Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Time for our constitutional

"Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour."

It's not outwith the bounds of reason to suggest that Alex Salmond might have developed something of a Messiah complex. He has received the glowing adulation of his flock - and the approval of the electorate - and looks out on a sea of expectant faces waiting for deliverance. Those who favour independence for Scotland know that their very best hope is to put their trust in his political judgement, let him call the shots, and cross their fingers that his winning streak holds.

Understandably, Salmond is loathe to call any shots too soon. Hence the "promise" to hold the referendum toward the end of this parliament - a promise which only solidified after the election result. (Despite the many cries of "it was in the manifesto", it wasn't.)

But also understandably, Salmond is keeping a weather-eye on the opinion polls. Like the rest of us, he can see that Scots are keen on more autonomy, especially given the second coming of Thatcherism in Westminster born from the unholy alliance of wet Conservatism and orange Liberals. But he can also see that Scots are not keen to break the ties of this United Kingdom. It remains only a hard core minority who see the battles of hundreds of years ago as recent scars, and talk of freedom as if they understood tyranny.

These hard-liners want the question put to the Scottish people to be yes or no - independence or union. The question that was always assumed to be coming. The question that hard-liners on the opposite side want too. But inexorably, the SNP seems to be heading towards adding a third option to its referendum question, the so-called "devo max" - a maximally devolved Scottish administration still embedded in the union but with some level of fiscal autonomy and some level of greater devolution of the powers currently reserved to Westminster.

It is an idea that could gain significant support outside the SNP - Malcolm Chisholm has recently planted a Labour flag on it, and it suits the Lib Dem federalist wing nicely - and would likely be preferable to the status quo to those Scots who don't want to countenance full separation.

But while the SNP absolutely has an electoral mandate to bring forward a consultative referendum on independence, their mandate does not stretch to deciding the shape of Scotland's future governance within the UK. Both full independence (crown and parliament) and the retention of the status quo, are well-defined concepts on which the electorate can be reasonably asked to judge. But the third option of devo max is not clearly defined at all - just as devolution itself was not.

To define devolution, a constitutional convention was created, comprising all the major parties willing to take part, and representatives of civic society and the major churches. It was the Scottish Constitutional Convention which drew up the blueprints for today's Scottish Parliament and its relationship with Westminster; the Labour party implemented the convention's plans following a referendum in 1997.

If we are to have a 3 question referendum in the second half of this parliament, then it is beyond question that the definition of the middle option is key to its outcome. It would be utterly against our constitutional history - and political decency - for that definition to be drawn up by a single party whose policy is to oppose it. A third option must not be created as political leverage to push the vote in a particular direction. The question people are asked must be honest, and clear.

So I call upon Alex Salmond to come down from on high and declare now the shape of the referendum he proposes. And if it is to offer three options, then he should ask the major parties and civic society to reconvene the Scottish Constitutional Convention now, with a remit to agree the definition of devo max in good time to allow a proper debate to be held before the vote.

If there is to be a third option, then the delay in announcing the timetable and format of the referendum cannot go on. A convention could take two years or more to agree (the last one took nearly ten), and there must be time before the vote for a genuine public debate to be had on the question once it is established.

The SNP - as the sainted Alex himself said - do not have a monopoly on wisdom, and this applies just as much to the constitution as to anything else. It is time for them to stop using greater autonomy as a political football, and to declare their intentions to the Scottish people.


  1. Excuse me, if you actually listened to the Guardian interview in which he discusses a third option, you'll note that he recognises that there is an appetite amongst the Scottish population for some kind of greater federal arrangement as a possibility of all this constitutional strife, but laments that no party has raised the standard behind it (Malcolm Chisholm notwithstanding).

    His point in discussing it was absolutely to suggest that he would be fine with a yes/no independence referendum - he said himself, "I won't lose" - but that were a group to come out in strong support of FFA or devo-max, whatever, then the Scottish Government would consider that as a possible question.

    Here, watch and see if you can see where I'm coming from: http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/video/2011/oct/09/alex-salmond-interview-video

  2. Craig, I have read what he said. I'm afraid I'm unable to watch an interview of that length with him though - the smugness overwhelms me.

    I appreciate that you are taking his comments at face value. I think that's slightly naive. The truth is that he is growing ever more likely to propose a 3-option referendum. He will blame it on whoever he chooses, but it will be his decision. And he will take it because he will see that he will lose a yes/no question.

    My concern, as I've tried to set out here, is that if he waits until he is sure he can't win on yes/no before proposing a 3-way, it will not leave enough time for Scottish society to debate and agree what that middle way might be before we have to vote on it.

    It would quite simply be wrong for one party to unilaterally come up with a compromise constitutional settlement which goes against the raison d'etre of that party. If it is to be drawn up, it needs to be done collaboratively, and that means it needs to start soon.

    We need a decision from Salmond, not bluster and not mind-games.

  3. Duncan, John Swinney said exactly that on Andrew Neil's show at lunchtime. Let others bring their ideas of indy-lite or whatever they want to call it, and it will be debated.

    Unfortunately the unionists are so tied into their London bosses' instructions that they're unable to think out of the box.

    How sad you're unable to watch a video in which Alex Salmond is speaking. In order to achieve as much information as possible I watch/listen/read what is said by those whose personalities irk me, but without doing so I consider it would be improper of me to say my opinion was not just purely emotional.

  4. Thanks for the input subrosa.

    My problem with Swinney's, and others', position is that they want to hold back the decision on whether it is a 2 option or 3 option referendum until they can decide which gives them the better chance of a 'yes' vote (or the best step towards it if a 'yes' vote isn't achievable).

    We cannot have a constitutional convention agreeing a devo max position only for the SNP to veto its appearance on the ballot. We need the decision on a 3rd option in advance of a convention.

    With regard to the video, I was being slightly tongue-in-cheek - but Salmond's personal style is a major turn-off for me and many others. His smug self-satisfaction is genuinely difficult to sit through. I can quite happily find out what he's said via transcripts anyway, so there is nothing dishonest in my appraisal of his views.