For Whom Do They Speak?

Perishing though the weather has been of late, it has been dry and (largely) calm so we’ve been taking a break from the rarified world of the Twitterati and blogosphere where debate has been especially intense on Scotland’s future. Being deeply interested in that, I tend to ‘get tore in’ and not worry about the rarified atmosphere of such debate.

But, out on the doorsteps of East Lothian having a chat with some ‘normal’ people puts things in more realistic perspective. People out there are far more preoccupied with real and immediate things. While I’m sure they are capable of dreaming and speculating, when you show up to ask what concerns them, you get it tight about the streetlight across the way, the abandoned skip, the rowdy pub, the safety of the walk to school or some such highly localised issue.

Truth be told, this is the meat-and-potatoes of representation. While you need to show vision, integrity and tenacity, people are pleased when you simply listen to their concerns and doubly so when you do something about them. And while mobile phones, e-mail, secretaries, offices, surgeries, newsletters and all the accoutrements of political life are helpful, if you’re not out on the street meeting people then your radar’s simply not plugged in.

Which makes me wonder who our opponents are talking to—if anyone at all. I have been astonished since New Year not so much that the debate on if/when/how/etc a referendum on Scotland’s independence is to be held has taken off such as to be on the London news media for the first time, but that all three opposition parties are singing a close harmony on it. They have not, to my recollection, been able to do this before, so you have to wonder what is actually going on.

Historically, all three parties have held a variety of views and, though I disagree with most of them, I respect that they reflected significant constituencies of views and looked on them as obstacles that would need to be overcome for victory in any independence vote. The Tories, to their credit, oppose more (any?) power to Scotland and have been consistent in this. Lib-Dems consistently argued for a federal state and Labour, after decades of welshing on Kier Hardie’s original promise, did come good with devolution under the late (and I say with all respect lamented) Donald Dewar.

These last two parties even went so far as to form the Constitutional Convention and the first MSPs of both parties signed the “Claim of Right” that asserted the principle to which the SNP also subscribes—that, unlike England neither the monarch nor the parliament but only the people of Scotland are sovereign.

Many in the Labour party had made positive contributions to the Calman proposals to extend powers for Scotland and some went so far as to agree with many Lib-Dems that the proper solution was ‘devo max’ under which Scotland would raise all its taxes and leave only defence, foreign policy and the like to the British state.

So it was with some surprise and disappointment that this year the debate got underway by all three parties ringing down a unified curtain to try to define the terms of any referendum the SNP might try to hold. Michael Moore, backed by ex-MSP (and Claim signatory) Jim (now Lord) Wallace both said Scotland had no right to hold any such thing but, if they did, it must be soon and with a straight yes/no question. In London, Cameron Clegg & Milliband and in Edinburgh, Davidson, Rennie and Lamont almost fell over themselves backing this position. The variety of positions once seen disappeared.

Every spokesperson on the subject from those quarters, be it Jim Murphy, Douglas Alexander or George Osborne, sang from identical song sheets—that an answer must be found soon because of uncertainty and that the choice could not be complicated. Just last week Jim Murphy said “people want clarity now”. Yet, as recently as October, he was demanding that Salmond define ‘devo max’. Douglas Alexander was reported as “heading in the same direction”. Yet both Calman and Devo Max have all but disappeared from any opposition statement.

Which is a puzzle that makes me wonder who—if anyone—the opposition parties can be talking to. Because what we are seeing is a spread across the five basic options:

  1. Revert to pre-devolution. (<5%) Easily the least popular option, there are enough people with rose-tinted memories of Britain’s glory days where the SP doesn’t belong
  2. Status Quo. (15%) Held onto with some principle by mainly Labour folk, there seems to be a feeling that Labour’s creation of the SP shouldn’t be tinkered with.
  3. Calman/Augmented Scotland Bill. (10%) The Commission took submissions across Scotland and the findings are the basis of a modified bill now before the UK parliament. Including many ‘tweaks’ to current responsibilities, this is a significant departure from the status quo simply because revenue would be raised
  4. Devo Max (16%) Mostly embraced (until recently) by Lib-Dems, this seems to have grown in popularity under its other moniker of “Indy Lite”. There is no definitive interpretation that I can find, but it would be similar to a federal state, where Scotland would raise all its own taxes and provide all its own services, except for things like defence and foreign policy, for which it would pay London a fee.
  5. Independence (34%) This would mean Scotland becoming like any other EU member state, including its own armed forces, foreign policy and membership of international bodies. In the option being promoted by the SNP, there would be as close a social union with England as both were comfortable with. Scotland would keep both the monarchy and the pound until we decided otherwise.

What concerns me is that our statistics on these options seem broadly reflected in national polls. Though the numbers vary, something less than a third like what we have at present and more than a third support. But all three opposition parties are suddenly insisting a black/white choice between those two must be the only option.  The Tories at least show consistency in stuffing unpalatable choices down Scots throats (as witnessed by Cameron’s clumsy intervention a week ago), But both other parties once enjoyed a better democratic record.

But when Murphy, supported by Lamont, ignores all the work on Calman and all Labour MPs/MSPs fall silent, for whom does he speak? The people of Scotland or some tactical plan to scupper the distressingly successful SNP? When Rennie, backed by  Wallace, says “devo max is a second class option” and swings his party into lock-step with Tories and Labour, what price their long tradition of seeking a federal Britain?

Most tellingly, the original Labour and Lib-Dem MSPs in the first parliament of 1999, along with many from ‘civic Scotland’, all signed the Claim of Right and therefore agree with us that “the people of Scotland are sovereign”. If they believe that, why dismiss the third of Scots who appear to want to give Scotland more power than it has now but want to stop short of full independence?

About davidsberry

Local ex-councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Retired in 2017.
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