Many Scots are too young to remember the intervention in the 1979 referendum by Douglas Home. Just like Cameron’s hollow promise of ‘more powers’ to Scotland, Douglas Home assured Scots ‘better’ devolution would come if we voted No.
After Scotland was deemed to have voted No - due to the Westminster 40% rule - the Tories reneged on that promise, by not delivering any more powers to Scotland. Eventually the Tories lost all 22 of their Scottish MPs. The Tories continued to rule Scotland with their legitimacy unchallenged by a Labour Party primarily interested in forming a future UK Government. Even today, Scotland has only one Tory MP.
In February of this year Cameron played his own Douglas Home gambit, promising to look at more powers - if the Scots first reject independence. Labour have negotiated the setting up of the No Campaign without challenging this. By doing so, it has signalled its acceptance of a repeat performance by the Tories.
The evidence is clear - the people of Scotland want more decisions made at Holyrood. Over 70% of Scots trust Holyrood to represent Scottish interests compared to fewer than one in five who trust Westminster to do so. Before the Scottish Government has even published its independence white paper, the people of Scotland support powers for Holyrood far beyond those approved in the Scotland Act.
Scots want to strengthen Holyrood’s powers in areas currently reserved to Westminster: Employment Law, Energy Policy, and Welfare and Benefits. Even on the areas that have been the focus of so much unionist scaremongering – Economic Policy and Taxation, a clear majority want to see the Scottish Parliament, not Westminster, take the lead.
The debate started by Willie Rennie around the interpretation of a second question is a diversion from the main issue. The question I hear is why there is so little movement in the Labour or LibDem parties to respond to the demands of Scottish voters. Have their ‘nationalist’ voices become so attenuated that both parties are simply creatures of the unionist camp?
If there is any prospect of Westminster passing a radical programme of devolution of powers to Holyrood, the best prospect for that is now, not after a 2014 referendum. The Tories are a minority in the Commons - 305 seats out of 650 - so would find it impossible to resist such a programme without risking an early General Election. Labour and the LibDems would have to be able to deliver support among their members though, and that support isn’t guaranteed, so vague future promises are certainly not reliable.
The legislative process for initiating a radical programme of devolution is not complicated. The benefit of the structure of the 1998 Scotland Act is that changes can be made to the distribution of powers by the simple expedient of changing Schedule 5 of the Act, leaving the detailed modifications to be processed by secondary legislation to be agreed between the parliaments, as happens at present.
This Devolution to Scotland Act (2014) could be on the statute book, with its implementation subject to the outcome of the referendum. If Scotland votes Yes, it will not be required and we will complete the process towards independence. If Scotland votes No, and I don’t believe it will, the Act would come into force.
By insisting on such clarification before the independence referendum, Labour and LibDem members could ensure that the unionist alternative on offer in 2014 is clear and ‘locked in’. This would provide clarity on the ‘status quo’, with no separate referendum required – the decision of all unionist parties to press ahead with the Calman proposals without either a Scottish or a UK-wide referendum is a clear precedent.
Defining the status quo against which to test independence isn’t a ‘logical’ problem as posited by Rennie, it is a political one. There is no programme of enhanced devolution on offer and no prospect of one being agreed either side of the referendum. After the referendum in autumn 2014 Scotland will move straight into the next UK General Election on 7 May 2015. But before that election takes place, UK elections will change in ways that significantly increase the prospect of a majority Tory Government.
To begin with, there will be new constituency boundaries, with the number of MPs down to 600 from 650 and Scottish representation reduced from 59 to 52. A requirement that the size of constituencies varies by no more than 5% is driving the removal of many seats from declining urban communities in the north of England, not one of which is held by the Tories.
Another change that is likely to benefit the Tories is the move to individual voter registration. This places more responsibility on voters to ensure they are on the electoral register and to provide proof of identity. The Electoral Commission has warned that this could reduce voter registration from over 90% to just 65%. In the long-term it has the potential to consolidate the Tory hold on power in the UK as more disadvantaged groups and younger voters fall out of the electoral process.
For Labour and LibDems to urge Scots to vote No in the hope that a House of Commons elected under these new arrangements will honour some vague commitment to ‘better devolution’ is a betrayal of the trust placed in them by the people of Scotland. It is time for them to drop the Douglas Home gambit and commit to having a clear choice in 2014, between independence and a defined and ‘locked in’ status quo with or without a second question in the referendum.
More than three decades after the 1979 referendum we watch and listen to London’s anti-independence parties telling Scotland the same old things they have been saying or generations. I trust the people of Scotland know better and will not let history repeat itself by opting to vote Yes for an independent Scotland in the Autumn of 2014.
L inda Fabiani is the SNP MSP for East Kilbride. She was convener of the Scottish Parliament’s Scotland Bill committee from June 2011 to May 2012.
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