By David Torrance
Today the leaders of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, Scottish Labour Party and the Scottish Conservatives gathered at the National Monument on Edinburgh’s Calton Hill to mark their joint support for more powers in the event of a ‘no’ vote.
The aim is an obvious one: in the face of cynicism from the Scottish Government, which seems likely to be reflected by at least a sizeable minority of the electorate, the three Unionist parties are seeking to demonstrate that they’re serious about continuing the devolution journey should a majority of Scots reject independence this September.
Yet the choice of venue for this afternoon’s photo-call perhaps wasn’t a wise one. A memorial to the Scottish soldiers and sailors who died fighting in the Napoleonic Wars it was intended, according to its inscription, to be ‘A Memorial of the Past and Incentive to the Future Heroism of the Men of Scotland’.
Modelled on the Parthenon in Athens, construction began in 1826 but due to lack of funds it was left unfinished little more than three years later, giving rise to various nicknames such as the ‘Pride and Poverty of Scotland’ and ‘Edinburgh’s Folly’. The SNP (or Yes Scotland) press release almost writes itself.
But however unfortunate the historical associations, I’ve always believed that this ‘joint declaration’ is a serious exercise. The Unionist parties, particularly the Conservatives, are acutely aware that the events of 1979 – Lord Home, ‘vote no for a better Bill’, etc – are (however overplayed) damaging even 35 years later.
Thus repeated promises by the Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition, Deputy Prime Minister and the three Scottish party leaders that between the referendum and the 2016 Holyrood elections they – or rather whoever is in power after the 2015 UK general election – will endeavour to agree, legislate for and deliver ‘more powers’ as quickly as possible.
Naturally the SNP is relentlessly cynical about such pledges, for it realises that if enough voters believe the offer then a majority ‘yes’ vote becomes a lot less likely, if not impossible. On last Sunday’s Andrew Marr programme, for example, Alex Salmond said ‘the only guarantee of getting more powers is to vote Yes on 18 September’.
‘Anything else is in the grace and favour of the unionist parties,’ he added, ‘and they have got form in these sort of things.’ Predictably, he pointed to the 1979 devolution referendum when a narrow majority of Scots voted for an Assembly but instead got ‘18 years of Margaret Thatcher’s government’ (although he conveniently forgets that the SNP’s then MPs ensured the election took place earlier than necessary). Salmond, however, also has ‘form’ in predicting broken pledges, famously asserting in the mid-1990s that Labour couldn’t ‘deliver a pizza let alone a parliament’.
With that in mind, the First Minister told Marr, ‘we would be very foolish to rely on promises from unionist parties’. Curiously, he also went on to say there was ‘no doubt’ the Scottish Parliament had, since 1999, ‘accumulated substantially more power’, which of course contradicted his earlier point about 1979. Indeed, the reliance on ‘1979 and all that’ to undermine contemporary pledges of ‘more powers’ is beginning to wear a bit thin, for in the late 1990s and early 2010s promises by, respectively, Labour and the Conservatives did, in fact, become legislative reality.
‘You might actually argue that we have had a 100-year process of power being devolved to Scotland,’ observed Salmond in an historical frame of mind, ‘and perhaps in the next 100 days we can complete that journey.’ As he’ll be fully aware, much of that devolution was administrative rather than legislative, and much of it was delivered by Unionist and Conservative administrations, again undermining his own argument.
Nevertheless there’s a feint whiff of fudge emanating from today’s Calton Hill Declaration. ‘Despite the differences that divide us on the kind of society we want to see,’ read a Scotland on Sunday piece signed by all three Unionist party leaders yesterday, ‘on this we are clear: Scotland is better off as part of the United Kingdom, the United Kingdom is better off with Scotland in it.’
It continues on a humble note: ‘We all will admit, for different reasons, that the UK has got some things wrong,’ conceded the trio, ‘but we learn and build together,’ noting that the Union had always been an evolving one, allowing ‘the space and freedom for the nations within it to prosper and thrive’: ‘We live in the same house, but this has never been a country that has demanded we conform to the same house rules.’
After a reassertion of the sovereignty of the Scottish people (as Gordon Brown recently – and correctly – observed, old-fashioned concepts of undiluted Westminster sovereignty are ‘dead and buried’), they naturally turned to what might happen in the event of a ‘no’ vote: ‘For we are now clear: a No vote does not mean no change. A No vote opens the door to more powers for Scotland.’
At this point the fudge becomes noticeable: ‘While the details of our plans differ,’ read the joint statement, ‘they all include a commitment to drive more taxation and more social protection to Holyrood. We all believe that the parliament needs to have more responsibility over the money it raises, not just the money it spends, in order to create a more mature politics in Scotland.’
Now this is true, but it’s also conveniently vague. In truth, Labour’s unexpectedly modest devo proposals (themselves the consequence of an internal fudge), have actually made cross-party agreement harder. The Lib Dems and Tories are on broadly the same quasi-federal page, but Labour is more reticent.
‘We do not hide the fact that we have different visions; in a democracy, that is only healthy,’ added the three Unionist leaders. ‘Then all three of us have said we will legislate as soon as possible afterwards, on the basis of people’s consent. No ifs, no buts – we are all committed to deliver.’ On this point, Nationalist cynicism is a little hypocritical, for while Yes Scotland portrays its differing visions (socialist, green, etc) as a strength, similar differences under the Better Together umbrella are presented as a weakness. Supporters of independence cannot have it both ways.
The proof, of course, will be in the devolutionary pudding, but such is the strength of the ‘more powers’ pledges from the three opposition parties – and the unequivocal nature of related comments from Cameron et al (in contrast to Lord Home’s rather vague remarks in February 1979) – failing to deliver in the event of a ‘no’ vote would be politically risky. For those tiring of hearing about 1979, ‘2014’ would quickly replace it as a date that will live in infamy, the ultimate example of constitutional duplicity – and rightly so.