Friday, September 26, 2014

First thoughts on the Smith Commission (that's your future, by the way)

The agenda for the Smith Commission is being set by the melange of untested vows and promises mandated by the No vote in the referendum.  But the underlying question for the commission, of which all of the options for control over this or that percentage of Income Tax from Holyrood are nuances, is this.
"From where does power derive its mandate"? Do you devolve power down from the crown, or up from the people?
That was ACTUALLY what the question was on September 18th, constitutionally. The answer SEEMS clear. hence the apparent unthinking and terribly British assumed authority and mandate for Lord Smith and the Unco Guid.
However, in terms of people's actual experience, on both sides, we were sovereign for 15 hours...(as Jim Sillars put it) and we still, I think, feel that way...again, on both sides. Even if it was our sovereign decision not to opt for sovereignty, we still feel sovereign...I think. Am I wrong?
That we still feel that our future is up to us.
My question to the Smith Commission, then, as they watch a wrangle between policy wonks (each of whom will want a "win" for "their guy" ) about angels on the heads of pins, and then seek the approval of Westminster and how do they resolve the basic contradiction which undermines their exercise?
My question for the Political parties, now that they have once again been handed total top down power, apparently, is how do you hold this together? How do you give this monarchical exercise popular legitimacy?
A referendum on the legislation? That would do it? Surely not! For one thing, even if the Unionists were optimistic about the deal, that would transfer sovereignty definitively to the people, and the whole point of the exercise was to avoid doing that.
(This is the deep reason why devo max wasn't on the ballot paper. There is all the difference in the world between a demand from below mandated by a vote of 75% and a "gift" from above)
Even more, another referendum "here" would mean a referendum "there" - that would be irresistable - and God knows we don't want democracy spreading across the whole island, do we? Give the whole of the UK a veto on the "gift" of Devo Max!

So. Just as the "English votes" for English laws" debate fundamentally undermines the principles of Union, so the top down committee to decide Scotland's future decides no such thing. It is yet another titled, bureaucratic caricature of the unsustainable present.
This is not to say that the (former) Yes campaign shouldn't engage with it in good faith. They should. But it won't last. And no matter what the temptations and provocations to walk out or boycott it, the "Team Yes" negotiators should always remember that they still have the future as a hole card. What this means is that no matter what the provocation to "walk out"...our staying with the process is a win...if it is going to fall apart, let no one ve able to accuse us of knocking it down.
As a final thought, the negotiations of the Smith Commission are , strangely, a shadow of the negotiations that "might have been" after a Yes vote.
 (The "low powered vampires" of Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula have just flashed into my head...and I'm going to leave them there.) 
The same considerations ultimately underlie these negotiations now as would have underlain talks after a Yes vote.  The same considerations ultimately underlay the treaty of Union in the first place.
Back in 1707, what Scotland got from the Union was access to markets.  What England got was security...for the Hanoverian succession and Scotland's potential as a "back door" to European invasion.
All the challenges and upsets since, from 1745 to the 45% have ultimately been about and around the same considerations.

Both our tactical choices as voters and campaigners for the elections in 2015 and our attitude to the contingent plans of lord Smith and company which will need approval by the post election Westminster parliament whatever else they will need) should be informed by the same larger political realities.

The greatest reality is that Scotland has already changed forever, and this is going to be reflected somehow in the political sphere in the elections next year and the year after...and it is almost certainly premature and presumptuous of anyone, even me, to predict exactly how that will pan out, let alone what constitutional reflection there will need to be of a political reality that hasn't happened yet.

It may be that the most important thing for all of us to do, including his Lordship and the convened commission, is to sit back for a minute and reflect on the deeper historical realities that have not changed as well as the ones that have.  To take a properly long view of realities that will continue to apply to ANY set of political outcomes or any constitutional arrangements.  London and Europe, for example, will still be there..and we will still be here...and a lot of the things we need from each other we will still need under any circumstances or arrangements.

This is a much longer game than any political party on its own is equipped for. That's why they need us to stay engaged as much as we need them to be as near to honest as they can be.

I am not suggesting that Lord Whoosiz of Whatsit and his two civil servants are going to get anywhere close to a mandated, comprehensive, stable settlement of "the Scottish Question"...let alone the "English question".
But for the wider Yes movement, excluded as we are from the Unco Guid and their deliberations, I would suggest that we treat these talks primarily as a rehearsal for the real thing.  A lot of interesting stuff will come up...and we will need to be talking about it.  That's our role in the new Scotland, after all.
And history will ultimately judge between us - as to whether the immediate and next to immediate results of the referendum were of anything like equal significance to the fact and experience of it.

That same history, I would suggest, has already precluded anything like the status quo, and anything less than a complete constitutional change being tenable or stable for long.  And while we may be less than confident in that reality being recognised and coped with by his Lordship and the assembled wisdom of Scotland's politeratti, we do know that reality wins eventually.

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