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Constitutional Commission is dead in the water

In the week following the May 3rd Holyrood election, this paper issued a challenge and a warning. We called on the political leaders of Scotland to look beyond their own narrow party interests and see what the Scottish people were telling them in that election: that they want a new kind of politics in which all the forces committed to constitutional change unite behind a broadly-based campaign to extend the powers of the Scottish parliament. “Devolution Max” is the new settled will, confirmed by countless polls and surveys like the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey.

Our warning was that if the parties failed to seize the moment, politics itself would be the loser, because the Scottish people would call a plague on all their houses. Voters have little patience for party political manoeuvring and point-scoring. Too often in Scottish history, the fate of this nation has been sealed by petty minded bickering among leaders who cannot see beyond their own egos.

Well, they didn’t listen. And now come the consequences. The Scottish Labour Party has been plunged into disarray by its partisan attempts to set up a Scottish Constitutional Commission composed solely of unionist parties. We argued that it was wrong in principle to try to exclude nationalists from the debate on the constitution, and and that it was impossible in practice since the SNP happen to be the government. Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish Conservatives went ahead anyway.

On St Andrew’s Day, Labour’s Scottish parliamentary leader, Wendy Alexander, declared that “devolution is a process not an event” – well she got that bit right – and said she wanted Scotland to “walk taller within the UK, without walking out of it”. The cross-party commission was to explore further powers – like broadcasting, immigration law, drugs – and to explore fiscal autonomy through giving the Scottish parliament power to levy taxes like stamp duty, corporation tax, excise duties.

This commission is now in chaos. In fact, as we revealed last week, it isn’t even a commission – at least not in the eyes of Gordon Brown and his UK ministers, who regard it as a “review’ or “working party”. The Prime Minister has decided that the devolution process cannot be entrusted to the Scottish Labour party and must be under UK government control.

The Scottish Office minister, David Cairns, hammered the message home by saying last week that further significant powers for the parliament were only of interest to “the McChattering classes”. The review will seek to take some powers back to Westminster; Wendy Alexander is not to be allowed to style herself as the leader of the party in Scotland (she is only the leader of the Labour group of MSPs) and significant tax powers are off the agenda altogether.

There has been a stunned silence from Ms Alexander, though sources close to the Scottish leader have expressed dismay at the behaviour of the Westminster leadership. An uneasy truce was called at a meeting of Labour MPs and MSPs in Glasgow on Friday, but it must now be plain to everyone in Scotland that the Constitutional Commission is dead in the water.

This episode has posed a challenge to the Scottish Liberal Democrats. They risk being compromised by their participation in a body which is manifestly an attempt to maintain the status quo. With Wendy Alexander elbowed aside, the Liberal Democrats face being squeezed by Gordon Brown on one hand and the Conservatives on the other. They should reconsider their participation in this Constitutional Commission before it is too late.

The LibDems are probably closest in thinking to mainstream Scottish opinion on the constitution. The Steel Report, which they published two years ago, stands as the most coherent road map towards a parliament that would meet the aspirations of the Scottish people. However, the LibDems can’t do it on their own.

And neither can the SNP. The Scottish National Party leader, Alex Salmond, may feel he is in the clear because the collapse of the commission has strengthened the moral legitimacy of his own National Conversation on the constitution. This had at least been open to participation by unionists, federalists and others. However, the National Conversation remains by default a partisan initiative – there is only one party talking – and there has been a studied vagueness about who would assess the outcome of the great discourse.

This is too important a matter to leave to one party. The SNP’s Conversation, if it is sincere, will only confirm the constitutional reality, which is that the Scottish people are not ready yet for full blown independence. Perhaps at some future date Scots may opt to set up a separate state, with its own currency, army, foreign service, but right now, there is no evidence that they want to leave the UK. Indeed, on some measures there is less popular support for formal independence now than there was before the election. The danger is that, blinded by their own approval ratings, the SNP government seeks to impose independence by an act of Leninist voluntarism, by giving history a push. This would be a big mistake.

The success of the 1997 Referendum demonstrated that real constitutional progress in Scotland can only come when the parties work together. So, we renew our call for the Scottish political parties to unite on the constitution. The SNP already endorse the Steel Report, and many Labour activists see it as the way forward. So do we. There is no obstacle we can see to members of all the Scottish parties discussing the constitutional future rationally. If the Labour Party in Wales can sit down with the Welsh Nationalists in government, then the very least the Scottish people have a right to expect is that the Scottish parties here sit down with each other in the national interest.

We have invited a wide range of organisations and individuals to contribute their thoughts today in this issue of the Sunday Herald. We intend in future to seek further ways of bringing the fragmented politics of Scotland back together. In the past decade we have witnessed two momentous events: the Devolution Referendum in 1997 which delivered a historic majority for home rule, and the May elections of 2007 which showed that Scotland is resolved to move to the next stage of self-government. The Scottish people are discovering their strength, and self-confidence. They are ready. It is only he politicians who have yet to find the courage to lead.

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About iain2macwhirter

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