23 March 2008

A response to Change is What We Do: Changing Times, Changing Constitution

The election of the SNP has pushed constitutional politics back to the forefront. I share the view that the prime concern of the majority of Scots is not the redrafting of the constitutional blueprints of our country. Their major concerns are that politicians should tackle issues such as the ones discussed above. A better health service, better education, a growing economy with better jobs, safer communities with less crime - these are the people’s priorities.

This has been at the heart of the Scottish Labour paradox in 1999, 2003 and 2007. They argue that no one wants to talk about the constitution, and then campaign primarily on why the SNP's vision of the constitution is a bad thing. If people want their politicians to focus on health, education, the economy and crime, and if Labour recognise this, why do they spend so much time obsessing over the Union and trying to head the SNP off at the political pass?

Our strategy has three foundations. Firstly, the weakness in the SNP’s position is that there has never been any credible opinion poll in Scotland which has shown majority support for independence. Two substantial academic surveys undertaken during the 2007 election showed that no more than a quarter of the Scottish electorate supported independence.

Then why not put the issue in full to the people, and win what she must believe would be a massive victory?

Secondly, maintaining the Union continues to command majority support. This is shown not only by opinion polls, but by election results. In 2007, Unionist parties were supported by 65 per cent of the electorate. By no stretch of the imagination is it possible to argue that Scots wish to dissolve the Union.

Thirdly, there is majority support for the present constitutional arrangements of a strong Scottish Parliament within the United Kingdom. There is no desire to revert to the pre-devolution arrangements. There is, however, a desire to discuss whether the present powers of the Scottish Parliament are right for our times.

She has to convince Labour MPs of this. And she has to acknowledge that according to election results, "more powers" beats "status quo" and "fewer powers" - an option being considered at Westminster. But there is not majority support for the present constitutional arrangements: rather, election results - with the LibDems and even the Tories supporting further economic powers for the Parliament - show that voters want the Parliament to be stronger than it is today.

Better governance was the reason, and that reason alone, that in opposition we campaigned for a Scottish Parliament, and in government we delivered the Scottish Parliament.

This is an outright lie. Why else would George Robertson make the time to predict - quite erroneously, as it turns out - that "devolution would kill the SNP stone dead?

She then goes on to list some of the flaws in the devolution settlement: the West Lothian Question:

And following the rejection in a referendum of plans for an Assembly in North East England, most within Labour’s ranks have simply ignored the West Lothian Question. This, coupled with Tory sabre-rattling and the SNP’s entry into Government at Holyrood, is helping to fuel English irritations.

I can state quite categorically that the only English irritated by this are right-wing pundits, such as Kelvin McKenzie and Jon Gaunt, with his racist attack on the "Jockocracy". Some people ask why no one in England is proposing the things that people in Scotland are getting, rather than grumbling that the Scots should have them taken away. Most other people don't care as they're too busy trying to live their own life and what happens in Scotland isn't all that relevant to them.

She also explores weakness in the Parliament's financial powers. But her conclusion is fascinating:

Times change and new issues come to the fore – and after an eight-year bedding-down period a reassessment of the settlement’s operation is timely.

Before the election, Labour were saying the exact reverse. The only major change between 2007 and 2008 is the Government. I dispute Wendy Alexander and Labour's motives: this is nothing to do with better governance and everything to do with the current political strength of the SNP.

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