What might lie beyond a No vote?

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  By David Torrance

After a typically assured speech at London’s UCL on Thursday evening, Nicola Sturgeon was asked to hypothecate about what form greater devolution for Scotland might take following a “no” vote. Obligingly, she set out three criteria: 1) that any proposals were “credible and meaningful”, i.e. encompassing 100 per cent of income tax and welfare, 2) agreed between the three Unionist parties, and 3) accompanied by a “clear timetable” for their delivery.

  By David Torrance

After a typically assured speech at London’s UCL on Thursday evening, Nicola Sturgeon was asked to hypothecate about what form greater devolution for Scotland might take following a “no” vote. Obligingly, she set out three criteria: 1) that any proposals were “credible and meaningful”, i.e. encompassing 100 per cent of income tax and welfare, 2) agreed between the three Unionist parties, and 3) accompanied by a “clear timetable” for their delivery.

All three stipulations were perfectly reasonable, and indeed offer a pretty good guide for the three opposition parties as they formulate and co-ordinate their thinking on a beefed-up devo proposal. Asking the question was the constitutional expert Alan Trench (“I know who you are” quipped Sturgeon, with mock seriousness), who is currently helping the Scottish Conservatives fashion their devo scheme.

This commission, Ruth Davidson made clear in a thoughtful speech in Edinburgh the same evening, would report in May, a few months ahead of September’s referendum. Although the Scottish Tory leader said she didn’t want to second-guess Lord Strathclyde’s conclusions, she repeated her belief that “a parliament with little responsibility for raising the money it spends will never be properly accountable to the people of Scotland”. “We will,” she added, “deal with this.”

Now unless there’s a severe wobble between now and May, it seems likely the Conservatives – formerly the most grudging of devolvers – will come up with a credible package that includes full devolution of income tax and several other more minor taxes. The Liberal Democrats, to be fair, set out their federal scheme several months ago (Sir Menzies Campbell will soon come up with a timetable for their implementation, fulfilling one of Sturgeon’s criteria), which just leaves us with Labour.

The Scottish Labour Party, curiously, is both the strength and weakness of any package of further devolution. The Scottish Lib Dems might be consistent and radical but they’re also politically weak, and while the Scottish Tories are finally learning to love devolution they’re not exactly a powerful electoral force; therefore the credibility – and indeed credibility is key – of any devolutionary scheme rests with the main opposition party.

If they were unified on the way ahead, as they were in the run up to the 1997 devolution referendum, then the task of presenting a scheme and convincing voters it’s a goer would be relatively straightforward. But “unified” is not an apt description of where the party finds itself just months away from 18 September.

To be fair, the Scottish Labour devolution commission’s interim report published (perhaps unintentionally) about a year ago was pretty radical in scope and tone: proposing full devolution of income tax and a range of other well thought-through measures. But the response, a weird combination of silence from proponents and apoplexy from (largely Westminster based) opponents undermined any positive effect that might have.

Work is ongoing, with a final scheme due to be presented to the party’s spring conference in Perth, yet still dissenting voices prove destructive. Most recently it was the otherwise unassuming Labour MSP Ken Mackintosh who wrote in The Herald that he considered the devolution of income tax to be reckless. It’s widely assumed he was acting as a “cipher” for the Labour MP Jim Murphy, demonstrating that the party’s devo splits don’t run in neat lines between north and south, Holyrood and Westminster.

Also problematic is the authority of Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont, who has not exactly moved to silence these siren voices. In theory she is now leader of the whole party north of the border, rather than just its Holyrood group, but it seems clear certain Westminster MPs – and even some MSPs – don’t recognise this very seriously.

Now it’s possible this might change, that by the time activists gather in Perth the party’s proposals will be both ready and also enjoy the backing of most elected representatives (some, I suspect, are simply irreconcilable). But even assuming that is so, there remain difficulties in convincing voters that not only Labour, but all three Unionist parties, are serious about devolving more power to Holyrood in the event of a “no” vote.

Under questioning following her speech at the David Hume Institute, Ruth Davidson said she didn’t “believe there will be a detailed cross-party agreement before the referendum”. “None of the parties,” she added, “have ever said they would want to do that.” This is nothing more than the truth; even Unionists who think a common front is necessary ahead of the referendum acknowledge that it ain’t going to happen.

As Yes Scotland’s Stephen Noon tweeted in response to news coverage of Davidson’s comments: “If No parties can’t even do a deal, why would anyone believe they can deliver more powers?” And the trouble is, for as long as the Unionist parties lack a shared agenda on the devolutionary front, then they remain vulnerable to that very charge. Credibility, as I said earlier, is key.

Yet cross-party co-operation is clearly possible. As the SNP has pointed out, Labour, the Lib Dems and Conservatives carefully co-ordinated their “triple block” veto on the currency union – and it was all the more effective as a result – while back in 1997 the multi-party “Scotland Forward” pro-devolution referendum campaign impressed voters (most of whom were probably going to vote “yes” in any case) by setting aside their usual differences and urging Scots to back the creation of a Scottish Parliament with tax-raising powers.

In doing so, the Labour-Lib Dem-SNP troika fulfilled all three criteria on the Deputy First Minister’s list: the 1997 devolution proposals were meaningful, agreed in general terms across all three parties and bolstered by a clear timetable for implementation. As a result, a majority of Scots voted “yes” to both propositions. If Better Together is serious about obtaining a decisive “no” vote in this September’s referendum – as they frequently claim they are – then they ought urgently to revisit the summer of ’97.

David Torrance is a writer, journalist and broadcaster.
He is also author of ‘Salmond – Against The Odds’ a biography of Scotland’s First Minister