Tuesday 18 March 2014

Thought for the day

Where to begin?

With the words of Oscar Hammerstein, placed into the mouth of Julie Andrews.

"Let's start at the very beginning, that's a very good place to start".

Scottish Labour has always been divided on the issue of Scottish Home Rule. Not Independence, it has been consistently opposed to Independence. Indeed, as I have already observed in an earlier blog, it was that very opposition which led to the formation of the SNP.

But on the question as to whether Scotland should have a devolved/federal/home rule assembly there has always been a difference of opinion. Sure, Keir Hardie was for it (albeit on the basis of  the creation of a similar English "government" distinct from the "Imperial Parliament" at Westminster)  So was Maxton. But it was no real priority for the first two (minority) Labour Governments in 1924 or 1929, whose most prominent Clydeside member, John Wheatley, had strong reservations about what the whole thing might mean for the Irish Catholic minority. Nor was a Scottish Parliament any part of the platform of our greatest ever Government from 1945 to 51 or of even any great interest to our greatest politician of that age, Tom Johnston. Indeed by the late 1950s it was official Labour Party policy to be positively opposed to the very idea of a Parliament (or whatever) sitting in Edinburgh.

But there has always, equally, been a counter tide. By the sixties and early seventies coalescing around the likes of  George Foulkes and Jimmy Boyack and John P. Mackintosh but above all personified in Donald Dewar. Those who genuinely thought that a legal system without its own legislature was an affront to democracy and who, crucially, dismissed the idea that a Scottish Parliament need inevitably lead down Tam Dalyell's slippery slope to separation.

And in the middle there were those who didn't care much either way. Who subscribed to Herbert Morrison's dictum that "Socialism is whatever a Labour Government does" and whose only priority was to maximise the electoral chance of such a Government being elected. And, let's be honest, this middle ground were more motivated by the electoral success (or otherwise) of the SNP than any great point of principle either way.

So you have to understand that history before you go on to consider what has happened today.

If Labour had won the 2011 Scottish Parliamentary Election, there would never have been a Scottish Labour devolution commission. That is obvious. But it didn't mean that it wasn't an opportunity.

And, to be honest, I believe it was an opportunity missed.

Now, before I go on, I want to say two things.

The first is to say that I don't think today will make a scintilla of difference to the vote on September 18th. Anybody who protests that the incoherence of the proposals has persuaded them to vote for independence is lying. They were voting for independence anyway. The key message, that devolution is not yet at the "line in the sand" point, is the crucial one. We can sort out the real details beyond September 19th.

The second is that I have, for the avoidance of doubt, thought about whether I should keep my reservations to myself. If I thought they might have any influence on the referendum result I most certainly would have. But I don't. We already know the referendum result. What's left is just about the margin of victory.

But the document produced today is a complete mess. One of the major criticisms of the White Paper is that it confuses policy with principle. That's true. However compared to the Labour document it rivals the Constitution of the United States in its focus.

How can it possibly be the case that the Scottish Parliament has the right to vary taxes upwards but never downwards? Why is the law on misuse of drugs or abortion to remain reserved to Westminster and thus uniform across the UK? Why are we "devolving" the administration of Employment Tribunals but not the Employment Law they enforce? Why shouldn't we (have the right to) cut Air Passenger Duty? Now all of these outcomes might well constitute the policy platform on which Labour would seek (currently) to be elected (I'm certainly not for cutting any form of tax)  but the point is THAT IS A MATTER FOR THE ELECTORATE, it is not something to be written into a constitutional settlement.

And as for the idea that the Scottish Parliament could not be abolished without its consent? Where to start. Certainly, even now, that would be politically unthinkable, but for that to be "outlawed" wouldn't be possible without ripping up the UK's unwritten constitution and starting again with a properly written one. For what it's worth, once again, I am personally for that but that constitution can't be written unilaterally by less than ten percent of the UK's population, let alone by one political Party within it.

Now, in terms of allowing Labour to posture as to being to the left of the SNP this document might just have some purpose. The idea that "the rich" might be squeezed till the pips squeak by us while the Nats squirm on the sidelines will undoubtedly allow us a bit of fun at the expense of the "radical" elements of the "Yes coalition". When however you consider that there are less than 13,000 of these additional rate taxpayers, earning more than £150,000, in the whole of Scotland out of more than two and a half million total income tax payers;  and consider that there are far fewer still living in houses worth more than two million pounds, it doesn't take long to recognise this for what it is. Posturing.

The document is not a mouse but a mess. A document produced as a compromise between the three competing strands of Labour opinion I started with. It reminds me of.........the 1979 Devolution proposal with all ups and no downs for Labour. As I say, it won't, I suspect, have much bearing on the referendum either way but as for a way forward after 18th September? Never forget. It wasn't the 1979 scheme that came to pass but one devised by a cross party Constitutional Convention. That is surely, once more, where we would need to go.


  1. "That is surely, once more, where we would need to go."

    To which end, Campbell II Report, Recommendation 5:

    The Secretary of State for Scotland should convene a meeting after the referendum, within thirty days, where parties and wider interests can meet. Its aim should be to secure a consensus for the further extension of powers to the Scottish Parliament consistent with continued membership of the United Kingdom and to be included in party manifestos for the 2015 general election.

  2. Do any of you read BTL comments in the English press? Any party having giving more powers to Scotland in the event of a No vote in their manifesto would be crucified by the English electorate.
    There is more chance of there being no referendum.

    The Labour party should have stated at the outset that their Scottish MP/MSP's are excused from taking the party whip.

  3. I think it so bad, that a lot of fence sitters might just feel it is one more insult and that will push them to vote YES.

    The current British Labour is just a cypher for Westminster parliamentary sovereignty and serves that master and not ordinary working people, more interestedin power for power's sake. I say it is time to rebuild a socially just from outside the UK.