It is 19 years since former Labour cabinet minister George Robertson declared famously that Scottish devolution would “kill nationalism stone dead”. It remains one of the most important, symbolic phrases because it sums up one of the worst sentiments in British politics: too often, constitutional change seems to be a stitch-up by one or more political parties at the expense of the others.
In the Scottish context, we are all too used to seeing unionist parties producing deals among themselves rather than engaging meaningfully with the likes of the Scottish National Party (SNP). The main result is that Scottish constitutional change often seems out of step with the national mood.
Take the Calman Commission, established in 2007 by Labour, the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives. The Scotland Act 2012 that it produced seemed out of date before it was implemented. The same thing has happened with the Smith Commission, which was established in 2014 after the Scottish referendum. It produced its recommendations in a ridiculously short space of time, but they already seem like the starting point for discussion, not a new devolved settlement.
What happened to the new politics?
Yet it was not always this way. For a brief period, starting with devolution in 1999, the talk in Scotland was more about “new politics” than independence. This is partly because many of the parties involved were more inclined to do the right thing than Robertson’s comment suggests. Scottish Labour didn’t hold hands with the SNP, but it made sure that it got SNP support during the Yes-to-devolution campaign in 1997.
The parties that favoured devolution – including Scottish Labour, Liberal Democrats and what would become the Scottish Greens – also thought about how political reforms would go hand in hand with constitutional reform. They encouraged some debate about new forms of deliberative and participatory democracy for Scotland. They engaged civil society groups and had a strong focus on gender and the participation of women in public life. This was the stuff of the Scottish Constitutional Convention that ran from 1989 to 1995. This period of reform should provide some lessons today.
It is too tempting to argue that the incredible rise of the SNP, and its likely dominance of Scottish seats in Westminster, will produce a constitutional crisis. You could easily conclude that a Labour government only governing with the consent of the SNP, or indeed a Tory-led government with even Scottish legitimacy, will reinforce a broad sense that, to quote Simon Jenkins, “the Scots appear fed up with the English, and the English with the Scots”. Jenkins suggests, rather provocatively, that the current union is dying and that, “Some new format is required that must embrace parliamentary disengagement, devo-max or indie-lite or whatever. The task for Cameron or Miliband is to be architect of that format”.
A new Scottish convention
Yet, irreparable Scotland-England tension is not inevitable and the solution is not quite right. Certainly we do need to rethink the plans for further constitutional change that were produced so hastily by the Smith Commission for the sake of party politics rather than sensible constitutional redesign. But a new constitutional convention should be the architect, not the leader of one political party doing a deal with another.
This would not be the constitutional convention that Labour wants to design a new arrangement for the whole of the UK, but one specifically designed to sort out Scotland’s relationship with the rest of the union. In the event that Labour’s convention went ahead, one would inevitably inform and reinforce the other.
If you look at the rhetoric of the main parties, a new convention in Scotland is just the ticket. It suits Labour’s “no deals with the SNP” stance, since a convention is a way out: it could be portrayed as an attempt to go beyond party politics and engage Scottish civil society.
It suits the SNP’s aim of maximising its influence without having to be stuck with the idea that all it wants is devo max or “full fiscal autonomy” as a stepping stone to independence. It might even suit the Conservative Party if it squeaks into government again with the Liberal Democrats, since a convention may be the only way to generate a sense of legitimacy in Scotland.
The alternative for the UK parties in Scotland is to stick with Smith and exclude the SNP, which seems like an untenable position for parties that claim to want to reform the union to protect it. Only the SNP benefits from the stand-off, and only a constitutional convention provides anything close to a competing story of Scottish legitimacy to the one crafted so well by the SNP.