters, we need a Big Debate – once the new SNP leader and FM is in place – that embraces European strategic discussions on transforming the economy and society. One that gets us out of our parochial bunker.
Featured image by Glyndwr Cennydd Jones in his League-Union of the Isles, Centre in Constitutional Change,