There is a bit of confusion about what the UK political parties will offer to undecided voters this week: the guarantee of more powers for Scotland or a constitutional convention to produce new proposals?
As a piece of electioneering in Scotland, the former seems more effective and based on the strategy so far:
- Restate that people in Scotland are guaranteed more responsibilities, through the Scotland Act 2012.*
- State that each party – Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat – wants to go further, with the devolution of more tax and welfare powers (they have all published separate plans so far).
- Provide a further guarantee, in the form of a short timetable to conclude negotiations and implement reforms – to show that these parties have their act together. This timetable has been put forward by Gordon Brown, initially with the implicit consent of the main political parties (the fact that we don’t know for sure seems weird, but no weirder than a former PM seeming to speak for the government) and then with a brief show of support by the Scottish leaders.**
- Perhaps provide a guarantee that there won’t be any trade-offs – such as the reform of the Barnett formula (often used by the No campaign as a proxy for ‘financially, you do well in the Union’). This announcement on Barnett was made by the three UK leaders on 16.9.14 (see the Daily Record front cover here or below).
- Perhaps stop talking (for now) about making the Scottish Parliament more accountable when talking about it having more powers.
- Try not to answer tricky questions about why those parties effectively took 5 years to produce a new Scotland Act that was already out of date and inadequate as soon as it came out.
I say in Scotland because these proposals have the potential to piss people off in the rest of the UK. Traditionally, the most vocal actors may have been in Wales, who don’t get the same attention when they call for funding or further devolution. More recently, there is some shift in attitudes in England, prompting UK parties to try to satisfy an audience in Scotland without weakening their image in England.
Right now, the promise of a constitutional convention seems like a bad idea in Scotland. I’m not saying that constitutional conventions are bad things. Rather, a convention will not appeal to an undecided voter in Scotland in the same way as ‘more powers’ because: (a) it sounds much more like ‘jam tomorrow’ rather than a detailed and immediate pledge; and, (b) it could allow actors in the rest of the UK to get much more involved.
To a large extent, you can relate Scottish success within the union to its ability to engage in bilateral discussion with the UK Government out of the public spotlight. A constitutional convention would open up the process to the public glare, prompting the potential for resentment in the rest of the UK. Or, actors in the rest of the UK would insist on being part of the convention, using this debate as a chance to push for constitutional reforms in Wales and England regions (some might push for an English Parliament or English votes for English laws to address the West Lothian question; others the devolution of powers to regions or cities) and/ or the reform of the Barnett formula.
This rest-of-UK involvement is fair enough, and quite sensible really – it would present the chance to stop reforming the UK in a piecemeal way (see discussions by the Electoral Reform Society and Involve). However, it’s not something that will sway an undecided voter in Scotland: vote No and we’ll give you a constitutional convention, in which the value of the new Scottish settlement can go down as well as up.
In other words, the No campaign has been based on the idea that, in the UK, we are all in this together. Yet, to win the referendum, it has to accept that any promises given to Scotland will be at the expense of those given to (at least one part of) the rest of the UK.
*Summary of the Scotland Act 2012
**UPDATE: you can see the three main Scottish party leaders supporting the Gordon Brown timetable here, and assume from this announcement that they are speaking, to a large extent, for their UK parties. In my opinion, Johan Lamont (patriotic choice, you can vote for NO and change) and Ruth Davidson (this is not about political parties) struck the right tone, before Willie Rennie shited the whole thing up by trying to stick it to Alex Salmond. How hard is it to keep a campaign message positive for 90 seconds?