It’s probably fair to say that the opposition parties in the Scottish Parliament have reacted badly to the SNP’s victory in two consecutive Holyrood elections, especially the 2011 one in which the nationalists secured an unprecedented overall majority. Scottish Labour in particular has never really fully come to terms with its rejection by the electorate in a place where it has regarded power as a birthright for half a century, as can be seen by its constant demands to be consulted over legislation despite the voters unequivocally choosing to exclude the party from government and placing their trust in the SNP alone until at least 2016.
Despite enacting some highly controversial policies in its first 18 months as a majority (minimum pricing, the anti-sectarianism bill and equal-marriage legislation), polls consistently suggest that if anything, the gap in popularity between the SNP and Labour is growing as Johann Lamont’s party indulges in factional infighting and alienates its core voters by adopting neoliberal policies from its UK parent.
Meanwhile, the Tories continue to flatline in Scotland as they’ve done for most of a generation, and the Lib Dems suffer the consequences of a massively unpopular Westminster coalition and a third successive leader who seems more consumed by hatred of the SNP than any commitment to seeing his own party’s policies advanced.
So it shouldn’t come as a great surprise to any passing neutral observer that the Scottish opposition has all but given up on any hope of defeating Alex Salmond democratically at the ballot box, and quietly embarked instead on a new strategy: to steal power from the nationalists by bypassing Holyrood altogether.
Without a great deal of fuss, all three opposition parties have announced plans for a future “constitutional settlement” if Scotland votes No in the independence referendum. Here, for example, is how the Telegraph reported Tory thinking earlier this month:
“Tory insiders insisted the convention would be a ‘safety valve’ when Alex Salmond’s separatists challenge the Unionist referendum campaign to spell out which powers will be devolved if voters reject independence.”
Scottish Labour’s intention was strongly hinted at in a passage of Johann Lamont’s infamous “something for nothing” speech, but was little remarked-upon in all the furore of the speech’s headline-grabbing attack on universal services:
“Decision-making isn’t just a discussion about Holyrood and Westminster, it’s about where power should best lie to ensure that decisions which affect our communities are made at the most appropriate level, which does mean thinking about our councils too.”
And the position of the Lib Dem commission fronted by Sir Menzies Campbell is curiously similar, as set out on Lib Dem Voice (and subsequently reported in the Times last weekend and by the BBC today):
And finally, there was an intriguing suggestion put forward by Lord (David) Steel of Aikwood in last week’s somewhat one-sided House Of Lords “debate” on the future of Scotland’s constitution:
“I am following closely what the noble Lord says. One of the advantages if the House of Lords were a properly integrated force in a federal constitution is that it could also be a revising Chamber for the devolved Assemblies, which do not have one. Committees of the House of Lords could perform that function.”
Have you spotted it yet? If the Scottish people vote No in 2014, falling for a promise of “enhanced devolution” to follow, the Unionists will respond with a revised arrangement which keeps all the big stuff (defence, taxation, welfare, pensions) at Westminster, but strips Holyrood of much of its current power in order to hand it to councils instead – a level at which the nationalists have significantly less of a grip – and have the Parliament’s legislation “revised” by committees of unelected Westminster peers.
All three of the London parties will win under such a scheme, because all have influence on councils in various parts of the country. Labour would of course be the biggest beneficiaries, but the Tories would still happily go along with the plan because they wrote Scotland off as fertile ground long ago, and with Labour policies now barely distinguishable from Conservative ones anyway their ideology would get to win even if it was under different colours.
This is the true future for Scotland after a No vote – the emasculation of the Scottish Parliament by the least popular parties in it, ensuring that even if the SNP were to win all 129 seats they’d be able to do almost nothing with them. (It’s rather like the way the US system tends to ensure that even if a Democrat gets elected as President he’s paralysed by a Republican Congress blocking his legislative programme at every turn.)
A No vote will give Westminster carte blanche to introduce such reforms, because having conclusively rejected independence the Scottish electorate will have nothing left with which to threaten it. They could elect the SNP to Holyrood again, but only as a rubber-stamp puppet parliament. (The new “constitutional convention” would of course delay its report until after the 2016 Holyrood election, plausibly citing more urgent priorities, just to see how the land lay.)
The opposition parties can’t be accused of acting in secret. They’re preparing the ground in full public view. The Lib Dem proposals offer the Scottish Parliament extra responsibilities and problems, but nothing in return – what’s the point of being able to increase income tax, for example, if you can’t then use the money for welfare or pensions? Holyrood would be weighed down by the new burden of having to gather money, but have the power over spending it given away to councillors. The Parliament would be reduced, deliberately, to the role of a widely-hated debt collector.
Yesterday finally saw the independence referendum become a reality. We already know what a Yes vote will mean – a Scottish Government, elected by the Scottish people alone, deciding all of Scotland’s affairs. What a No vote will stand for, on the other hand, is only just beginning to become apparent.
The post-No devolution settlement will be an upgrade of the current one in the same way that Apple Maps is an upgrade to Google Maps – except this time the directions we’re being given are a bit more accurate, if only you listen closely to them.