Powering Down the Parliament?: Putting on a Brave Face in the Wake of Smith

It is said that if Scotland had declared for independence, it would have done so as the only country in the world that derives more than 50% of its energy from renewables. Last month, wind turbines in Scotland produced 107% of the electricity required to power all the homes in Scotland. Therefore it comes as no surprise that – to make a crassly obvious link – there has been a large quantity of hot air billowing backwards and forwards regarding the wake of the Smith Report in the last week, and some of its consequences.

The union parties obligingly stood in line to hit all the buzzwords for the press, in yet another attempt to look like the winners of the Referendum that they supposedly were: most of these buzzwords were clearly designed for use on people who did not know what they meant. Otherwise, it could be said that Charles Kennedy and Michael Moore had no clue what they were saying when they described Smith’s proposals as ‘tantamount to Home Rule’. Ah, yes…that great Liberal aspiration. Although it becomes hard to imagine that control of raising such a modest proportion of income tax and the ability to change speed limits and road signs was quite what the great Liberal minds of former ages were so dreamy-eyed about.

A ‘powerhouse parliament’ was Labour’s Ian Gray’s take on it – in contrast to Gordon ‘The Vow’ Brown’s description of the outcome as a “Tory trap” (and as he initiated this whole process, it is perhaps telling that that is his conclusion). Then Robert Smith himself (ex. Morgan Grenfell) mentioning in passing that yes, of course Holyrood could be taken out of existence at any time in the future by Westminster. So perhaps not the empowered, nearly DevoMax, embedding-it-as-a-permanent-fixture settlement that was advertised.

The Smith Commission’s outcomes are far less about delivering change to the Scottish Parliament, than they are about helping the parties suffering in the wake of the Referendum to be able to pretend (in the run-up to the very near General Election) that they have achieved something positive by thwarting independence. The LibDems and Labour once more have common cause – now to attempt to spin the Smith recommendations into a hard-fought win, in the face of polling that darkly predicts their near-annihilation in an apparent backlash against their Better Together complicity. If the LibDems want to have more than the predicted Orkneys and Shetland, and Labour want to avoid the doom-laden halving of their representation of Scottish MPs (especially when Labour as a whole look to be struggling to get a majority for Westminster next year), then they have to try and make noises as though they have achieved a great victory…despite the difficulties in making Smith look or sound like a powerful set of proposals (having been heavily watered down by the Cabinet in London already, in terms of the varying of Universal Credit already having been vetoed, for example). And those parties know that they have to make those noises NOW – because those proposals are likely to get severely mauled and stripped down even further as they encounter hostile opposition in both Houses. For the purposes of Labour and the LibDems – arguably the two biggest losers from the Referendum process – it is vital that they can stand in front of cameras and be able to say (preferably with a straight face) that ‘successful delivery of The Vow has occurred’, whilst knowing that they are facing the prospect of severe electoral losses. It is their only chance of survival in Scotland.

In a sense, Smith is designed as a winding up of ‘the Scottish Question’, so that everyone can happily return to General Election mode – filler to some, a bridge between political events to others.

It also – Labour hopes – gives soft Yes-voting traditional Labour supporters enough of a sop for them to return to supporting the Party in May. In this way, we can view the Smith Report as something that is aimed (or is being aimed) very much at the Labour voters that defected (for it certainly was not aimed at the Labour Party, who have widely moaned about some of the outcomes, including the devolution of even a small portion of income tax, and air passenger duty), in the hope of winning them back, as well as reassuring ‘Hangover Nos’ or even some ‘Conditional Nos’.

It is unlikely that some of the more apocalyptic predictions for Labour will come to pass, in terms of the SNP taking 40 seats in the House of Commons. But Labour have been damaged by their willingness to stand on a Conservative-sponsored platform, spouting a message that came across as very far from a positive vision of why Scotland should remain in the Union. I listened to Stephen Purcell over the weekend, as he made the point that Labour’s demographic was aging in Scotland – and the last party that that happened to in Scotland was the Conservatives in the sixties and seventies. If they continue to be bound to London, Labour – like the Conservatives – will grow increasingly irrelevant to Scots, and their core base will continue to shrink with the passing years.

If the Labour Party wants to have a serious presence in Westminster from Scotland, then they have to do more than chant ‘The Vow Honoured’ as they praise the Emperor’s dazzling New Tax Powers. And they cannot rely on the old lie of ‘Vote SNP, Get Conservative Government’: given their recent activities, the quite legitimate reply would come back ‘Vote Labour, Get Red Tories’.

 

“The Smith process is purely about politics – the Smith process is nothing to do with governance.” (Peter Arnott)

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