With the publication of yesterday’s white paper, the Scottish Government has brought an end to its ‘National Conversation’ after two and a quarter years. Henceforth, instead of a National Conversation we can expect a dialogue (quadrilogue?) of the deaf, with all the major parties in the Parliament shouting past each other in the run-up to the 2010 UK and 2011 Scottish Parliament elections.
Those who haven’t yet read it will find that the white paper discusses at length four options for Scotland’s future: the status quo, the Calman recommendations (as originally framed, not as considered by the UK Government – the UK white paper was published too late for that), what it calls ‘full devolution’ and independence. The white paper declares that only independence would confer the advantages necessary for the Scotland to function as a nation-state like other nation-states, and identifies many shortcomings in the Calman recommendations. While it falls short of a full endorsement of ‘full devolution’ (or ‘devolution max’, or ‘independence lite’ as media commentators have described this option), the white paper devotes a good deal of attention to this option and much of the immediate reception of the white paper has focussed on this.
In truth, this isn’t wholly new. In the white paper which kicked off the National Conversation, Choosing Scotland’s Future, there was a lengthy discussion (in chapter 2) of matters reserved to the UK level under the present settlement, noting that these ‘could be devolved’ to Scotland’s advantage, though without any discussion of the consequences of doing so in any individual case or all of them. ‘Full devolution’ is not far off a devolution of all those matters. And most notably, in the National Conversation paper on Fiscal Autonomy in Scotland the option of what was called ‘full fiscal autonomy’ was discussed at some length.
Full fiscal autonomy was also considered at some length by the Calman Commission, (and the Independent Expert Group which advised it on economic issues). They understood this to mean what the Scottish Government also means: Scottish institutions being responsible for setting and collecting all taxes in Scotland, and retaining the revenues except for a contribution to common UK services that would be remitted to the UK institutions. Calman and the Independent Expert Group rejected this option as not being consistent with maintaining the Union (though neither subjected that proposition to much scrutiny – they treated it as axiomatic). Certainly, in the way the Scottish Government suggests it would work, it would put an end to any Scottish contribution to cross-UK redistribution of public spending. (It’s worth adding that, despite apparent similarities, the approach used in the Basque Country in fact does allow for state-wide redistribution.)
Beyond this, there are three striking points arising from the white paper. First, the serious interest in ‘devolution max’ suggests a significant evolution in SNP thinking. It combines a desire to maximise Scottish autonomy with a recognition that there are huge practical obstacles to achieving independence, including only limited support for outright independence among the public at large. This can therefore be seen as a further step in the SNP’s embracing a ‘gradualist’ strategy. And this sort of ‘autonomy-maximising’ strategy has much to commend it, from the point of view of a party like the SNP. It has been very successfully used by nationalist parties in Catalonia (notably Convergencia) over the last 30 or so years to build a strong and powerful Catalonia within the Spanish state.
Second, the white paper suggests a development in SNP thinking about the use of referendums. Again, the idea of a multiple option referendum isn’t new (it was first mentioned in the August 2007 white paper: see paragraph 5.8). It’s explicitly discussed here no doubt for political reasons, to put pressure on the Liberal Democrats; their Steel Commission report of 2006 recommended extending devolution rather further than the Calman commission did, if not as far as ‘devolution max’ implies. It also gains a new impetus in the light of this document, and the repeated insistence of SNP politicians that a referendum, if held, would resolve matters for a political generation, not trigger a ongoing ‘neverendum’.
However, the multiple-option referendum presents huge challenges (as the 2007 white paper noted), and the new white paper doesn’t suggest ways to overcome those. How do you secure a clear outcome? How can you be sure that the choice before the electorate is a clear one? Satisfying those criteria is vital, to ensure that the referendum complies with general constitutional norms and principles, and also to ensure that even those on the losing side can accept the legitimacy of the outcome supported by the majority. That can’t happen if it’s not clear who are the losers and who are the winners.
In truth, there’s reason to think that the SNP may be privately wishing to get out of its commitment to hold a referendum in this Parliament, and to have the issue overshadow the next Scottish Parliament elections. An independence referendum is a very powerful weapon right up to the moment it’s used. Once held, it gravely limits the options available to the government that called it, and (if lost) would inevitably seriously damage the standing of that government. If the SNP can secure maximum autonomy without breaking up the Union, that offers many very real advantages. Not least, it enables them to avoid picking a fight that they might not win, and might not think helps greatly if they win it.
Third, Your Scotland, Your Voice is an attempt to regain the high ground in the Scottish constitutional debates. Whether it will succeed in this in the longer term, not just this week’s news cycle, will take some time to become clear. But its use of terms like ‘full devolution’ (with its implication that anything else is less than full, and therefore unsatisfactory) is clever. In this, it’s helped by the limited scale of the Calman recommendations, and further helped by the way those recommendations have been further trimmed in the UK Government white paper Scotland’s Future in the United Kingdom (see also my posts here and here). Given where the thinking of the Scottish public seems to be, and if the choice is between ‘full devolution’ and the much more limited option proposed by Calman and the UK Government, it’s not hard to predict that the ‘devolution max’ option will be winner.
That is not surprising, though. The SNP is very good indeed at understanding how a sub-state government conducts constitutional politics. It’s clearly drawn on lessons from places like Catalonia and Quebec, and learnt well from them. For my money, Alex Salmond is the best practitioner of that sort of politics in the world today, and one of the best there has been. The UK end of this debate is hampered by a range of factors. One is having to secure much broader agreement – of a range of unionist political parties, and of a range of interests in Whitehall – when developing its position. That in turn often leads to lowest-common-denominator policies, and also to the SNP simply being able to move more nimbly. Another is the innate constitutional timidity to be found at the UK level, and indeed lack of familiarity with how constitutional politics works. This has been the SNP’s raison d’être for many years, and it’s no wonder they’re good at it. It’s a common trope from Labour in particular simply to wish that constitutional issues would go away, while never coming up with a satisfactory way of dealing with them. That’s simply not good enough now.