A coalition between the SNP and Labour could break the constitutional logjam north of the border

August 25th, 2010

At the Edinburgh Festival last week a high point for me was participating in a session at the Scottish Parliament on ‘The Politics of Devolution’. Chaired by BBC Scotland’s Political Editor Brian Taylor whose blog has the roguish title Blether with Brian, the other speakers were Michael Russell MSP, the SNP’s Cabinet Secretary for Education; Brian Wilson, Chair of the Northern Ireland thinktank Platform for Change; and Susan Deacon, former Labour MSP and Health Secretary and now Professor of Social Change at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh.

I was hoping for some insight into the direction of travel for Scottish devolution but, despite a series of penetrating questions – not least on possible coalitions in Scotland following next year’s election – little was forthcoming in public. Instead, there was a preoccupation with the recent deaths of two leading figures from the Scottish scene, the Clydeside shipbuilders leader Jimmy Reid, and Scotland’s National Poet, Edwin Morgan.

Reid is perhaps best known for the inauguration speech he made in 1972 on becoming Rector of Glasgow University. Remarkably this was declared by the New York Times to be the greatest oration since Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Reid told the students the rat race should be left to rats, and added:

“Alienation is the precise and correctly applied word for describing the major social problem in Britain today. People feel alienated by society. In some intellectual circles it is treated almost as a new phenomenon. It has, however, been with us for years. What I believe is true is that today it is more widespread, more pervasive than ever before. Let me right at the outset define what I mean by alienation. It is the cry of men who feel themselves the victims of blind economic forces beyond their control. It’s the frustration of ordinary people excluded from the processes of decision-making. The feeling of despair and hopelessness that pervades people who feel with justification that they have no real say in shaping or determining their own destinies.”

Of course, Mike Russell’s message was that the Scottish Parliament is the means for tackling this condition. And, as he was quick to point out, Reid’s political trajectory led him from membership of the Communist Party, through the Labour Party to the SNP. He said that as Education Minister, he would be ensuring that the text of Reid’s speech would be made available to every school child in Scotland.

Edwin Morgan’s death took place on the day of our meeting. He was the last of a group of seven great Scottish poets spanning two generations, the others being Norman MacCaig, Iain Crichton Smith, Sorley MacLean, George Mackay Brown, Robert Garioch and Hugh MacDiarmid. At the opening of the new Scottish Parliament building in 2004 he was commissioned to write a celebratory poem, which includes the following lines:

What do the people want of the place? They want it to be 
filled with thinking persons as open and adventurous as its 
architecture.

A nest of fearties is what they do not want.

A symposium of procrastinators is what they do not want.

A phalanx of forelock-tuggers is what they do not want.

And perhaps above all the droopy mantra of ‘it wizny me’ is
what they do not want.

I sense that if Scotland is to move forward it will have to discover other, more positive political qualities among its political leaders as well as these. Among those identified by Susan Deacon were a willingness to contemplate cross-party collaboration, a determination to put party advantage to one side in favour of the national good, and a rekindling of the hope and enthusiasm that had been present in the early days of devolution. It is noteworthy that when Deacon announced she would be standing down from Holyrood in 2006 (ahead of the 2007 election) she was reported as saying she had had enough of the “raw tribalism of party politics”.

Viewed from the outside, there does seem a different scale of animosity and sectarianism between Labour and the SNP than, say, between Labour and Plaid Cymru in Wales. Mike Russell quipped that if the SNP had invented the electric light bulb Scottish Labour would have accused it of producing an anti-candle device.

Certainly, a coalition between the SNP and Labour is difficult to imagine. However, with the Liberal Democrats now beyond the pale in Scotland because of their coalition with the Conservatives in London, it is an option being seriously discussed in Edinburgh, though not publicly. For Labour it may be the only route back into Scottish government. For the SNP, currently trapped inside the devolution settlement, it may be the only way for it to break out.

Shrewdly, the SNP Government has backed off holding an independence referendum in the near future, certainly this side of next year’s election. It doesn’t want to go down the Québec road. It’ll be remembered that in 1980 the Parti Québécois government led by René Lévesque proposed a new deal of ‘equals’ with the rest of Canada, known as ‘Sovereignty-Association’. However, in the referendum held in May that year the issue was lost by 59.56 per cent to 40.44 per cent, and the cause put back by 15 years.

In 1995 another referendum was held, proposing ‘sovereignty’, along with an optional partnership offer to the rest of Canada. This time the result was much closer, but was still lost by 50.58 per cent to 49.42 per cent. Despite the narrowness of the margin more than ten years later, with a Liberal Government in power in Québec and the next election not due until 2013, there is little sign of the issue returning in the immediate future.

With Scottish opinion polls consistently recording majorities against independence, First Minister Alex Salmond has determined that no referendum will be held unless it can be reasonably anticipated that some significant constitutional advance for Scotland will accrue. He doesn’t want to oversee a stalling of Scottish aspirations for a political generation, as has happened in Québec.

On the other side Scottish Labour is looking to be identified with a positive stance on Scotland’s future. It has signed up to the Calman Commission’s proposals for greater taxation powers for the Parliament, in effect fiscal federalism within the UK.

So in the wake of an inconclusive Scottish election next May both sides could have an interest in coming together to agree a coalition built around a move towards a commonly sponsored referendum, much as the One Wales deal between Welsh Labour and Plaid promised a referendum on more powers “at or before” the 2011 Welsh election.

The full text of Jimmy Reid’s 1972 speech is available here, while the full text of Edwin Morgan’s poem on the opening of the new Scottish Parliament building on 9 October 2004 can be found here.

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John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

2 Responses to:“A glimpse into Scotland’s future”

  1. Gerald Holtham says:

    John, the Calman proposals for further fiscal devolution to Scotland are most certainly not fiscal federalism for the UK as you state. The proposals are explicitly designed for a union state. Fiscal federalism would imply that each part of the federation had its own tax resources (an aspiration of the SNP). Calman accepts that taxes pertain to the UK, except those explicitly devolved to a constituent body within the union. That is important from a Welsh perspective because it means the centre is supposed to distribute resources on the basis of need. In a federation you would not expect that to happen, though there could be flows between states of the federation to equalise revenue per head.

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  2. John Osmond says:

    Gerry,
    Of course, technically, you are correct. Terms such as ‘fiscal federalism’ are often used loosely in this debate – and I plead guilty as charged. However, the usage reflects the realities of the politics of the situation. Both the SNP and Labour in Scotland share an interest in attempting to devise more autonomous taxation powers without involving any UK-wide redistribution, since they benefit so greatly from the present allocation – to Wales’s disadvantage, of course. Hence, we need to keep up to speed with this debate.

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