Labour should embrace the model of devolution that’s right for Scotland, not the one that we hope will wrong-foot the nationalists, writes IAN SMART


New powers for Holyrood should only be supported if they’re in Scotland’s interests, not because   Look, we lost. I accept that. And they won. I accept that too. I don’t like it but I accept it.

Obviously we presented the victory to them on a plate. We didn’t take the election seriously; we had no proper policy platform of our own; some of our candidates could only be voted for by people who were completely ignorant of them personally; no-one had heard of our candidate for First Minister; and those who had didn’t believe him to be up to the job.

So we lost. But they still won.

But there are turning points in politics.

Nineteen forty-five was a turning point and so, I regret to concede, was 1979.  And (and here I suspect I will fall out with some of my co-contributors) there are also false dawns. Nineteen seventy was for the Tories and 1997 was for us.

Sometimes you don’t have a real mandate for change; you are simply not the other side, like Wilson in 74. And sometimes you do but have a leadership who are simply not that interested in doing much to disturb the status quo, like Blair in 97.

I genuinely don’t believe 2011 was a turning point election. In the aftermath there was little said about why the SNP won. Instead almost all the attention was on why Labour lost.

Now, Labour lost big and consequently the Nats won big. But let’s not let them rewrite history about why they won.

The constitutional issue simply was not a major issue during the Scottish election. That’s not to say the SNP wouldn’t have liked it to be: they would have much preferred to have been swept to power on a mandate for independence but, even at the height of Labour’s incompetence, they knew that would be a mandate they couldn’t procure. So they didn’t seek it. They said there would be a referendum on independence at some indeterminate point in the next parliament and they hid behind the subtext that since they were not anticipating an overall majority even that was unlikely to happen.

But they clearly did not anticipate the magnitude of Labour’s ineptitude and in consequence they did win on a scale even they had not predicted. So, one might expect, no matter how they came about it, they are surely entitled to say with some justification, we do now have a mandate for a referendum on independence.

But, although to some extent they do say that, on the other hand they don’t.

It’s not just that they show no immediate signs of holding a referendum, or even introducing the paving legislation to permit one; or even that they appear to be having doubts about exactly what “kind” of independence they want; it is also that it now appears that they want to put other questions to that referendum.

Now this is not the action of a party confident of victory.

Surely the best hope of victory in a referendum is on a straight choice between independence and the status quo? That is only common sense. Given a third option at least some of those drawn to it must be doing so at the expense of choosing not to go the whole way. And given Salmond’s position that an independence referendum would be a once in a generation event, (which, as far as I am aware, remains SNP policy) why do anything at all to hamper the chance of victory?

Unless of course, in your heart of hearts, you know there is no chance of victory but still hope that you might be seen to have achieved something.

The difficulty with this strategy is in defining the nature of the questions. It’s difficult to see these being organised with independence being the first option.

That would inevitably lead to a second question being predicated on the failure of the first; something along the lines of:

  • Even if you do not want full independence, would you like the Scottish Parliament to have the following [specified] additional powers?

But equally its difficult to see Devo Max (or whatever you want to call it) being the first option, not just because it is not (presumably) the preferred option of the Government, but again because the second question put would have to be with a predicate:

  • Even if the Scottish Parliament receives the powers above would you still prefer Scotland to be fully independent?

Indeed, the more you consider it, the more you see the difficulty in putting two different, and ultimately inconsistent, propositions on the same ballot paper.

But that’s not the only problem. It’s difficult to see who is going to frame the non-independence option. Presumably, the SNP Government, even though it’s not their desired outcome. The problem with this is that any settlement short of full independence is not a matter for the Scottish people alone. So what happens, in advance of a referendum, if the rest of the UK says that what the SNP want (as their fall back position) is not on offer? That it’s independence or bust. What’s the point of then asking the “other” question? The question becomes redundant whether or not the full independence question is won or lost. If the referendum produces a yes vote to independence the “other” question is redundant per se and if the Scots have rejected the nuclear option of “full” independence then why should the rest of the UK make any further constitutional concessions in the aftermath of that? After all, the SNP could hardly hold another referendum but this time with a single question. That would be silly.

And just for the sake of completing the logic of my argument, what if, in advance of the referendum, the rest of the UK says that Scotland is welcome to what it seeks by way of additional powers for the parliament while within the UK? Again what’s then the point in an SNP Government risking the people rejecting powers the SNP Government themselves want and which are freely on offer, particularly given the political embarrassment which would follow if that happened?

Now, there would be some sense in having two separate referendums: the first on additional powers and, if that was won, the second some time later on, having factored in the rest of the UK’s response to the first result. But, again, that logic is predicated on not wishing to maximise the chance of winning the “full independence” referendum. You might lose the first referendum, or win it by so slight a margin that attempting a second referendum became impossible. Or you might win the first referendum decisively, only to prompt UK concessions which significantly reduced your chances in the second vote.

So, in summary, if we accept that the SNP genuinely do want “full” independence, the only possible reason they are unwilling to put that to a simple test is because they know they couldn’t win a referendum. That’s what every reputable opinion poll has always said and I’m sure that’s also what the SNP’s own private polling and focus groups will be saying.

So let’s consider where that leaves the Labour Party in relation to the issue of the constitution? It leaves us where we always should have been. We need to develop a policy towards the powers of the Scottish Parliament based on what we believe these powers should be, not on what we fear they must be to defeat an independence vote. If the SNP themselves have concluded such a vote can’t be won, why should we be intimidated by what amounts to little more than chutzpah on their behalf? And anyway, if we believe that some of the “solutions” on offer are likely to be nearly as damaging as independence itself, are we not obliged to say so?

Scottish Labour Action looked at length at what is now described as “full fiscal freedom”; indeed for a time we advocated it under the different nomenclature of the “Reverse Block Grant”. In the end however we rejected it chiefly because it was dependent unduly on the variability of the price of one commodity: oil. That remains the case, as indeed it remains the major economic argument against independence itself.

Contrary to popular myth, it was not big Donald, but rather the less fondly remembered Ron Davies, who first said that devolution was not an event but a process. It was however that belief that prompted Wendy to initiate the Calman Review which forms the basis for the current Scotland Bill. There will, undoubtedly, be future changes to be made to the Scotland Bill settlement  but these changes should be justified on their own merits at the time of their proposing, not thought up in haste and in panic for fear of something else.

So, let’s get on with what we need to change in order to win in 2016: the fundamental party structure; the quality and selection mechanism for our candidates; the imagination of our policies and the credibility and authority of our leadership.

But let’s not let others direct us down a path we do not need nor have any desire to follow.

Let’s leave that to the Tories.

Ian Smart is a lawyer and founder member of Scottish Labour Action. He is also a Past President of the Law Society of  Scotland. Follow Ian on Twitter at @IanSSmart. This post was originally published on Ian’s blog.