Labour should embrace the model of devolution that’s right for Scotland, not the one that we hope will wrong-foot the nationalists, writes IAN SMART


New powers for Holyrood should only be supported if they’re in Scotland’s interests, not because   Look, we lost. I accept that. And they won. I accept that too. I don’t like it but I accept it.

Obviously we presented the victory to them on a plate. We didn’t take the election seriously; we had no proper policy platform of our own; some of our candidates could only be voted for by people who were completely ignorant of them personally; no-one had heard of our candidate for First Minister; and those who had didn’t believe him to be up to the job.

So we lost. But they still won.

But there are turning points in politics.

Nineteen forty-five was a turning point and so, I regret to concede, was 1979.  And (and here I suspect I will fall out with some of my co-contributors) there are also false dawns. Nineteen seventy was for the Tories and 1997 was for us.

Sometimes you don’t have a real mandate for change; you are simply not the other side, like Wilson in 74. And sometimes you do but have a leadership who are simply not that interested in doing much to disturb the status quo, like Blair in 97.

I genuinely don’t believe 2011 was a turning point election. In the aftermath there was little said about why the SNP won. Instead almost all the attention was on why Labour lost.

Now, Labour lost big and consequently the Nats won big. But let’s not let them rewrite history about why they won.

The constitutional issue simply was not a major issue during the Scottish election. That’s not to say the SNP wouldn’t have liked it to be: they would have much preferred to have been swept to power on a mandate for independence but, even at the height of Labour’s incompetence, they knew that would be a mandate they couldn’t procure. So they didn’t seek it. They said there would be a referendum on independence at some indeterminate point in the next parliament and they hid behind the subtext that since they were not anticipating an overall majority even that was unlikely to happen.

But they clearly did not anticipate the magnitude of Labour’s ineptitude and in consequence they did win on a scale even they had not predicted. So, one might expect, no matter how they came about it, they are surely entitled to say with some justification, we do now have a mandate for a referendum on independence.

But, although to some extent they do say that, on the other hand they don’t.

It’s not just that they show no immediate signs of holding a referendum, or even introducing the paving legislation to permit one; or even that they appear to be having doubts about exactly what “kind” of independence they want; it is also that it now appears that they want to put other questions to that referendum.

Now this is not the action of a party confident of victory.

Surely the best hope of victory in a referendum is on a straight choice between independence and the status quo? That is only common sense. Given a third option at least some of those drawn to it must be doing so at the expense of choosing not to go the whole way. And given Salmond’s position that an independence referendum would be a once in a generation event, (which, as far as I am aware, remains SNP policy) why do anything at all to hamper the chance of victory?

Unless of course, in your heart of hearts, you know there is no chance of victory but still hope that you might be seen to have achieved something.

The difficulty with this strategy is in defining the nature of the questions. It’s difficult to see these being organised with independence being the first option.

That would inevitably lead to a second question being predicated on the failure of the first; something along the lines of:

  • Even if you do not want full independence, would you like the Scottish Parliament to have the following [specified] additional powers?

But equally its difficult to see Devo Max (or whatever you want to call it) being the first option, not just because it is not (presumably) the preferred option of the Government, but again because the second question put would have to be with a predicate:

  • Even if the Scottish Parliament receives the powers above would you still prefer Scotland to be fully independent?

Indeed, the more you consider it, the more you see the difficulty in putting two different, and ultimately inconsistent, propositions on the same ballot paper.

But that’s not the only problem. It’s difficult to see who is going to frame the non-independence option. Presumably, the SNP Government, even though it’s not their desired outcome. The problem with this is that any settlement short of full independence is not a matter for the Scottish people alone. So what happens, in advance of a referendum, if the rest of the UK says that what the SNP want (as their fall back position) is not on offer? That it’s independence or bust. What’s the point of then asking the “other” question? The question becomes redundant whether or not the full independence question is won or lost. If the referendum produces a yes vote to independence the “other” question is redundant per se and if the Scots have rejected the nuclear option of “full” independence then why should the rest of the UK make any further constitutional concessions in the aftermath of that? After all, the SNP could hardly hold another referendum but this time with a single question. That would be silly.

And just for the sake of completing the logic of my argument, what if, in advance of the referendum, the rest of the UK says that Scotland is welcome to what it seeks by way of additional powers for the parliament while within the UK? Again what’s then the point in an SNP Government risking the people rejecting powers the SNP Government themselves want and which are freely on offer, particularly given the political embarrassment which would follow if that happened?

Now, there would be some sense in having two separate referendums: the first on additional powers and, if that was won, the second some time later on, having factored in the rest of the UK’s response to the first result. But, again, that logic is predicated on not wishing to maximise the chance of winning the “full independence” referendum. You might lose the first referendum, or win it by so slight a margin that attempting a second referendum became impossible. Or you might win the first referendum decisively, only to prompt UK concessions which significantly reduced your chances in the second vote.

So, in summary, if we accept that the SNP genuinely do want “full” independence, the only possible reason they are unwilling to put that to a simple test is because they know they couldn’t win a referendum. That’s what every reputable opinion poll has always said and I’m sure that’s also what the SNP’s own private polling and focus groups will be saying.

So let’s consider where that leaves the Labour Party in relation to the issue of the constitution? It leaves us where we always should have been. We need to develop a policy towards the powers of the Scottish Parliament based on what we believe these powers should be, not on what we fear they must be to defeat an independence vote. If the SNP themselves have concluded such a vote can’t be won, why should we be intimidated by what amounts to little more than chutzpah on their behalf? And anyway, if we believe that some of the “solutions” on offer are likely to be nearly as damaging as independence itself, are we not obliged to say so?

Scottish Labour Action looked at length at what is now described as “full fiscal freedom”; indeed for a time we advocated it under the different nomenclature of the “Reverse Block Grant”. In the end however we rejected it chiefly because it was dependent unduly on the variability of the price of one commodity: oil. That remains the case, as indeed it remains the major economic argument against independence itself.

Contrary to popular myth, it was not big Donald, but rather the less fondly remembered Ron Davies, who first said that devolution was not an event but a process. It was however that belief that prompted Wendy to initiate the Calman Review which forms the basis for the current Scotland Bill. There will, undoubtedly, be future changes to be made to the Scotland Bill settlement  but these changes should be justified on their own merits at the time of their proposing, not thought up in haste and in panic for fear of something else.

So, let’s get on with what we need to change in order to win in 2016: the fundamental party structure; the quality and selection mechanism for our candidates; the imagination of our policies and the credibility and authority of our leadership.

But let’s not let others direct us down a path we do not need nor have any desire to follow.

Let’s leave that to the Tories.

Ian Smart is a lawyer and founder member of Scottish Labour Action. He is also a Past President of the Law Society of  Scotland. Follow Ian on Twitter at @IanSSmart. This post was originally published on Ian’s blog.

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20 thoughts on “Everybody needs to keep the heid

  1. A sane and reasoned argument. If we stick to our own belief in devolution (after all we brought it in) and to our own values, we have nothing to fear but fear itself.

    On the other hand, who’ll bell the cat?

  2. Reading your I have to ask, where does it say that Labour is the party of the British union, I thought it was the Conservative and Unionist party and that Labour was the party of the unions.

    Is Labour now more interested in unionism than in unions?

  3. The SG has actually published the options on what could go on the ballot paper as part of its consultation.

    You are correct that it is not up to the SNP to make the case for full devolution – it is up to those who support full devolution to make that case. That includers some in the Labour Party.

    If they do not it will be a yes/no question on independence.

    Do we believe we will lose? No. It’s not as simple as saying the SNP won because Labour were rubbish. Yes Labour were rubbish but the SNP also ran a good, positive campaign. We had more activists, more money, better people and a stronger message than Labour. The same will apply when the referendum campaign comes.

  4. Indy

    The Nationalists certainly had more money (most of it provided by the religious right and tax exiles, but that’s another matter). In my area, certainly not more activists. Positive….yeesssss, or at least “front”…just to say “we’re not Labour” isn’t positive.

    As for message…… as Ian says, no mention of “independence”, which is all that really unites you… so, not a positive message. Clever. Cunning. Smart even (sorry!), but not positive, unless you believe regarding your main policy as a weakness is “positive”.

    As for the meat of the post. Ian Smart is right: the Nationalists are in a bind as to how to conduct the referendum and Labour has a strong hand in backing our policy of devolution, which is what the Scottish people want.

    1. If you describe wanting to be fair and arrive at a democratic consensus as being in a bind then you are correct.

      But let’s be clear about what can happen over the next few years. We can move to a straight vote on independence or we can include a third option – full or enhanced devolution – on the ballot paper. In the past opinion polls have suggested that this third option had majority support in Scotland. (Yesterday’s poll suggested that public opinion has shifted to indicate a greater level of support for independence – but clearly we need more than one poll to suggest that this is a meaningful or permanent shift in opinion).

      So the SNP’s view is that it is right that this option should be considered. Because the most important thing about the referendum is that it should deliver the outcome that the majority of Scottish voters want. I’ll say that again because it really is the crucial point.

      The referendum on Scotland’s constitutional future should deliver the outcome that the majority of Scottish voters want.

      Not the outcome that the SNP wants, or the outcome that the Labour Party wants – but the outcome that the voters want. They should be the ones to judge what is in Scotland’s best interests – not you. Basic point.

      Clearly the SNP will be making the case for independence during the forthcoming campaign. We will work hard to persuade a majority to vote for the independence option. Whether there is an enhanced devolution option on the ballot paper, thus allowing those who support a greater degree of devolution within the Union to express that, is largely down to the devolutionist parties. You will either get your act together to the extent that you become capable of representing that point of view or you will not. You have, I reckon, a further year to work on that. Otherwise it will be a straight choice – independence or the status quo. And the people who believe that there is a third option will not have a party to represent them. To me, that raises issues about whether the current devolution parties are really up to the job but that is another debate.

  5. If you really believe that the Status quo or Calman plus can win when pu against Independence then you are more deluded than I thought.

    This is probably your last chance to thwart Independence and I note the latest polls suggest you are way out of touch.

      1. I didn’t see that Alex, a sign of age I fear, I see I missed a t off Put as well.

        I still type very quickly but I make mistakes now,reminds me of an old saying I used to say to you

        “Yesterday I could not spell inguneer now I are one “.

  6. In the aftermath of the May election, Labour activists and supporters were telling anyone who would listen that Labour’s vote actually held up pretty well. That being the case, it wasn’t enough for Labour just to lose the election, the SNP had to win it. And win it they did. To try and deny that….well, people will make their own minds up about how that makes you appear, Ian.

  7. @Alex Gallagher
    At the last election I gave money to the SNP campaign. That is the first and only donation I’ve ever made to a political party. In the past I’ve given money to the miner’s strike fund during the Thatcher years, amongst other worth causes.

    I’m not an SNP member nor an activist. I’m most certainly not a member of the religious right nor a Tax exile. I believe you will find lots of people mildly interested in politics wanted to help the SNP in last year’s campaign for we were sickened by the last Labour UK government and were unable to see a “Scottish Labour” team who were capable or worthy of govern Scotland.

    The last election was about finding people capable of governing. Everyone in Scotland knows the SNP’s mission is for independence so why do they need to keep going on about it? It was made clear during the campaign that an SNP win would see the people having the vote to decide on Scotland’s future. What’s wrong with letting the people of Scotland decide their own destiny? Another example of the political elite talking down the people of Scotland IMHO… and it angered many people during the last election. It was this very point that made me make my donation.

    The Labour candidate and campaign in my own constituency was a joke, most probably because the Labour party never considered themselves in the race. I didn’t see a single Labour activist nor the candidate. I did see activist from the Lib Dems, the SNP and the Tories – I even spoke with the SNP and Tory candidates. It was always going to be a tussle between the Lib Dems, the SNP and the Tories. I knew something big, and significantly different, was occurring when a Lib Dem activist friend told me he was voting SNP! A real WOW moment.

    Scottish Labour and its activist really need to take a good long look at themselves. The people of Scotland need a Labour party worthy of their vote next time around.

  8. As an SNP member I am completely unaware (probably because it is nonsense) that it is SNP policy that an independence referendum is a once in a generation event. It is merely the opinion of Alex Salmond that one would expect a referendum on that sort of timescale.

    Realistically there will be a referendum as frequently as the Holyrood Parliament sanctions it (if the first referendum is defeated, of course). Bear in mind that the referendums on the establishment of a Scottish Parliament took place in 1979 and 1997. 18 Years is not normally regarded as long enough to be a generation-so should the Labour Party have held off until around 2009 before holding the second referendum?

    The answer is clearly no, and the electorate of 1979 could not tie the hands of the electorate of 1997-nor should they have been able to do so.

  9. JP12 I quite agree, it may be wise for Alex Salmond to say “this is a once in a lifetime (or generation), but I doubt any other SNP supporter or future SNP leader would go along with that!

  10. Must remember not to get Ian Smart to represent me in a legal case. This is a real bourach of an article – so full of illogicality it’s hard to know where to start.

    Advocating policies that you believe in – strong stuff. Of course it avoids the difficulty of, having got into ‘power’ by promising things you don’t believe in, then having to spend your time ‘in power’ implementing policies you don’t believe in. But then again being ‘in power’ is what counts.

    Ian spends most of the article exercising himself over the knots the SNP are tying themselves up in (he thinks) and then adds on at the tail end a very minor piece about how Labour can unravel the knots they have tied themselves up in. And even that includes this gem –

    “In the end however we rejected it chiefly because it was dependent unduly on the variability of the price of one commodity: oil. That remains the case, as indeed it remains the major economic argument against independence itself.”

    So, Ian, has there ever been a time when oil revenues would have been a plus for the Scottish economy? In 1974 Harold Wilson, ably aided by Willie Ross et al, deliberately down played the amount of oil reserves. Then later, when the squillions to be made became undeniable, we were told the economy of an independent Scotland would ‘overheat’ that a Scottish pound would be ‘too strong’. Do you think, Ian, that they were making it up as they went along: is that what you are doing in the statement above and which of these many versions is ‘right for Scotland’.

  11. “Why is this site and others not being bombarded day and night by postings from highly motivated rank and file young Labour activists desperate to air their views, vent their spleens, explore exciting new policy options, participate in the impending leadership debate and generally just take an interest in fixing their broken party?”

    Maybe its because they’re fed up of the site – and many others – being overrun with the usual snide comments from nationalist supporters? What hope is there of being able to explore exciting new policy options, when you are often forced to defend things – the post below this attacks us for decisions in 1974 – which happened before many of those young Labour activists were born.

    1. Maybe it’s because they are unable/unwilling to argue their case.

      Since Ian Smart has not replied to my statements about oil, maybe you would care to give it a go.

      Are my remarks merely ‘snide’, in which case you can safely ignore them? Are they simply untrue and you can therefore ignore them?

      If neither is the case, do you approve of the Labour party’s actions with regard to oil and the revenue which accrues therefrom? – reasons would be appreciated.

      Also, I hope you are not inferring that young labour supporters ignore everything that happened before they were born. I know a few things (good things) about the Labour party that happened even before I was born.

      I replied earlier but that post seems to have been mislaid.

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