In his memoir “Power Trip” (to be recommended) Damien McBride recounts how in public consultations, more notice is sometimes taken of individual submissions than of predictable corporate and vested interests. So I decided that it was worth writing to Lord Smith.
Here is my submission, which to a considerable extent reflects the need to protect the union if devolution is to be maximised.
17th October 2014.
Dear Lord Smith,
The Smith Commission.
No doubt you have many submissions from the public regarding extra powers for the Scottish Parliament, in addition to those of the three political parties and that of the Scottish Government.
I would like to make the following points, of which I hope you will take notice in your deliberations.
- It is essential that your Commission makes no recommendation which weakens the United Kingdom.
The people of Scotland decided conclusively that Scotland should not be an independent country: this is the one single and indisputable fact that matters in the referendum outcome. You may recall the old Scottish football manager Jimmy Sirrel, who coined the aphorism “the best team always wins and the rest is only gossip.” In this case, the extra powers are part of the gossip, as clearly as a good but losing performance on the football pitch does not win.
Therefore, any submission or proposal based on “not how far we fell short, but on how far we have come [towards independence]” as Alex Salmond put it, must be dismissed.
- It therefore follows that this principle should be reflected in the legislative outcome of the Commission’s work.
Most immediately, this means that if the permanent status of the Scottish Parliament is enshrined in UK law, the overall authority of Scotland’s UK Parliament must also be codified and enshrined in that law, together with the relationship between the two institutions.
Any new law must state clearly that:
- The Union of Parliaments is permanent and binding on all parts of the UK
- The UK Parliament holds ultimate democratic sovereignty for all parts of the UK
- The Scottish Parliament is a permanent democratic institution of the UK (i.e., not of Scotland) as are the Assemblies in Cardiff and Belfast.
- The outcome of the Independence Referendum is binding and permanent.
This is of course the logical conclusion of the Edinburgh Agreement. However, it is clear that this principle is in danger of being breached by the outgoing and incoming First Ministers, neither of whom have ruled out a further referendum, or recommended a moratorium.
The Edinburgh Agreement demanded that the referendum should be “legal and fair producing a decisive and respected outcome.” These requirements have been met beyond all reasonable doubt. However, if the Scottish electorate are to have confidence in the referendum and its aims as set out in the Agreement (and in turn the democratic process as a whole), it is also clear that its outcome should be seen to be permanent. There are a number of ways that this can be achieved.
One would be to enshrine in law a moratorium on future referendums (for a period of for example 50 years). During that period, a referendum resolution would be specifically ultra vires for the Scottish Parliament. Another device might be a requirement to reach a high level of demand for a new referendum (for example votes of two-thirds of the Scottish Parliament AND of two-thirds of the UK House of Commons, these being the current margins required to dissolve those bodies.)
- There is a need for the Scottish Parliament to be subject to a scrutiny process.
It was one of the original theories of the Scottish Parliament that the combination of a proportional electoral system and an effective committee structure would guard against the dominance of any party or partisan interest. Since the election of 2011 this has been proven not be the case. It is therefore now clear that any extra powers should be conditional on extra scrutiny of the Holyrood legislative process.
This scrutiny could be achieved within current resources by using Scotland’s Westminster MPs (excluding those in government) as a scrutiny body, with well-defined powers of delay and revision of legislation. The Scottish Parliament could sit for three days per week and the MPs use the Chamber for the other two weekdays for this purpose.
(This de facto ‘double majority’ system would dovetail with some of the proposals to deal with ‘English Votes for English Laws.’ England’s MPs could sit for the same two days at Westminster to scrutinise ‘English’ legislation approved by the whole Commons, which could therefore also acquire a double majority.)
- The process of devolution should not be confined to Holyrood.
It is now anticipated that the Scottish Independence Referendum will act as a catalyst for some devolution within England, which may be based on city-regions. If this is the case, Manchester, Birmingham, etc. will have a range of additional self-government powers and responsibilities. These could include powers over personal and business taxation as well as responsibilities for health, economic development, housing and structure planning.
If in Scotland these powers are retained at Holyrood, Scottish cities will be at a considerable disadvantage to the English regional cities and city-regions. The Commission should therefore also consider recommending that devolution should be extended to Scottish city regions, especially Greater Glasgow and Edinburgh/Lothians.
These could have a similar status as the German Hansestädte (Hamburg, Bremen) and Berlin which have a similar constitutional position to the federal Bundesländer (Brandenburg, Bavaria etc.) As in the case of Germany, this position also reflects the history of these cities which had been founded on international mercantile and industrial relationships, and were therefore anomalous in their domestic context. This is especially so in the case of Glasgow (‘Second City of the Empire’.)
This further distribution of constitutional power to city-regions could also have the effect of making a spurious or opportunist call for a further referendum less likely to be successful.
Finally, I would conclude that more devolution can only come about in the context of a strong centre .
In this, I return to my first point – that the outcome of the Commission’s deliberations must reinforce the Union of Parliaments, and in no way risk weakening it. The corollary is that the potential for any further devolution is directly proportional to the strength of the centre (i.e., the Union.)
Conversely, if the centre is not strengthened appropriately, the work of the Commission will be restricted in its scope. This would of course not be an unacceptable outcome to the vast majority who voted No on 18th September, as –to reiterate – the only result which is absolute is No to independence.
However, many of us who wish to see greater decentralisation of power within both the UK and Scotland would regard an outcome which did not achieve that aim as a lost opportunity.
I hope that this submission has been of interest and assistance to you.
Peter A. Russell