28 February 2009

A Calman Influence?

I've been reluctant to blog on the Calman Commission - I don't like to intrude on private grief - but recent developments have got me thinking.

Labour's MPs and MSPs have been squabbling over the direction the party should take: the MPs wanted powers to head back South, while MSPs wanted them to head North - a completely natural reaction on the part of both camps. The issue was resolved by reality: it was an MSP - Pauline McNeill - who had the job of making the submission to Calman, and so it was always going to have a pro-Holyrood flavour. But they do, at least, have a line.

The Tories, meanwhile, have opted that there's no point even in submitting anything to the Commission, suggesting that their attitude either to new powers or the Commission is far more lukewarm than we anticipated.

But it's the LibDems who find themselves facing problems. Now, Calman has already batted away a number of LibDem proposals, but the party has stuck at it and even succeeded in getting the SNP (well, the Scottish Government) to engage with a body whose remit goes well and truly against the SNP's grain.

Yet, they've not submitted anything - not out of any clear decision as in the Tories' case, but because they need more time to do so. They want to involve the Spring Conference - seeing as Calman is more than a year old, this seems slightly barmy: did no one think to involve last year's Conference? - and have reconstitued the Steel Commission as a way of informing the contribution that they still hope to make. Again, why didn't the Steel Commission's original report form the basis of a contribution, following established party policy on the Constitution?

And this comes in the wake of John Farquhar Munro's "Wendy" moment, in which he suggests bringing on a referendum, with a straight choice between the status quo and independence (in complete contrast to Tavish Scott's poicy of no referendum involving independence at all, even if extra powers within the Union were included as a possible option), and argues that the Party membership would back that.

If (and I assumed that the LibDem blogosphere would point to it being a very big if but Stephen has since blown me out of the water on that one) this is the case, then the LibDems are split on this, and there's a gulf between what the Leadership wants and what the membership wants. If it isn't, then Tavish Scott still has some firefighting to do.

But this isn't really about the LibDems, because you can't blame them for wanting extra time and wanting to frame their position carefully. We're going into the active phase of the electoral cycle: for constitutional matters, we can bypass the European elections, but there's still the theoretical possibility of a Westminster election alongside them, though even if that is left until 2010 (as I believe) the LibDems need their position set out for that ballot, so it's needed to be ready sooner rather than later. Further, we are now approaching the mid-point in the Holyrood cycle and parties will soon begin setting out their stalls for 2011. Those need to be the parties' priorities.

And Calman itself is flawed. Take a look at the two previous attempts to discuss the Constitution: the Kilbrandon Commission and the Constitutional Convention. Both were primarily (for the main framers at least) an exercise in spiking the SNP's guns, but that's the only commonality.

Kilbrandon took place when there was a real need in the eyes of Unionists to counter the SNP: we'd had the Hamilton By-Election, the first gain in a General Election, the Govan By-Election and the emergence of the First Eleven. But no party was all that clear on what it wanted, and the response to the idea of devolution was at best half-hearted. The result was a set of limp proposals in the 1978 Act, a failure of the parties to seriously work together and a rigged referendum at the fag end of a government which had lost control.

The Convention of the late 80s and early 90s was framed under different circumstances: minds had been concentrated by the Thatcher Premiership and the Poll Tax, intra-party relations were relatively smooth and the need for action was clear given the Tory stranglehold on the political system. And the SNP rise at that point was a false dawn: the Govan By-Election victory led nowhere and the defection of Dick Douglas surrounded the Poll Tax rather than independence. The proposals that finally did come into law did so because they had not just intra-party but major inter-party unity behind them, were backed in a fair referendum held in the early days of the Blair Government, when its popularity and strength were insurmountable.

And what of Calman? Its primary mission was to undermine the National Conversation, excluding independence as an option and trying once again to put the SNP down, despite the 2007 victory. No party seems to know what it wants, which way it wants powers to flow or even if it can be arsed engaging with the thing, and we now have the supreme irony that the one party that was meant to be excluded from the process is the one group to have made a clear submission which the whole party can get behind. Further, the Brown Government is now weak and getting weaker, and unless Calman can report in the next six months, it will be down to a Tory Government to respond to it and consider whether or not it wishes to put the proposal into practice: by the late summer and early autumn, it will be too late for this Government to do so with any credibility. It may form part of a Labour manifesto, but that manifesto looks less and less likely to be put into practice.

Basically, Calman will go the way of Kilbrandon. At best, it will be rejected, at worst, it will be ignored. Either way, it will be forgotten.


Anonymous said...

The comparison between Kilbrandon & Calman is a shrewd one, and bears further development. If there is to be a referendum in the near future it will go the same way as that brought in by the 1978 act (30 years ago tomorrow, I note with some horror).
The way forward for the SNP is not to bang on endlessly about referendums, but to work with others towards bringing further powers home to Scotland on a gradually incremental basis, thus bringing about a situation where the 'fear factor' and scaremongering inherent to Unionism are nullified by reality: independence will happen officially only after it has happened in practice.

subrosa said...

Mancuso, it's not the SNP who bang on about referendums, they have no need to do that as the people know that is their policy. It's the unionists who continue to bring up the subject and will do so until election day.

I do agree with you about the gradualist approach and think John Swinney's speech last week was along these lines.

subrosa said...

Shame I can't link to this blog. I just don't understand the yahoo business and linking email addresses etc. Too complex for me so I'll just keep it on my bookmarks.

Anonymous said...


I think the lesson from history here is that whenever the SNP co-operate with the Unionist parties on devolution, the others stop trying. I am convinced that the only way forward is for the SNP to pursue Independence with every sinew of our being. The more we do that the more the others will have to concede for it is only fear of Independence that motivates them. To do otherwise goes against our principles and leads to stagnation.


scunnert said...

Ah'm wae Rab. The gradualist road to independence will see us stripped of what little resources and common goods we have left, and could very well see us ensnared in a police state from which we will not be able to escape.

Will said...

Agent, I agree with your point about independence taking time, and becoming a reality before it's recognised, but there still needs to be a reference to the referendum. Obviously, there is a need to decouple an SNP Government from this single issue (just as there was a perceived need to decouple a Labour Government from devolution) but it would be strange for a party not to promote its very purpose for being when the opportunity arose.

So we're left with a dual approach: to push as far as possible when we're in the driving seat, and to go along with the devolutionary direction of travel (while muttering under our breath about the speed) when we're not.

Rab, I disagree. I think our support in 1997 was crucial to devolution's progress and we'd be completely barmy not to go for anything that went it our direction, even if it doesn't go all the way. Progress is progress, and the "our way or no way" aprroach would lead us to the latter, not the former. Would rejecting devolution in 1997 have got us the strength that the SNP and independence movement have now? When the electoral system means that even now we can get a majority of Holyrood constituencies, would we have been able to get a majority of Westminster seats in Scotland under Direct Rule?

Scunnert, that assertion sounds rather apocalyptic. In fact it seems to come straight out of George Foulkes or John Reid's visions of independence. Interesting how some of the rhetoric from advocates of ideological purity seems to chme so well with the opposing ideology...

Anonymous said...

Will, the purpose of the SNP is to secure independence, not to hold referendums on independence. Holding a referendum on independence at any point in the foreseeable future will not advance the cause of independence one iota, because it will be lost, and the resulting confusion will set the SNP back on the back foot exactly as happened after 1979.
Rab, the only significant step towards independence the SNP has managed in its 75 year history came about as a direct result of working with other parties during the Constitutional Convention. The fundamentalist 'independence or nothing' approach is the single biggest obstacle to independence ever happening.

Anonymous said...

Hi Will,

I don't recall the SNP playing an active part in forming the current devolution package until after its terms were already settled on by the other parties. In fact it was a constant source of criticism from them that we did not. After that, yes, we quite rightly campaigned on a common platform with the other parties (except the Tories who were agin) for a "yes" "yes" vote because it was the best thing for Scotland.

That is a completely different strategy from being involved in the making up of the proposals in the first instance.

The reason we withheld our support up until then was the poor faith demonstrated by other parties (who didn't want devolution anyway) in the 1970's attempt, where they managed to transform the process into an "SNP" project and effectively withdrew from it, if not actually sabotaging it with the 40% rule.

I have my doubts about the motives behind the "yes yes" devolution referendum too, in that I think Westminster expected, if not a "no" vote then at least a very small majority "for". I say this because there had been no mention of a referendum up until the last moment and if a less than thumping majority had been achieved I doubt very much if we would have had devolution now.

I therefore repeat my view that the only way we will get the Unionist parties to bring forward any more useful proposals (and remember there is a sizeable Labour faction that actually wants to remove powers from Holyrood) is to stand back from the process. Remember too that the Labour party only brought forward devolution in the first place to scupper the move towards Independence and if we participate, it lets them off the hook.

By all means let us again be prepared to campaign for the new proposals if they are strong enough and it suits us once they are presented, but not before.

That is a completely different approach from the "all or nothing" stance attributed to me above.

Once again, the only way we will be able to achieve the gradualist approach desired by so many is to keep up the pressure for Independence as that pressure is the only motivating force galvanising the Unionists


Anonymous said...

Rab, if the SNP had played a part in forming the current devolution package, the Scottish Parliament would have 'more powers' already.
Some Labour MPs would like to remove some of the current powers, no doubt. But they are an irrelevance, because the vast majority of Labour voters have no interest in moving that way. Some parts of the Labour Party grudgingly accepted devolution on the understanding that it would halt the rise of the SNP. But other parts of the Labour movement, and the whole of the Liberal Democrats, pushed for devolution because they genuinely believed it to be the best way forward. To pretend that devolution was just a cunning plan to thwart the SNP is embarrassing nonsense.
To make further headway, the SNP don't have to educate Labour MPs out of their bad faith. But they do have to convince Labour voters: an essential part of that is to be seen to be attempting to work constructively with other parties. In the present political climate, it is perfectly clear that sensible proposals for increased powers would easily win the support of the Scottish electorate. The SNP has to capitalise on that, rather than sticking its head in the sand. A sizable minority on the SNP protested strongly about the party getting involved in supporting the devolution proposals in the '90s. 'No truck with Labour' looks pretty stupid from the vantage point of an SNP devolved government.

Anonymous said...

Hi Will,

May I trespass on your goodwill to reply to Agentmancuso's last comment 08.38?

Agent, I disagree with the assumption implicit in your very first sentence. Had the SNP managed to secure "Devolution Max" at the time of the current devolution settlement, Westminster would simply not have proceeded with it in that form. Therein lies the Scottish dilema, for it is not Scotland's decision alone how much devloution we receive but Westminster's too and at the end of the day, barring a straight move to Independence (which incidentially I do not think would be desirable for probably the same reasons as yourself if a gradualist alternative can be found) it is Westminster's opinion, and while we remain within the Union only Westminster's opinion that counts.

The dilema for the pro-devolution Scottish Unionists is not just to agree among themselves (and they basically do not agree with each other about anything) how many powers they may need to offer the Scottish people to secure the Scots' agreement for the continuation of the Union against a rising tide of Independence sentiment and the difficulty of persuading their Westminster colleagues south of the border that those proposals are the correct way to proceed to maintain the integrity of the Union.

You see the difficulties the Calman Commission is in at the moment. That collection of the great, the not so good and the plain talentless Unionist placemen, whose sole remit is to anticipate Gordon Brown's will on the matter. This is proving such a taxing job for them that I heard one of their number, on being asked by his wife what he wanted for his tea that evening, burst into tears saying "Oh God no!. Don't ask me to make a decision. Can't you just put something down in front of me."

The reason they must anticipate the Broon's opinion correctly (and he won't tell them beforehand what that is) is that without his unqualified support their proposals will not get through the British parliament and he will not make up his mind because he is unsure himself how many more powers devolved to Scotland the British parliament and their constituents fed on a Daily Mail diet of "pampered Scots" will stand.

Further, if there is a chance that through SNP co-operation the proposals come to be seen as "the SNP's proposals" this will significantly reduce the chance of their passing through Westminster unamended.

In conclusion I repeat my original assertion that the best way to secure "Devolution Max" is for the SNP to stand back from the devolution debate, press hard for Independence and leave the manoeuvering to the Unionists to get the maximum through Westminster that they think they can. Their judgement on that matter is likely to be far better than ours.