Grasping the Thistle, or, With great responsibility does not always come great power

I do worry about the dangers of missing this opportunity. Some of us, who remember the duplicity surrounding 1979’s referendum, can forget that a large chunk of the population that will be voting in this Referendum have no such memory, and might even feel (shock horror) that they can trust Westminster’s elected representatives. So, in spite of how hard the Westminster parties worked to ensure that there was no ‘second question’ on the ballot paper, to extend the powers of devolution, they (or, to be more precise, their Scottish branches) are now making an awful lot of noise about how they will extend the powers of the Scottish Parliament.
In this regard, it is important not to confuse a ‘power’ with a ‘responsibility’: if you give someone a new responsibility (sometimes dressed up in the buzzword of ‘accountability’ – because that is a good thing, surely?), without any associated power, then it costs time and money. As such, the ‘responsibility’ to raise a portion of taxation doesn’t change the amount of money that the Scottish Government has to spend on services – only that it takes on the costs and associated burden of collecting that money. Changing the Scottish Parliament to be a modern-day Burns, a tax collector who similarly did not get more money to spend simply because he collected it, or get any improved access to deciding on how that money should be spent, is not going to improve life for those in Scotland – in fact, it will put more pressure on existing resources, by the creation of another tier of tax-collecting bureaucracy, without any additional benefits to show for it.
So be wary of messengers conflating ‘responsibility’ and ‘accountability’ with ‘powers’, when they talk vaguely of ‘powers’ that they may (subject to Westminster voting for them – because changes in devolution have to be agreed within the parliament of the whole of the UK, so can be blocked and vetoed almost as easily as the House of Lords removes powers from devolved government).
It is important to make that clear, as the more hesitant or cautious might easily be swayed into not voting for ‘yes’, because of a perception that other options for ways forward in government for Scotland are available. And if a ‘No’ vote is returned, what an immense power is suddenly returned to Westminster. Think about it. In 1979, a promise for a ‘better’ devolution deal from the Conservatives in opposition, translated into absolutely nothing under the following 18 years of Conservative government, even although the vote was over 51% ‘Yes’ to devolution. The vote was ‘Yes’, but they were happy to ignore it. How much easier would it be to ignore it once a ‘No’ vote comes back?
Regardless of claims that sovereignty rests with the Scottish people, as with the original Scottish parliament, the current one is solely seen to exist as an indulgence of Westminster, an expression of their largesse – which can be swiftly removed, as seen by the House of Lords decision to remove Holyrood’s powers with regard to renewables obligations, in December last year. This reflects a perception in Westminster of the Scottish Parliament as some overblown parish council – especially when, in reflecting the views and wishes of the people in Scotland, it appears to be a ‘dysfunctional parish council’, off-message from where Westminster is heading.
There are those who argue that a ‘No’ vote is not the end of the road, as the huge political awakening that has taken place will not simply fade away overnight – that there is no way that this particular genie is going back in the bottle after this. There may be a desire amongst the establishment (as ably represented by ‘No’) to believe that everything will ‘return to normal’ after this Referendum is over, but the political engagement of a nation, somewhat unexpectedly awakened, is not so easily switched off again. Remembering the Common Cause and Constitutional Convention (that, chaired by Canon Kenyon Wright, did the groundwork for the devolution later presented to the people in Scotland by the Blair government in 1997 – thus making Wright arguably to be more the ‘father of devolution’ that Donald Dewar was presented to be – but I digress) that arose out of Scotland’s political identity being continually overwhelmed by the numerical reality of MPs in Westminster, one can easily see something similar coming out of this recent rampant unleashing of Hope. Could not a similar groundswell happen again?
I would rather suspect not. The Referendum is a clear and non-party political expression of desire as the settled will of the Scottish people – a clear mandate on the single issue of independence. A party political general election is far more nebulous – and that vagueness gives ‘wiggle room’ to elected politicans. A referendum returning a ‘No’ vote gives Westminster every excuse that it needs to ignore Scotland’s voice – in terms of a clear democratic mandate, the option for independence and even political change for extending powers for Holyrood would be gone, in the event of a ‘No’ – even to the extent of being able to ignore a majority of MPs elected to Westminster being SNP. Abrogating the opportunity for a mandate for change makes it legitimate for them to ignore any subsequent desires expressed at the ballot box, e.g. the old idea that a majority of SNP MPs returned from Scotland to Westminster would automatically precipitate moves to independence, could easily be ignored, with the ‘No’ vote waved back in our collective face.
Westminster have only ever been forced to listen, or make concessions, when the SNP have been on the rise. With a ‘No’ vote they can say that people in Scotland have emphatically voted for Westminster rule on whatever terms Westminster likes, and feel absolutely no pressure to return to the issue of ‘more powers’. ‘But they cannot ignore it, they have signed a declaration’ some might say – which I find intensely naïve. In government, you never need to say that you will not be dealing with a subject – just that it is not perhaps the ‘top’ priority…and then bury it for your time in office. Game over, case closed. Remember how civil rights came higher up than ‘national security’? Easy to play that game again, too. You know that attitude you encounter with some ‘No’ voters, that they cannot wait until all this ‘little local nonsense’ is over with, and things can just get back to ‘normal’? That is most certainly what Westminster wants – and I would say is pretty certain to act in accordance with that too, after a No vote, given that they have even less vested interest in further devolution of power than they had in the AV referendum. So it would be unwise for those who want progressive political change in Scotland (or indeed anywhere else in the UK) to think that that is going to happen after a No vote. As Jim Sillars puts it, if we decide to hand our sovereignty back at 10:01pm on September 18th, we should expect nothing (short of more cuts – not just in funding, but also probably in powers of the Scottish Parliament), and cannot complain about what happens afterwards.
A ‘No’ vote – like a ‘Yes’ vote – makes us all responsible for what comes afterwards, but the difference is that with a Yes we take ownership of our lives and decisions – with a No we cannot complain ever again about forfeiting our right to have that control over our future.
” Like many, I argued for a second question offering a middle way – which I saw not as devolution but as ‘constitutionally secure autonomy within a reformed UK’. That door was slammed shut – but not by Scotland. ..The latest ‘offer’ of more powers from the unionist parties looks suspiciously like a rather desperate bribe – but it is not an answer to Scotland’s needs.” (Canon Kenyon Wright, ex-Chair of the Scottish Constitutional Convention, August 2014)


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