It’s been a big few days. Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Tories, has said that her party was on the wrong side of the argument in seeking to resist devolution in 1997-99 and has joined the Lib Dems and Labour in pledging that devolution will continue to grow and develop — and not stand still — after we vote No in 2014. Margaret Curran, Shadow Secretary of State, has delivered a speech in which she shows how difficult it still is for Labour simultaneously to oppose both the Tories in Westminster and the Nationalists in Holyrood. The McKay Commission has published its answer to the West Lothian Question (I’ve written about that here). Oh, and we’ve now been told the date of the referendum (Thursday 18 September 2014).
Amid the noise a new and welcome theme is emerging, one which I’ve been urging for some time.
I’m a constitutional lawyer. I don’t mind constitutional nerds, and I count several constitutional anoraks among my friends. But I happily recognise that these are minority pursuits. Most politics — quite rightly — is not concerned with constitutional questions, but with matters of tax and spend, social justice, public services, etc. Arguments about what powers should be devolved to Holyrood and what powers reserved to Westminster may keep us small band of constitutionalistas happy and awake into the night, but most folk would much rather hear their politicians talking about something else — anything else — whether it be the NHS, the economy, law and order, or the cost of living.
In this respect, Unionist politicians have a marked advantage over the Nationalists. We all know that the SNP talks endlessly about independence. But one of the things that the SNP does not much want to talk about is what it wants independence for. What do they want to do with it? What sort of Scotland do they want? A centre-right Scotland with low corporation tax and a burgeoning private sector, or a centre-left Scotland with world-class public services and the eye-watering rates of personal taxation that would be required to pay for them? The SNP don’t want to answer this question because they cannot answer it — there is no party line on these matters because there is no agreement within the party about them. John Swinney would go one way, and Nicola Sturgeon would go the other. Thus is independence all things to all people. For folk singer Karine Polwart, writing recently in Scotland on Sunday, as for Alasdair Gray before her, it’s the chance to give birth to a socialist, eco-friendly, nuclear-free, new-age commune. But this is a vision unlikely to be much shared by SNP-funding millionaire businessman, Brian Souter, for example.
(One of the stronger themes of Margaret Curran’s speech this week was to remind us that it’s the left/right divide, not the Scotland/England or north/south divide, that really matters in British politics. What Scottish Labour have not yet understood, however, is that despite this they are going to have to put it to one side for the time being and join with the Tories in working together to defeat the separatists. This is not a case of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”; it’s a case of recognising that the question on the ballot paper is “in or out” of the UK, not “left or right” for the UK. On the question that is before us, Labour and the Tories are on the same side, whether they like it or not.)
But, to return to the SNP, for the reasons sketched out above, instead of talking about policies, the Nationalists are reduced endlessly to talking about powers, and how they need more of them (rather than what they actually want to do with them).
The danger for the Unionist parties is that they simply follow suit, ape the Nationalists, and talk about all the powers that could be devolved to Scotland as soon as we’ve said No to independence. To some extent, it’s inevitable that the Unionist parties have to say something about this. My preference would be for them to start talking up the powers that are already devolved (see here) and for the future conversation to be a genuinely pan-UK conversation about what the Union state is for, rather than a narrowly bilateral one about Westminster v Holyrood. But it’s a trap for the Unionist parties always to be talking about powers and not to be focusing on policies. It’s a trap because this is the Nationalists’ ground. For sure, we Unionists have interesting and useful things to say about powers but, as with the voters themselves, what we’d rather be talking about are policies.
And, after a year of argument dominated by questions of process and powers, this is at last starting to happen.
The Nationalists’ fixation with powers would be fine if they were just a pressure group. But they’re not. The SNP are in power in Scotland and they have been for six long years. And, as the Government, they should be pursuing policies which they consider to be in the best interests of the Scottish people, not merely bickering about the powers which they do not (yet) have but which they want (or say they want). Two examples have come to the fore.
In his rather insipid speech to the SNP conference in Inverness the First Minister Alex Salmond undertook that in an independent Scotland the battle to eradicate child poverty would be among his top priorities. Well, that’s great. Except that he’s in power now and he has powers now to do just that, as Margaret Curran pointed out here and as the brilliant Mike Dailly explained here. The question is not what could we do to tackle child poverty after independence, but what is the SNP doing now to use its ample powers now to tackle child poverty in Scotland?
The second example concerns SNP opposition to what has wrongly but inevitably been dubbed the “bedroom tax”. This is not a tax, but a reduction in housing benefit that will apply in certain circumstances where dwellings are “under-occupied”. This policy, brought about by the Coalition UK Government, is fiercely opposed by the Labour party and has been much criticised also by the SNP. Yet what are the SNP doing about it? Housing is devolved in Scotland. There are numerous powers in the Housing (Scotland) Act 2001 which could be amended now to lessen the effect north of the border of the so-called “bedroom tax”, if that is what law-makers in Holyrood want to do. But, instead of using the Scottish Parliament’s legislative powers to address the issue, it suits SNP Ministers not to act but to use the “bedroom tax” as yet another anti-London grievance with which to stoke the flames of nationalism and independence. This is desperate stuff.
The lesson is that the more we talk about what policies we want for Scotland, the tougher it’s going to get for the Nationalists. They’d rather keep policy out of politics, and bicker only ever always about needing more powers. Damn them. Vote No.