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The National Conversation.

When is an event not an event? When it’s a process. The Scottish Secretary, Des Browne, insisted on BBC’s World at One on Wednesday that Donald Dewar had never uttered his most famous remark: “devolution is a process not an event”. On the contrary, he said, the late First Minister had agreed with Mr Browne’s own constitutional dictum that the Scotland Act was “an event not a process”, a destination rather than a starting point.

Now, there is some evidence that it was actually Ron Davies, the former Welsh Labour leader, who first uttered the words in question in parliament, in January 1998. But I certainly recall Donald using the P word, and so does everyone else, at the time of the Scottish Parliament’s creation. More importantly, his acolyte, Wendy Alexander, has certainly said that devolution is a process, most recently during the Scotland on Sunday debate on the Union in January. This is important since it is she, rather than Des Browne, who will shortly be leading Labour in Scotland, now that Jack McConnell has opted to become high commissioner for smart, successful Malawi.

Except of course, that she won’t, because as Labour MPs always insist, the leader of the Labour group of MSPs is not the leader of the Scottish Labour Party. She will have no authority over Scottish MPs, Lords or the party apparatus in Scotland since she is only the Holyrood parliamentary leader. This democratic deficit in the Labour Party is something she should address at the earliest opportunity if she doesn’t want to share the fate of her predecessor, who had the right ideas but lacked authority over his own party. Jack McConnell’s attempts to make Labour the party of progressive home rule were blocked by elements in Labour who treated him with thinly-disguised contempt. Labour needs a proper leader in Scotland just as much as Scotland needs a proper government.

Devolution is of course a process – whoever said it – and the open-ended nature of that constitutional process is enshrined in the Scotland Act, a remarkable document which few have read and even fewer understand. For, the Act that set up the Scottish parliament specifically avoided defining the limits of devolution and contains within it the mechanisms to devolve most of the responsibilities reserved to Westminster, like broadcasting, firearms, conduct of elections even tax.

Yes, if he wanted to, Alex Salmond could legitimately seize most of the powers he wants repatriated to Holyrood without a referendum. He wouldn’t do so, of course, because he is too clever and realises that there would be an unholy row and a breakdown in the subtle consensus he has forged on the Scottish constitution. The FM rightly argues that some powers are so important – taxation being the obvious example – that there would need to be the explicit consent of the Scottish people to any such developments.

However, the white paper on independence, last week -”Choosing Scotland’s Future” – actually makes a rather strong case for incrementalism, or extending the process of devolution, rather than going for any “big bang”. Full independence is of course still what the SNP wants to see – a constitutional one-off event after which the Westminster parliament would cease to have powers to legislate for Scotland. However, the white paper sets out the home rule alternatives so comprehensively and positively that you can’t help but think that the SNP government is now beginning to think in terms of process rather than event.

Indeed, by the time you get to the section of the white paper which deals with full independence, you begin to wonder just what difference formal constitutional disengagement would actually make if the preceding stages had already been reached. When it comes down to it, we are only talking “macro-economics, defence and foreign affairs” (3.9). These are very important matters, of course, but would Scots want a separate currency and army?

Moreover, the white paper makes clear that Scotland, even under full ‘independence’, would remain part of a political union – albeit one based on the principle of pooled sovereignty rather than incorporation. There would have to be a UK-wide authority, rather like the European Union, which could make laws which applied across the UK in common areas, like the environment, currency, citizenship.

Never has a politically-inspired document given such an even-handed and open-minded assessment of the policies of its opponents, and the SNP government is to be congratulated for starting this debate in such a constructive manner. Its very reasonableness has has floored critics and led the opposition parties to make complete fools of themselves. Labour, the Scottish Tories and the Liberal Democrats united last week to reject the SNP’s constitutional conversation as a waste of time and money, and then announced that they wanted to start one their own, but excluding any consideration of independence. They either want a conversation or they don’t. The idea that SNP voices should be excluded when they have just won an election is so ridiculous it seems incredible that sensible people could actually propose it. Wendy Alexander is intelligent enough to see that this is not a sustainable position and will try to move Labour back into the constitutional centre-ground. But it may be that the horse has already bolted.

For what the opposition parties have done is hand the political and moral initiative to the SNP, and allowed nationalists to appear the inheritors of the spirit of the 1989 Scottish Constitutional Convention – an irony since the SNP boycotted it. Alex Salmond has accepted the founding principle of Scotland’s Claim of Right document that “sovereignty resides with the people” not with any government or party. He has said he will move only as far and as fast as the people of Scotland wish, and the steps are all laid out in the white paper. This is ‘variable-geometry’ nationalism, which will lead to a multi-option referendum if and only when the Scots decide they want it.

The white paper is silent on who should decide whether and when that referendum happens, and what options might be on the paper. Nor does it specify who would assess the results of the consultation – which has already attracted well over a thousand submissions. It’s now up to Scottish civil society to fill in the gaps and create the appropriate institutions, ‘Convention 2.0’ or whatever, to forge a new political consensus.

My own view is that this process will probably stop short of formal separation, if only because it is not the British way to go in for constitutional absolutes. Our tradition is incremental, ad hoc, issue-by-issue, ‘let’s-see-what-works’ constitutionalism. The Queen will remain head of state, we will have a common currency, a British army and Scotland will still be represented at some level in a UK parliament in Westminster which will legislate for residual UK-wide affairs. We can never cut ourselves off completely, and anyway it isn’t necessary. Scotland could become “independent in the UK” to use another of the late Donald Dewar’s lesser known remarks from 1988.

But the SNP have made a formidable start. The way things are going, Scotland could be functionally independent in ten years, if the SNP plays its cards right and the opposition parties opt out. Perhaps it is time to rephrase what Donald did or didn’t say – it is now independence which is a process not an event.

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


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