Friday, 6 May 2016

For Scotland, the future will be a process, not an event


As I said in my last posting, I am very happy to see the SNP remain in power, but without having too much power. A lot of people are not happy, but that's politics for you, and it does not mean that the road to either independence or maximum devolution is blocked. Rather it means that the future will not be marked by a major event, such as a referendum that leads to an independence day, but a process that will in the fullness of time lead to the same end.

Many countries have followed this road over the years, with Canada being the prime example. The country in its modern form was created thanks to the British North America Act 1867 that was passed by Westminster. That act gave the new entity certain powers, but many more were reserved to Westminster. In 1914 when the United Kingdom went to war against Germany, Canada was automatically at war herself. A generation later, when the UK again went to war with Germany on the 3 September 1939, Canada declared war on the 10th of that month, as the power to do so had been devolved between the two wars.

The right to declare war is one of the powers that only sovereign states have, and it took Canada many years to obtain that central sovereign right. Indeed, the last bit of Westminster control over the Canadian polity was not relinquished until 1982,  over a century after the process had begun in 1867.

At no point during that long period of time did anyone in Canada talk about unpacking the rifles and declaring independence as the 13 British colonies to their south had already done. It was accepted in both London and Ottawa that the process would reach it own conclusion in its own good time, which it did.

Scotland embarked on a similar journey, starting as early as the 1880s when administrative devolution was granted to the country. By the 1930s the whole of the Scotland Office had been moved to Edinburgh, with only the Secretary of State for Scotland remaining in London with his small staff. 

Political devolution took rather longer, thanks to the intervention of the Great War, but when it came in 1999 it was quickly followed by two further Scotland Acts in 2012 and 2016, with the result that today the bulk of the decisions that effect people in their day to day lives in Scotland are decided by Holyrood, and not Westminster.

Looking to the future, Scotland does not need to continue with the constitutional debate, because that was settled in the 2014 referendum, a matter that was confirmed yesterday when the people of Scotland said that they wanted the SNP to have power, but not too much power. 

This is an opportunity for Holyrood to legislate for Scotland, and by doing so it will slowly but surely continue the process of breaking up the United Kingdom. That cannot be avoided, if Westminster continues to enact legislation that will not apply to Scotland, and Holyrood passes its own legislation in its areas of competence that diverges from what exists south of the River Tweed.

Much of this process does not actually need legislative change to take place. Until 2007, Scotland was run by the executive, not a government. In that year the SNP decided to quietly start calling their administration the Scottish government, and London did not object, so the matter was settled. One could imagine the office of First Minster becoming that of Prime Minister, or Premier, along the same lines. Similarly, the Presiding Officer who chairs Holyrood could also be replaced. Historically, the pre-1707 body was chaired by a Chancellor, and as far as I can see there is nothing to stop Holyood changing the Presiding Officer for a Chancellor.

What's in a name? That will be London's attitude, just as it was in 2007, but the symbolism of such markers on Scotland's road to the future is the most important thing here.

Returning to the legislative arena, if Labour finally drops nonsense such as the Baine Principle which held that whatever the SNP proposed they would oppose, and starts to work with the SNP government in areas of mutual interest then that would be a step in the right direction. Labour badly needs people to stop believing that it is a Westminster stooge, which is why the party now opposes Trident. That policy is a gesture, but it may have been enough to stop yesterday turning into a complete route.

Labour, the Liberal-Democrats and the Greens are all in favour of higher taxation, whereas the SNP have suddenly got cold feet over what was until recently one of their flagship policies.One can imagine a trade-off, with the SNP agreeing to some opposition polices, in return for those parties agreeing to support the replacement of the First Minster with that of a Prime Minister.  Its is a small constitutional change, which London may not even care about, and the taxation issue is fully devolved so it is not their problem.

The Tories in Holyrood will howl that this is further evidence that everyone else wants to break up the UK, but they can be sidelined and left to bang their Lambeg drums in impotent rage, if all the other parties can agree.

They are right, of course, but the process will be so long that it is unlikely that anyone who is an adult today will live to see its end. Thus is is not an issue that we need to discuss, and most people won't. This is just about using Holyrood's powers to their fullest extent.

Let the process begin!

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