27 October 2014

Lost: Labour's love


I can understand those of you who feel a significant measure of cynicism about the Smith Commission process and its capacity to deliver meaningful new autonomy for Scottish institutions. I'm cultivating pessimism of the intellect, but optimism of the will. There are real gains to be secured here, but they will only be won by the deft application of political pressure, exploitation of our opponents' anxieties, and some cold-hearted lawyering.

It won't be an uplifting process. It can't really be participative. Given the tight timetable, the body is doomed to be dominated by the political parties, and in particular, by the aftermath of the Better Together coalition. That coalition is committed to delivering devosomething only, and nothing like the maximalist vision of autonomy articulated in the Scottish Government's submission to it.

The trick will be bridging that gap - to the advantage of the vision articulated by Nicola Sturgeon. The signs are not without promise on this score. The Vow stoked higher expectations, and seemed to suggest a commitment to more thoroughgoing change. The Tories have since characterised their proposals as a "floor not a ceiling." The Liberal Democrats have historically wanted to further than their allies, towards a federal Britain. Labour ... well, we'll come onto Labour in a minute.

These are green shoots, to be cultivated. But I can understand also why many folk approach that task without enthusiasm. The vernacular dominated many people's experiences of the referendum campaign. Folk got involved, felt emboldened. It was accessible, engaging, even exciting. Technical discussions about how Schedule 4 of the Scotland Act might be amended to extend Holyrood's social security authority while preserving Westminster's reserved prerogatives -- well, they light no bonfires in the soul.

The devolution debate can seem a colourless, lifeless thing by contrast to the lively days of late September. But the detail of what the Commission agrees will be of profound significance for how this country is governed, and what the Scottish Government and Parliament can and cannot do. If the case for independence was about achieving powers for a purpose, we cannot, credibly, be indifferent to an opportunity to redistribute those powers across the United Kingdom. If the case for self-government was rooted in a desire for greater self-government, we cannot treat an opportunity to achieve greater self-government like a sideshow. We may fail to secure what we want, but we cannot afford to be or to seem to be indifferent to the difficult questions which will animate Lord Smith and his fellow commissioners from the SNP, Labour, Green, Tory and Liberal Democrat parties.

If the wheeze is going to go anywhere, and achieve anything, it needs constructive suggestions from those of us who agitated in favour of independence before the 18th of September.  To that end, and with my academic hat on, today I sent this submission to Lord Smith, focussing on two areas which have already been highlighted on the blog: (a) securing greater autonomy for Holyrood in the field of social security and (b) giving permanent recognition in the Scotland Bill to the basic democratic principles, expressed in the referendum process, and accepted by the UK government.

This submission focuses more on the doable than the desirable, and offers a few detailed ideas about how these proposals could be realised in a new Scotland Bill. I caution you now. It isn't interesting, or uplifting. Ian Smart was complimentary earlier, in describing it as "very boring and very interesting at the same time." I hope so. It is practical-minded, narrow, focussed. There is no great rhetoric in it, or a smouldering first-principles case for maximum autonomy. The Scottish Government has already made that case effectively. Hopefully these more limited, and more achievable plans, can contribute usefully towards the discussion.

Heaven knows, the Commission could do with a helping hand. This weekend's developments shuffled another wild card into Lord Smith of Kelvin's deck. Behind the Brownite waffle, the "home rule" rhetoric and and the invocation of federalism, Labour are in a directionless mess. Nimble as ever, the party decided to submit their widely derided and watered-down proposals to the Commission entirely unamended last month. No updates, no restatement of more ambitious plans, zip.

While there are noises off, encouraging the party to embrace a more substantial platform of powers, it is far from clear who is calling the shots, or is to be persuaded, if Labour is to be coaxed into a bolder offer over the next thirty days. With the implosion of what might politely be described as Johann Lamont's "leadership" of the Scottish party, and the outbreak of internal factionalism, denials, turf wars and recrimination in Labour's ranks, it is far from clear who might be coordinating the party's response, or who is giving the party's two delegates to Smith - Iain Gray MSP and Gregg McClymont MP - their marching orders.  Nobody seems terrifically sure.

Labour hope to appoint a new leader by the 13th of December. The interregnum continues till then, under that hefty visionary and elder statesman, Anas Sarwar. On the current timetable, the Smith Commission hopes to cut a deal by the end of November: two weeks before the next chieftain takes over the stone bonnet and the flogging stool.

Perhaps the Eds hold the whip hand till then, as usual. Perhaps Sarwar. Perhaps any number of competing grey eminences, scheming for influence and power, behind the scenes, Will any of these people feel emboldened - or even entitled - to depart from or to elaborate on the party's lukewarm offer of last year? It is an open question. If the party looked vulnerable to stumbling blindly into a bear trap before Johann's ill-tempered departure, now without a leader, and without a plan, in their headless disarray, the pitch of the Labour Party's engagement with the Smith Commission is anybody's guess.

Will they retrench, stubborn and oppositional, clinging onto Westminster's welfare prerogatives for grim death? Will the nasty surprise of Lamont's departure focus minds on a more fundamental rethink? Can those of us advocating a more substantial level of autonomy be able to take advantage of their bewilderment, to railroad the reluctant?

There are everywhere snares and pitfalls -- and opportunities all too easily missed in the melee. I imagine it is difficult to focus on the detail of radical constitutional change when your footsoldiers are busy forming a circular firing squad. It is difficult to be strategic when your leadership decapitates itself, without even a credible puppet dauphin to plonk on the throne. Worse, in the very midst of a politically sensitive, time-pressured and internally fraught process. Every crisis is also an opportunity, as they say. But it remains to be seen which of Labour's warring tribes - the one keen on more devolution, the other deeply sceptical - owns that opportunity.

But Johann has lobbed a primed grenade - plop - straight into the septic tank. Take cover, comrades. The blowback won't be pretty.

12 comments :

  1. 'ComplEmentary'? And from a man of your erudition?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Bloody pedants. The cost of having a highly educated and attentive readership ;-)

      Delete
  2. Lost: Labour's love... If you Tickell us, do we not laugh? If you Murphy us, do we not bleed?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. On the current evidence, the quality of mercy is most certainly strained

      Delete
  3. Intriguing as ever Andrew - your headline reminds me of the theory that one of Shakespeare's lost plays - Love's Labour's Won - is actually not lost at all but is Much Ado About Nothing.







    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Bravo! Though perhaps the closing speech of Othello is apt too. Charles Haughey quoted it too, before his departure.

      "Soft you, a word or two before you go.
      I have done the state some service, and they know ’t.
      No more of that."

      Delete
  4. Whichever of the nondescripts is installed - not elected, whatever the Scottish minions might imagine, by their Westminster rulers, they will continue to echo the party line despite (and perhaps because of) the effect it will have on the people of Scotland.
    You say that Johann lobbed a primed grenade into their septic tank, but I am reminded of another quote from Shakespeare "Her heavy anthem still concludes in woe, And still the the choir of echoes answer so"(what). Venus and Adonis I think.
    She will find it very difficult to get her usual instant access to free air time on the BBC or the Daily Record now she has thrown her Labour Party toys out of the pram.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I like this erudite turn in the comment section. We should impose a literary theme on all future threads. Next week: Dylan Thomas.

      Delete
    2. I know Llareggub about Dylan Thomas...

      Delete
    3. In order to enter into the psyche of the man, go through the following stages.

      1. Invest in a bottle of cooking whisky.
      2. Consume same.
      3. Repeat till death.

      Delete
  5. Rage, rage against the dying of the light...And keep on doing it. We all appreciate your very excellent posts.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Who knows, maybe one of these days my words might "fork" some "lightning" ;-)

      Delete