Tuesday, November 30, 2010

In the final analysis, can extra powers for the Scottish parliament ever be a bad thing?

The unveiling of the 'Calman Minus' proposals by Michael Moore today marks a distinctly odd moment for the SNP. My greatest worry about the party's election triumph in 2007 was that, historic though it seemed, no constitutional progress at all might be made during their period in office, and that by the time a Labour or a Labour/Lib Dem government returned to power we'd wonder what all the excitement had ever been about. Regardless of the outcome of the election next May, we can safely say that will not now be the case - the SNP government will have its constitutional legacy. An indirect one, certainly, but a legacy all the same. It seems extremely improbable that the Calman process would have been set in train had it not been for the SNP win in 2007, and while the Lib Dems would probably claim they would have pushed for greater powers for Holyrood in the coalition negotiations anyway, it would have been much harder for them to do so successfully had a readymade blueprint not been to hand.

The supreme irony, of course, is that this is a constitutional legacy that the SNP claim not to want, and on the whole I'm inclined to believe they mean it. But if it's true that these proposals will starve Scotland of revenue, I suppose the next million dollar question is whether the public reaction to the resulting squeeze will damage the cause of self-government in the longer-term, as SNP ministers perhaps fear. It's just possible it might go the other way - as the electorate get used to the idea of devolution as a 'process', they might well look to a further substantial enhancement of the parliament's powers (especially over the country's natural resources) as the obvious remedy to the consequences of this cack-handed scheme. It certainly seems thoroughly improbable that they would instead prefer to see the repatriation of the powers to London. And the unionist parties will by that point have deftly deprived themselves of their most cherished fiction - how will they any longer credibly claim that independence or full fiscal autonomy would cost Scotland its "subsidy" when a massive hit has already been taken? We'd be moving into novel "nothing much left to lose" territory.

So, whether the Westminster coalition realise it or not, perhaps their gleeful hijacking of the planned date for the independence referendum will ultimately prove to be a significant milestone on the path to - in the words of the 2007 SNP campaign slogan - a parliament with real power.


  1. And speaking of hijacking - I see Newsnet/Bella kicking off a campaign to "spoil" ballot papers in next May's AV referendum by writing "Independence" on them. I'd thought of spoiling by writing "STV", but this is more direct and very much directed north of the border. That's what I'll be writing then. Thoughts, James?

  2. Hi, Eric. The Bella idea is a bold and interesting one, but to be honest I've always been a bit sceptical about 'spoilt ballot' campaigns, mainly because I can't think of a single example of one that's ever worked in this country. I went into the subject in a bit more detail here.

  3. today's front pages on the Daily Mail, Telegraph



    How long will it take for England to rise up and vote for separation!

  4. Hi James

    I agree its difficult to interpret spoiled ballot papers and/or people not voting normally. I'd say this is different. Firstly there's a long lead time here to get this idea out. There already seems to be a lot of enthusiasm for it going by early comments (OK - the converted, I know). Secondly, the "spoiled" papers will all say the same, be obvious in their intent, and even be countable. What's the current support for Independence in Scotland - what might it be next May? What's the support for FPTP or AV? I think there's a fair chance "Independence" might win it!

  5. In one sense I agree - if there were a large number of spoilt ballots it would be blindingly obvious that it was as a result of this campaign. The problem is I just don't think that's very likely to happen. The only way it might would be if the SNP themselves endorsed the campaign, so perhaps in the first instance the focus should be on lobbying Nationalist MSPs.

    Without official support, I think Jeff Breslin hit the nail on the head in a comment at Bella - a very small percentage will write independence on their ballot paper, the vast majority will be oblivious to the campaign and vote normally, and the whole thing will be a damp squib.