Former Labour first minister Henry McLeish is one of the very few associated with the anti-independence campaign who has consistently called upon Better Together to present a positive reason for saying no. But Henry’s pleas have equally consistently fallen on deaf ears as any attempt to establish a common position between the Westminster parties on further devolution would immediately fall apart due to their overriding need to jockey for position ahead of the only vote that counts for a Westminster politician – 2015’s General Election.
In frustration at the lack of progress in positivity from the official no campaign, Henry has made a brave stab at suggesting what a positive prospectus for the Union might look like. It’s Henry’s tragedy, and will be a tragedy for Scotland if we vote no, that under Westminster’s brand of politics each of the five key points in Henry’s attempt to write a White Paper on No all by himself is as out of place as a raised toilet seat in a convent, and just as likely to provoke recriminations, accusations, and excommunication.
Firstly he seeks a consensus “built around a positive case for Scotland’s role within a modern and transformed Union: there was a consensus in 1997 when Scotland voted for a parliament, but today the nation is divided, with both campaigns making this worse. We need a cohesive, nation-building campaign.”
The fly in the ointment is that any consensus on Scotland’s role within the Union also depends upon a consensus in the rest of the UK, otherwise it’s just Scotland demanding more devolution again, and not getting it.
But the problem is not the lack of consensus in Scotland, it’s the consensus within the UK. However the consensus within the UK, which of course means the consensus of Westminster political parties, is that extra powers for Scotland will only be granted grudgingly, reluctantly, and hedged about with more caveats than a promise from Labour to think about considering to abolish the Bedroom Tax.
There already is a consensus within Scotland. By a large majority Scots want more powers for the Scottish parliament, we just differ on which of the powers currently reserved to Westminster we want transfered to Holyrood. Independence supporters want all powers transferred to Holyrood, supporters of various shades of devolution want some powers transferred. There is however already a consensus within Scotland that this nation’s parliament requires greater powers, otherwise we wouldn’t be having this entirely peaceful and democratic independence debate in the first place.
It’s sad that Henry and other Unionist politicians don’t give the people of Scotland more credit for that last point. We are not a nation at war with itself. The all too common way in which countries debate independence is with bullets and bombs or with threats of imprisonment, yet here we are in Scotland debating independence and the worst that’s happened is that a few over sensitive sowels have ended up with torn faces after someone said something they found objectionable. And all this usually happens online, where people make a sport of saying objectionable things. The peaceful nature of this independence debate is a huge testament to the democratic maturity of ordinary people in Scotland – and we deserve to pat ourselves on the back for that whatever the outcome of September’s vote. We’re far more grown up than our politicians are.
But the really tricky bit is “a modern and transformed Union”, since there’s absolutely no sign of the Westminster parties getting themselves together on that one any time soon. This is all the more unfortunate since all Henry’s other proposals depend upon a concrete plan for this imaginary modern and transformed Union. But if there was a cross party plan for a modern and transformed Union that will settle all questions the future of devolution and the West Lothian Question and the Barnett Formula and the oil revenues, we’d have heard something about it by now.
Westminster’s track record on reform is not impressive. We’ve still got the House of Lords, despite abolition being a Labour policy when the party first stood for election over 100 years ago. We’ve still got the first past the post system which distorts political representation and allows governments with large majorities despite their taking only a minority of the vote despite decades of calls for change. Scotland only got devolution after we’d been calling for it for more than a century, and it had to be dragged out of Westminster kicking and screaming.
Better Together has less than 9 months in which to arrange a cross party consensus on fundamental constitutional reform within the UK. It’s safe to say a modern and transformed Union is not going to be on the horizon any time between now and September.
Henry’s second key demand is for the three main Westminster parties to jointly propose a written constitution which abandons the idea of Parliamentary sovereignty. It’s at this point you realise that you’re reading a belated Christmas wish list to Santa and not a political plan with any sort of plausibility. The Doctrine of Parliamentary Sovereignty has a totemic place within the Westminster system. It’s the bollocks on the Westminster dog, and they’re not going to give them up voluntarily.
That just leaves a wee trip to the vet where the unruly mutt can be forced to submit to the prodecure under anaesthetic. The only way this can be achieved – at least for Scotland – is by ticking the yes box on the independence ballot paper for an independent Scotland where there’s a written constitution guaranteeing that the people and not parliament are sovereign. This takes Henry back to square one.
Key points 3, 4 and 5 are likewise wishful thinking. 3 is for Labour to spell out the consequences of a no vote, but they’ve got no intention of doing that before the referendum since it would mean revealing their 2015 election manifesto a year early and letting us know exactly what’s going to happen to the Bedroom Tax, and tell us what austerity cuts they’d make. The Westminster election cycle is the only one allowed in the reserved powers lane.
With 4 he’s again calling on Labour to come up with a plan, any plan, for a modern and transformed United Kingdom, and he’s stressing the need for conviction and enthusiasm about extending the powers of the Scottish parliament and reforming the UK. Can you imagine Johann Lamont giving a passionate, articulate and compelling speech about the need for Westminster to transfer substantial fiscal powers to Scotland, calling for devolution of the BBC and control of oil revenues? No, neither can I. And neither can Henry McLeish, because as he says in his fifth and final point:
“Fifth, above all else, there has to be a credible, not grudging, embrace of new and radical powers for the Scottish Parliament and a new relationship with the Union.”
He goes on to plead for a non-grudging Labour campaign to save the Union untainted by Tories, but isn’t there supposed to be one of those already? There was thon super-high-profile one launched in a blaze of publicity some while back that we’ve heard nothing about ever since. The one led by Gordon Brown, the ex-politician that’s still an MP for Kirkaldy. But you can’t ask Gordon Brown not to be grudging. Grudging is all he does.
Henry McLeish is not a stupid man. He knows that he’s asking for the impossible, he knows that there is absolutely no prospect of anything from his wish list coming to pass. His suggestion that the anti-independence campaign adopt his recommendations is either a supreme example of the triumph of hope over experience, or it’s an attempt to warn them that their complacency will be their undoing – and only something drastic will save the day. But Henry McLeish writes as though he realises that it’s already too late.
There has already been a steady drip of former high profile Labour politicians coming out in favour of independence, there will be others. I have it on good authority that at least 3 or 4 Labour councillors in one local authority are privately in favour of independence. There are certainly many more across Scotland, they’re just waiting for someone like Henry McLeish to stop wishing for the impossible.