Monday, 29 June 2009

What a difference a decade makes

Ten years into the era of devolution and we live in interesting times. I'm reminded of the tale of George Bernard Shaw in conversation with a young lady: "Would you sleep with me if I gave you 10,000 pounds?" he asked her. She thought about it and decided that she would. "Good," said Shaw, "so would you also sleep with me for sixpence?" The lady was outraged. "What sort of woman do you think I am?" she thundered. "We've established what sort of woman you are," Shaw replied, "we're merely haggling over the price."

It seems to me that Britannia finds herself in a similar position to that young lady. The referendum in 1997 established the principle that Scotland was entitled to self-determination. The resounding Yes-Yes vote further established the principle of self-governance. And the argument was essentially over at that point. Scotland firmly established what sort of a union it has with the rest of the UK. Scottish sovereignty resides with the Scottish people, not with Westminster (nor indeed with Holyrood!).

Since then there has been much "haggling over the price": which powers to devolve, which to reserve? But the principle of Scottish sovereignty towers above the debate, the Scottish people must decide.

Which brings us to the question of a referendum on Scotland's future constitutional arrangements. Do we need one? Or are we all content with the current model of devolution?

Over the last decade it has appeared increasingly clear to me that change is needed. The rise in the share of the vote for the SNP has been remarkable, as has the demise of the New Labour project. Not all of this swing can be ascribed to a protest vote. Many people will have voted for the SNP precisely because they want Scotland to have more power. This has become all the more likely in light of Westminster's travails over the last year or two. For all its faults Holyrood looks like a paragon of probity next to "Wastemonster".

Meanwhile, the once barely audible discontent south of the border at the "subsidies" and "privileges" that Scotland supposedly enjoys has increased to a low rumble. As swingeing public sector cuts are applied over the next decade this perceived grievance will loom ever larger. How will a Tory government in Westminster respond? How will they handle an SNP government at Holyrood? What mandate will the Tories have to decide on reserved matters, such as Trident, for Scotland?

Alternatively, how will England react if it votes Tory but Labour's tally of Scottish MPs helps bring about a hung parliament? Suddenly that democratic deficit that Scots have railed against for so long might be keenly felt in middle England. Will the Tories happily leak votes to the English Democrats? I suspect not.

How then should Scotland face the challenges of the next decade? With a system that breeds misunderstanding and a sense of injury on both sides of the border? Or with a cleaner, simpler constitutional arrangement backed by a strong democratic mandate?

Quite simply Scotland must be given a direct choice. Not some sleekit, skewed choice, with arbitrary thresholds imposed as a spoiling tactic, nor an extrapolated choice based on the results of a general election fought over many different issues. No. We need a straight, honest choice between the main options: full independence; devolution max of whatever flavour (federalism? confederalism? Calman?); keeping the status quo; or direct rule from Westminster.

For me the choice remains clear, the principle of self-governance has been established. Independence is the logical outcome of that victory. Not "isolation", as Gordon Brown would love you to think of it (Why Gordon, do you think the Scots would vote for isolation? Is your opinion of us really so low?). But simply the freedom to run our country in a fair and just fashion according to our ever-changing needs, choosing when and on what terms to cooperate with our neighbours as common interests arise, and playing a full part in the international community.

As ever the consitutional poll remains open in Brigadoon: cast your vote in the poll on the right hand side.

No comments: