Why Calman isn’t the Answer:
Breaking the Elite Consensus of Scotland
The Scotsman, November 20th 2009
At the fag end of a Parliament beset by scandal and crisis with a discredited political class and unpopular Labour Government, we are about to witness a flurry of constitutional proposals for Scotland.
The Queen’s Speech saw the UK Government declare it would be ‘taking forward’ proposals over the Calman Commission with a White Paper published in the next few weeks. At the same time, the Scottish Government, which boycotted Calman, will next week publish a White Paper putting more detail to its proposals for independence.
This is a significant set of developments which requires careful scrutiny and wider debate. Calman might seem to some the ideal solution – more powers and autonomy coming to the Scottish Parliament – which suits the unionists and aids the nationalist cause. However, it is much more problematic than first appears and begs several questions.
First, the Labour Government’s Queen Speech is typical New Labour grandstanding and partisan politicking of the type we have learned to know and loathe. Blair was able to do this and get away with it for years. Brown is much less skilled at this and inept. Thus, most of this Queen’s Speech will not see the statute book and is instead about Labour setting out its pre-election stall. Labour’s stance on Calman is for an imminent White Paper and legislation by 2011.
Second, the whole Queen’s Speech aims to smoke out the Tories on a host of positions – from public spending to child poverty to banker bonuses – and gain political capital in the pre-election period. The Calman proposals are part of this strategy. The Scottish Tories under Annabel Goldie and David Mundell have played an enthusiastic part in the Calman Commission. David Cameron’s position is very different, with a reluctance to endorse greater borrowing powers for the Scottish Parliament in troubled times. This offers Labour strategists room for mischief.
Then there is Labour’s position vis-à-vis the Nationalists. Jim Murphy realises that Labour positioned itself as the party of the unreformed union in 2007 and paid the price to the party of radical change: the SNP. Now Labour are trying to pose as the party of a changing, flexible union and label the Nationalists as dogmatic and inflexible.
There are significant weaknesses in Calman. There are technical problems with some of the proposals such as the ones which would allow the Scots to set their own income tax rate and lose some of the block grant. Economists such as Jim and Margaret Cuthbert have argued that this is unworkable.
Perhaps such limitations could be addressed by full fiscal autonomy, but deeper problems can be found in how Calman supporters misunderstand Scottish politics and the nature of the UK.
Calman comes from a deliberate misreading of the way the Scots do constitutional change. Wendy Alexander, one of the initiators of the whole process stated, when the final report was published earlier this year, ‘this is how we do constitutional change in Scotland: Kilbrandon, the Scottish Constitutional Convention, Calman’.
This is both inaccurate history and deeply revealing. The Scots have not advanced constitutional change primarily by setting up commissions, but by voting for parties who change the situation north of the border and make London sit up and take notice: at different times SNP, Labour and Lib Dems.
Commissions have not been what were decisive in Scottish politics. Kilbrandon was set up as a Harold Wilson holding device. Devolution would not have advanced in the 1970s had it not been for the SNP surge of 1973-74. The Constitutional Convention did aid Labour shifting to a more powerful Parliament elected by PR, but the Scotland Act 1998 was much more far-reaching and drew more substantially from the academic Constitution Unit. The myth of the Convention is part of the folklore of Scottish politics, aided by a number of its participants who have a clear interest in overstating their role in the establishment of the Parliament.
Part of the problem of Scotland has been its lack of democracy and the way elites and professional groups have managed affairs in their own interests while giving the pretence they are motivated by the people’s concerns across law, health, education and wider politics.
Labour have been historically the most adept at facing two ways: talking the popular talk, while colluding with elites. Calman is part of the elite story and not about democratising Scotland or wider change. It is revealing that none of its supporters see a referendum and a public debate as part of the process.
Then there is the nature of the UK. Scottish constitutional change has to acknowledge the UK dimension. The Scotland Act along with the Wales Act 1998 gave the two nations first place in Labour’s constitutional reform programme. The wider UK agenda and English decentralism was meant to follow.
Sadly, much of the other change stalled – English regionalism, House of Lords reform, the nature of the UK centre. The Scots and the Welsh, who this week have proposed gaining more powers similar to the Scots, cannot continue accruing powers while the UK remains unreformed and the English dimension remains unanswered. You would think unionists north of the border would understand this.
What happens to England matters in an asymmetrical union. If English regionalism or an English Parliament carry little popular support, and ‘English votes for English laws’ is unsustainable, this has consequences for the Scots (and Welsh too).
Constitutional change is away to come centrestage at a time when politics is shaped by grim language and hard choices. This might seem to some displacement or distraction, and is directly related to the nervousness of the political class in every party, from addressing some of the huge issues we face as a society.
The Calman proposals will not set the heather afire as they are technocratic and elite driven which carry no popular resonance or sense of a wider narrative. In this it does not challenge the wider merits and appeal of Scottish independence.
This is not to say that supporters of independence do not face their own hurdles. Post-crash the case for an independent Scotland has to be remade and detail put on the kind of society and why it will be different and better. That is a steep challenge for the SNP and pro-independence supporters, but Calman isn’t the answer.