So, I'm back.
But while you're away you get the chance to view things from a distance.
And from a distance it is clear the Scottish Constitutional debate is already moving on beyond 18th September 2014.
You see it in the accidental slips of Nationalist commentators. Their language has moved subtly from "A No vote would be a disaster for Scotland" to "A No vote will be a disaster for Scotland". And indeed from arch Unionists, most recently Michael Kelly in the Scotsman. (To paraphrase) "When we vote No, is there any reason for a continued Scottish Parliament at all?"
While I was away I read Iain McWhirter's book "The Road to the Referendum". I would commend it, more or less, unconditionally. I say "more or less" because it still, in my opinion, underestimates the extent to which 1560 rather than 1314, was the key year in ensuring that Scottish identity survived both the 1603 and the 1707 Unions. And also because of his innocent scepticism about the ruthlessness of the internal politics of the Scottish Labour Party, which reflects well on him if not on us.
But the general thrust of the book, essentially why the National question in Scotland has moved from the periphery of left discourse to a dividing force within it, is absolutely spot on. It's not really a book for Tories, although they both play an important part within it and would, I am sure, nod along with much of the analysis as to where they themselves lost their way.
Its concluding argumentative chapter however speaks to the left. To that part of the left in particular who have always been well disposed to some form of Scottish Home Rule.
Is it the case that the divergence between opinion North and South of the border is now such that the cause of progress would best be served by separation? Both for "us", in setting our own agenda, and for "them", in us setting a good example? Is that the way the Left should go? Even if that means making temporary cause with the "chip on the shoulder" brigade who still form majority Nationalist opinion?
Dismissive as I am of the patent front organisation that is "Labour for Independence", there is no doubt that this is indeed the conclusion of lots of good people, formerly Labour people, have reached: Tommy Sheppard, still one of my closest comrades; Susan Stewart, recently of Yes Scotland; Dennis Canavan himself. That I don't agree with them is mainly because of the section of the book where McWhirter discloses Eck's old complaint that he wasn't taught any Scottish history at school. That events prior to 1707 are more important to his mindset than events since 1789. He's the Party leader, so hardly unrepresentative of the SNP, yet that reveals that on any view that his vision of an independent Scotland would be a Country looking backwards not forward. And that's even before I returned to discover the proposal for the compulsory teaching of Gaelic in primary schools. Alongside Scottish literature irrespective of its actual merit.
I remain absolutely convinced that, by reason of the genesis of the idea, an Independent Scotland would be culturally hobbled and inward looking, convinced the world was against it and increasingly looking for scapegoats. In consequence of which it would eventually would turn on itself. That's got to be a more nightmare vision to my mind than any Tory Government.
But, nonetheless, that's where Tommy and Susan and Dennis have ended up, presumably on the basis of a belief they could wrest control back from their temporary allies after a Yes vote. I personally "hae (mair than) ma doots". It is also however where McWhirter himself ends up. But with, on his part at least, an important caveat. He will (I think) vote Yes but only because that is all that is on offer. Except No obviously.
Now, here I want to diverge briefly. There are many partisans of Independence. There are many, also, of the status quo. But those in the middle have fewer advocates and even then a smaller committed audience. Yet that is where public opinion lies, insofar as it can be judged.
And it is clear that both extremes think, or at least at one time thought, that they had advantage to gain from offering a straight yes/no choice, although it is also clear that one side in particular is increasingly regretting their being lured into that position. For if there is a No, what will that mean?
Despite the wilder fantasies of the occasional irridentist such as Michael Kelly, and indeed the rather desperate attempts by some Nationalists to enlist his opinion as an ally in the debate, nobody is proposing the abolition of the Scottish Parliament. Nobody. Not us, not the Tories, not the Libs, not even UKIP. What's more complicated is whether anybody is genuinely proposing additional powers.
And here we have to be honest. The potential for support of the SNP/Independence has always been an ally of the devolutionists in all of the Unionist parties. If (when) there is a decisive No vote, that leverage will be substantially reduced. Indeed I recently had lunch with a prominent Labour figure, no more a fan of Independence than I am, who confessed that if Yes looked like getting really gubbed, then she might vote Yes herself for fear of the issue of further powers completely dropping off the agenda.
Yet we also have to be honest about something else. Few votes turn on the issue of more powers for the Scottish Parliament in isolation. And few in either of the major British Parties are particularly animated by it. (The Libs, to be fair, with their greater interest in constitutional matters more generally are in a somewhat different situation).
So, what's the most likely outcome of a decisive No vote? That the Parliament will continue with its existing powers together with the "Calman" additional powers already in the pipeline.
Now, for the sake of honesty in campaigning, it would be better if we (Better Together) were to say that. At least to the extent of saying that nothing was being promised. At the same time we could make the not insignificant point that the existing powers are in fact much more substantial than the Nationalist administration purports them to be. As I've pointed out elsewhere in this blog , they include already, for example, the power to completely compensate for the Bedroom Tax in Scotland, a point quietly admitted by the Minister, Margaret Burgess, when the Scottish Parliament debated the matter.
There are also other, more practical, issues in play here. We have to avoid the situation where, ex post facto, the Nationalists can try to keep the Independence issue alive by maintaining people were "tricked" into voting No against a promise of additional powers which were subsequently not delivered. A mythology has arisen regarding the 1979 Referendum, that the decisive moment was a suggestion by Sir Alex Douglas-Hume that by voting No a better scheme would be produced. In fact, the key reason for the failure in 1979 was the 40% rule (together with the patent inadequacies of the scheme proposed). With or without Sir Alex's intervention, there was never sufficient enthusiasm for the 40% hurdle to be crossed.
The second, practical, reason for Better Together to take the line that nothing more is promised (as opposed to contemplated) is that we simply could not get an agreed package together between now and September 2014 even if we wanted to. That's the lesson both of Johann's abortive attempt to devolve all Income Tax as a proposal (or, as it turned out, not) to our Conference in the Spring past and indeed of Ruth Davidson's difficulties with those determined to hold her to the "line in the sand". These things take time. It appears to be taking from (at least and to be generous) May 2007 until November 2013 for the SNP even to define "Independence". Getting Labour committed to the Convention scheme took the best part of five years (I was there), never mind the further two years of work on the Scotland Act and in the Constitutional Steering Group which followed the 1997 Referendum. There is simply no way that we or the Tories will have a worked out proposal by September 2014, never mind mutually agreeing it. The sooner we admit that the better.
However, because I personally favour more powers, because indeed many of those voting No favour more powers, I also think we need to have a way forward on that, albeit without any promises being made. And here I think we can build on the flaws in the '97 process.
The Scottish Constitutional Convention took place against a background of an assumption that a Scottish Parliament would need to be wrested from an unwilling Westminster. In it's deliberations it therefore had little or no regard for the interests of the rest of the UK. The unconscious assumption was that they would be part of negotiations to follow the principle of devolution being reluctantly conceded. That of course proved not to be the sequence of events. The arrival of a Labour Administration (at least in Scotland) enthusiastic about Devolution and the September referendum following the May election in 1997 meant that we, collectively Scotland and the rest of the UK, were tied into enacting the Convention scheme. Issues that ought to have been addressed: the proper process for changing the powers of the Parliament; voting rights of Scottish MPs at Westminster; the financial accountability of the Parliament; the process for any future revision of Barnett; even the role of Westminster's second chamber in the new constitutional structure. All of these, and more, were deemed irrelevant or at least unable to be addressed, at least publicly, in the aftermath of the immediate mandate Donald had obtained for "his" White Paper.
But the political imperative of progress, which had my own enthusiastic endorsement at the time and still does, conflicted with the reality that we, in Scotland, were creating a form of unilateral federalism without the consent of the other interested Parties.
That's not sustainable in the long term and at some point there will be a crisis. There is, for example, every prospect that Labour and the Libs could form a majority Westminster coalition in 2015 which does not, even collectively, have a majority over the Tories in England.. That's a very different situation from 2005-10 when although Labour's absolute majority depended on Scotland, we still had more seats than the Tories in England and when further the underlying assumption, Left and Right, was that, if the chips were down, the Libs would be more on our side than theirs.
So these things need addressed anyway, as does the demand, cross-party, in Wales for more powers for the Welsh Assembly even as there is an acceptance in Wales, unlike in Scotland, that there still requires to be an English subsidy (more, in reality, a London subsidy), in order to balance the books. Then we have the Northern Irish demand for a variable Corporation Tax, which might not be concedable but surely needs resolved on some basis other than the arbitrary decision of the Westminster Government of the day.
Above all we have the issue of the Second Chamber; who gets to sit in it and what exactly is its role?
So here's my suggestion. In the aftermath of the Referendum, there should be a commitment to a UK Constitutional Convention. Everything should be on the agenda but among the things on the table should be the powers, particularly the taxation powers of all the devolved legislatures. And, like the Scottish Constitutional Convention, the participants should extend well beyond the political parties.
Now, I know that's not a very exciting proposal, Certainly not nearly as exciting as a way forward as Independence. But it is a practical proposal and it is also, dare I say it, a more honest one than some sort of vague promise without process which appears to be the alternative course of action commended to my Party. Anyway, given that we're patently not going to vote for Independence, it is at least something.