Lord Smith of Kelvin’s task of steering the commission for more Scottish devolution is set to a timescale that makes his job chairing the organising committee of the Glasgow Commonwealth Games look like child’s play.
It has made quick progress to date. Inside two weeks of the referendum result, the Smith commission was populated with members from each of the five parties represented at Holyrood (the SNP, Labour, the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens). By the time public proposals to the commission had closed on October 31, some 14,000 submissions had been made.
Now it has until St Andrew’s Day (November 30) to make sense of those submissions and the proposals submitted by the five represented parties to produce a set of workable proposals. Draft legislation is due by Burns’ Night (January 25) prior to the UK general election in May, after which a bill for legislation should be included in the Queen’s Speech.
Stopwatches and the big sell
The difficulties break into two strands. The first is the commitment itself – how to deliver a workable constitutional settlement within the timetable required. The second is the political issue: how to sell the outcome as desirable and in the public interest both inside Scotland and elsewhere. To add to the scale of the challenge, this is happening a time when the public is actively engaged in the political process, watching as the proposals unfold.
Constitutional change in the UK is usually a gradual process, occurring on an ad-hoc basis. It is commonly based on the whim and interest of the government of the day, seldom taking a view of the wider constitutional picture. Devolution is a case in point here: Labour provided devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and to London – but when the north-east of England voted against a regional assembly, the question of how to govern England remained unanswered.
The current process is not much different in that respect. Marrying the requirements for broad constitutional thinking and a workable settlement with a speedy resolution appears to be mission impossible. Allowing short-term political thinking to influence the outcome is simply going to exacerbate the constitutional issue.
So we have a timetable that is entirely political: a promise made in poetry during the tense final week of the referendum campaign requires delivery in prose in the cold light of a parliamentary process. Herein lies the bear-trap. The 45% who voted Yes to Scottish independence – as well as substantial numbers of the 55% who voted No – are eager for further powers to be devolved and for the timetable to be met. They will, as the outgoing first minister Alex Salmond suggested, “hold Westminster’s feet to the fire” on these promises.
Options, options …
Lord Smith has been placed in a bind here. Does he use the available time-frame to deliver a lean package, broadly in line with what the three main UK parties published in the months before the vote? Does he recommend that more substantial powers be devolved, considerably altering the constitutional make-up of the UK without the due diligence that a longer process would allow? Or does he say he needs more time to come up with a workable form of devolution, letting the timetable slip? Those appear to be the options, and none looks attractive.
Of course the SNP would make political hay out of either the timetable slipping or the powers delivered being less than expected or desired. The fact that it is involved in the Smith commission might take some of the sting out of this (which explains why former Scottish secretary Michael Moore kept making this point during the House of Commons debate on the issue, for example).
So what happens on November 30? A timetable slip has to be a real possibility. Even to read each of the public submissions during the month of November means that the commission must read more than 450 submissions each day – or 700 a day if you rule out weekends. And once they’ve been read, they of course need to be considered and presumably collated in some way.
Still, postponement would look terrible so it’s perhaps not the most likely outcome. More likely there will be proposals but with some kind of acknowledgement that not all the submissions could be considered – thereby undermining the democratic force of the process. Since the three main UK parties are in the majority, the most likely is a package along the lines of what they propose: more income tax devolution, some transfer of welfare powers, but nothing much more drastic.
Selling that to Scotland is probably not particularly difficult. Smith and the parties will be able to present it as being on a continuum of extra powers, following the creation of the parliament in 1999 and the Calman commission in 2012. You indicate to Yes voters that it’s another step to their end goal while telling No voters it strengthens the parliament and represents the will of the Scottish people. You have the advantage that the Yes side know it is not politically wise to call another referendum at this stage.
What looks much more problematic is the rest of the UK. Will Welsh or English MPs vote for the package unless they secure new powers too? Will Scottish MPs vote for it, knowing that it will remove some of their power in Westminster? If Labour wins next year’s general election, will they take the proposals forward as legislation? They know their ability to govern the UK could be badly damaged by the idea of English votes for English laws, so any package that attempted to force through that issue would be unlikely to pass muster.
Where does this leave the Smith commission? With a monumental task on its hands. It could save the union for generations, or we could be looking at another referendum within the next 10 years. We’ll only find out the answer, one suspects, once the ball lands with Westminster.