Malcolm Chisholm: Labour must support Devo-Max and abandon Calman


by a Newsnet reporter

A senior figure within the Labour party in Scotland has called on the party to reject the Calman Commission and support Devo Max if it is to have any chance of regaining its former electoral popularity.  

Malcolm Chisholm, MSP for Edinburgh North & Leith, has published an article in the Labour Hame website calling on the party to drop the “corrosive negativity” which has defined the party since it lost power in the Scottish Parliament in 2007.  Mr Chisholm has called on Labour to develop a new public narrative saying, “It is high time we were … consistently and substantially positive.”

Mr Chisholm believes that the Calman Commission has not delivered a meaningful outcome, and Labour must find a new answer to the constitutional question.  Calman has proven so unsatisfactory that Mr Chisholm admitted that some senior party colleagues would prefer independence to the Calman proposals.  Calling on the party to distance itself from Calman and the Scotland BIll he said:  “Scottish Labour is currently caught on the Calman hook and needs to get off it fast if we are to create a Parliament with meaningful financial powers.”

Mr Chisholm feels that supporting a form of Devo Max gives the party the best chance of restoring its political fortunes, saying:  “I believe that Devo Max in some form is the right position for the good governance of Scotland and the best way of ensuring that Scottish priorities are to the fore in all domestic policy areas.  Those who are not convinced of that should perhaps reflect that nailing our colours to Calman and the Scotland Bill will boost the independence vote in the forthcoming referendum, as evidenced a few weeks ago when two well-known Labour figures told me they would vote for independence if the alternative was Calman.”  

Although the official party line has been to call for an immediate single question referendum, Mr Chisholm believes that this is wrong-headed and has come out in support of a multi-question referendum such as that proposed by the Scottish Government.  “We need a three question referendum and Labour has to define what Devo Max means as a matter of urgency.”

He added: “Scottish Labour must respond by developing a Devo Max position.  To be pedantic, that does not have to mean the greatest possible devolution but certainly means very great devolution.  We should therefore not just look at what has come to be called Devo Max – that is, the devolution of all taxes and revenues to Scotland – but also at intermediate positions such as the Devolution Plus advocated by Reform Scotland.”

Mr Chisholm is not afraid to openly challenge the hierarchy of the Labour party when he feels they have taken the wrong decision.  As an MP he briefly served as Under Secretary of State for Scotland during the first few months of the Blair government, but resigned in protest at the government’s decision to cut benefits to single parent families.

In 2006 while a member of Jack McConnell’s Labour administration, Mr Chisholm criticised the decision of Tony Blair’s government to renew the Trident programme, in open opposition to Mr McConnell.  Mr Chisholm resigned from his position of Communities Minister after giving his support an SNP motion to oppose the replacement of the nuclear missiles.

Mr Chisholm is the first serving Labour MSP to openly reject the Calman proposals and support devolution max.  Some saw Douglas Alexander’s recent speech, which was also highly critical of Labour’s negativity, as Labour opening a narrow door to the possibility of further constitutional change than envisaged by the Calman Commission.  Mr Chisholm’s article now brings this debate into the open.

Responding to the article, SNP MSP and Scotland Bill Committee member Stewart Maxwell MSP said:

“Malcolm Chisholm’s comments will cut to the core of many Labour MSPs who know that the only way forward for their party is to support the ambitions of the Scottish people for more powers for the parliament.

“Malcolm Chisholm is spot on that the Calman powers are a poor deal that does not deliver the real improvements Scotland needs. It is no surprise some Labour members would rather see independence than be caught in the Tories tax trap.

“An overwhelming majority of Scots want to see Holyrood have more fiscal responsibility.  The Social Attitudes Survey shows that three-quarters of Scots believe that the Scottish Parliament rather than Westminster should have key powers, at the same time as the polls show independence moving ahead both north and south of the Border.

“The ambitions of the people of Scotland go far beyond those of the current Labour, Lib Dem or Tory parties, and it should be welcomed that leading figures in Labour agree with the SNP that the Scotland Bill simply doesn’t go far enough.

“Malcolm Chisholm now joins Henry McLeish, Eric Joyce and even Lord Foulkes in demanding a new deal with devolution max for the Scottish Parliament.

“The question that Margaret Curran, the new Shadow Scottish Secretary, has to answer is where Labour actually stands.

“In the referendum, will Labour stand with the Tories in rejecting any new powers for Scotland – or will they join with the vast majority of people in Scotland in calling for financial and economic clout for Scotland’s Parliament and Government?”