Old Union or New?
21 Nov 2012
A frequent charge made by both sides in the constitutional debate is a lack of clarity. Unionists deride Nationalists for not defining precisely what “independence” means, while Nationalists posit that Unionists say little or nothing about what Scotland would look like in the event of a “no” vote.
There are moves afoot on both sides to remedy this, content in the knowledge that voters generally require clarity before they reach a decision, particularly on something as important as Scotland’s constitutional future. For its part, the Scottish Government has promised to publish a comprehensive independence “prospectus” this time next year.
The UK Government, however, has been less proactive. Some Unionists believe there is no need to say what Scotland would look like post-2014, for they assume it would look pretty much like Scotland pre-2014; others believe it’s important to say what might happen, lest Nationalist charges of them “offering nothing” begin to stick.
To plug the gap Downing Street has made vague noises about a UK-wide constitutional convention (ministers like David Mundell believe Scotland can no longer be treated in isolation), while the junior partner in the Coalition, the Liberal Democrats, have been a little bolder.
Shortly after the Edinburgh Agreement was signed Sir Menzies Campbell published “Federalism: the best future for Scotland”, which harked back to the Liberals’ 19th-century roots with a pitch for “Home Rule all round”, giving Holyrood powers which would “put the United Kingdom on track to become a federal union”.
Unsurprisingly, the report received minimal coverage, although Lib Dem strategists were content they’d closed down one Nationalist line of attack (i.e. that they offered no alternative to independence) ahead of the referendum. More significant, therefore, is today’s report from the cross-party Devo+ campaign.
Its proposal for a “New Union” builds on past Lib Dem commissions (including another on “fiscal federalism” chaired by Lord Steel in 2006) but recommends what is essentially a tidying up exercise, codifying the existing – and quite messy – British constitution; consolidating the Scottish Parliament’s place within the UK while allowing scope for further devolution of power.
Others have gone further using the same “New Union” wording. Indeed, it was first coined by the SNP politician Mike Russell (now Education Secretary) in his 2006 book “Grasping the Thistle”. He basically proposed gradual moves towards independence via a New Union in which Westminster continued to exercise control over defence and foreign affairs.
Finally, the Conservative Welsh Assembly Member David Melding has spoken of drawing up a “new Act of Union” in order to codify a federal constitution, an extension of an argument outlined in his 2009 Institute of Welsh Affairs publication, “Will Britain Survive Beyond 2020?”
So there is a degree of cross-party support for federalism (depending on how it’s defined), as demonstrated by the Devo+ team of MSPs Alex Fergusson (Conservative), Duncan McNeil (Labour) and Tavish Scott (Lib Dem), not to forget its leader, the former Lib Dem MSP Jeremy Purvis, whose report hints at a federal settlement. They believe today’s report signals the “natural and long term destination of devolution”.
Alex Salmond, on the other hand, believes the natural and long-term extension of the current devolution settlement is independence, but the point is there’s been movement on both sides – Unionists have become more Nationalist, while Nationalists have embraced certain aspects of Unionism.
It’s not inconceivable they could coalesce around a “third way” in the constitutional debate; after all, polling suggests the majority of Scots want neither the status quo nor independence – could a federal settlement with greater powers for Holyrood attract enough support in political and popular terms?