Letter from Westminster
I wonder how many trees have been sacrificed over the years in the ongoing debate over Scotland’s constitutional future.
By the time you read this a few more will have gone as the government in Westminster publishes its white paper on the proposed extra powers for the Scottish Parliament (The Calman Commission).
Next Monday the Scottish government will then launch its referendum bill as it tries to move the debate on towards independence.
Much of this latter debate will, I suspect, now be quite predictable as the SNP knows that it does not have a majority to get its bill through parliament. Instead most of the rhetoric will centre round accusations of parties “denying Scotland a say”.
That debate alone is fascinating. It will doubtless be said that there is something undemocratic about Liberal Democrats opposing the SNP referendum bill. It’s fascinating because I recall Tavish Scott answering this question several times when standing for election, and saying that he would not support a referendum on Scottish independence. He could not have been clearer and on that promise, among others, he won the election. Now it is suggested that he should break his promises to us – and all in the name of democracy. The word I used was fascinating – not logical.
Even more fascinating is the question that the Scottish government proposes to ask us. You might think from listening to ministers that it would be along the lines of: “Do you believe that Scotland should be an independent country?” You would be wrong if you did. The question that it proposes to ask is, in fact: “Do you agree that the Scottish government should negotiate a new settlement with the UK government so that Scotland becomes an independent state?”
Suspicious minds have noticed that the answer to the first question is usually no by a margin of two to one, but to the second question the gap narrows to 38 per cent no to 36 per cent yes.
The logical assumption would then be that if Scotland voted yes to the government’s preferred option then there would be a second vote after the “negotiations” had been completed. I recently attended a function at which Jim Wallace asked that very question of a senior Scottish minister. The answer was an emphatic and unequivocal no. There was, he said, no precedent for a second referendum anywhere in the world. It would not be necessary and it would not be held.
The change which could actually happen is the new powers (especially for the Scottish Parliament to raise some of its own budget) proposed by Calman. The question is: when? It will be next to impossible to get a bill through the Houses of Commons and Lords by the time of the general election. All the signs would be that after that election the Labour Party may not be in a position to deliver the changes that they say they support.
Alistair Carmichael MP