JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 20.6.09
FORGIVE ME, READERS: but this week, I am suffering from a touch of cognitive dissonance. On one hand, you see, I find before me the 20-page Executive Summary of the report of the Calman Commission, which has just delivered its verdict on ten years of devolution, with recommendations for the future. The summary, of course, is as sensible, august and well-argued a piece of constitutional prose as you might expect from such a panel of distinguished establishment Scots. With a nudge-nudge here and a tweak-tweak there, Calman has revisited the devolution settlement of 1998, and made almost sixty recommendations about how it can be rationalised and improved, from identifying areas where Scotland might benefit from more devolved power – drink-driving law, broadcasting – to naming a few, notably the registration of charities, where greater cross-border unity might save time and confusion.
The report also includes an energetic wish-list on improved co-operation between Westminster and Holyrood, Whitehall and Victoria Quay. And in a lurch towards real radicalism, the Commissioners argue that the Scottish Parliament should now begin to take responsibility for raising some of the taxpayers’ money it spends, mainly by fixing the level of the top slice of income tax paid in Scotland, so as to make it the same as in the rest of the UK, or lower, or higher, depending on spending decisions.
The result has been a field-day, in Scotland this week, for policy wonks on all sides of the constitutional debate; and – on the Unionist side at least – a broad welcome for the report, as a clever, detailed and well-informed proposal that strikes a deft balance between caution and radicalism, and proposes a way forward that all the mainstream parties, with the obvious exception of the SNP, will find attractive to implement.
Yet somehow, as I picked my way through the well-balanced paragraphs of the Calman summary, I couldn’t resist the feeling that the document somehow belonged to a world that has simply slipped from our grasp, in the years since 1999; a world of modest, rational, incremental progress, and of sensible provisions for the improvement of British government and society, that seems suddenly unreal. For on the other hand, scanning the media this week, I see report after report which suggests a system in deepening crisis, in which old political and economic frameworks are beginning to crack under the strain, and in which a few well-thought out recommendations about the conduct of Joint Ministerial Committees no longer seem adequate to the demands of the time.
To the left of us, for example, there’s the continuing story of the Westminster expenses scandal, with all its increasingly profound ramifications. Of course, in theory, Calman’s proposals for a future of rational Unionism ought to find favour with a Scottish electorate most of whom are not committed supporters of independence. But in practice, at a time when Westminster’s reputation with voters throughout the UK is at rock-bottom – and when this week’s staggeringly inept release of heavily-censored expenses details has only made matters worse – Calman’s unquestioning Unionist pieties strike a strange note, both complacent and old-fashioned.
It’s not that there is no remaining case to be made for the retention of the Union. But under current conditions, where positive support for Unionism – as opposed to negative fear of independence – has all but vanished from the Scottish political landscape, the argument has to be made much more explicitly and humbly than this. Scottish voters, always pragmatic in their attitude to the Union, tend to be happy with it when Westminster governments are strong, dynamic and progressive, and to lose interest in it when those governments are weak, disorganised and drifting towards the right. We are currently deep in the second kind of phase, with Scottish unionist politicians mired to their ears in the nasty, long-drawn-out collapse of the New Labour project. And in such times, with an SNP government in power at Holyrood, it is almost discourteous – and certainly politically naive – to talk, as Calman does, as if there were no serious argument against the retention of power over macroeconomic policy at Westminster.
And if the Brown government’s entanglement in the current expenses scandal is creating a hostile political climate for Calman’s kind of Unionism, then it’s arguable that the much bigger political failures of the New Labour years – now coming home to roost, one by one – are placing a serious question mark over the whole future of the Union. From the inquiry into the Iraq War, through the spiralling economic collapse and Fred Goodwin’s pension, to this week’s horrific figures on likely climate change by 2100, the record shows a supposedly progressive UK government – stuffed with historically high numbers of Scottish ministers – making one ill-judged compromise after another with an out-of-control global system that had come to believe its own ideological hype; and therefore failing to deliver serious policy progress on all the major issues, from global peace to climate change, that now place our whole future in jeopardy.
Calman may be right, in other words, to claim that devolution has been a success, so far as it goes. But public approval for the existence of the Scottish Parliament no longer implies much enthusiasm for the UK framework in which it sits. And although a joyful surge of positive support for Scottish independence is very unlikely, in the frightening political landscape we now inhabit, we could nonetheless be on the brink of a slow, disgruntled slide towards separation; if only because the debt-ridden Westminster of the Brown-Cameron era seems to offer us so little, in the way of a future, that we might as well strike out on our own, and see if we can improve our chances by the kind of margin – small but significant – that Alex Salmond, as a gambling man himself, would consider well worth the risk.