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Brian Monteith

Brian Monteith is policy director of ThinkScotland and editor of The FreeSociety.org. He is a former Conservative and Unionist Member of the Scottish Parliament.

Since my last column in the fortnightly cycle the referendum debate has taken a more serious turn as the United Kingdom government decided it was time to make it clear what people could expect in the event of Scotland leaving our 307-year-old political union.

The timing had a great deal to do with waiting on the SNP’s White Paper so that the response could tackle the detail and begin to challenge baseless assertions, wishful thinking and erroneous facts and figures. By first having Bank of England Governor, Mark Carney, lay out the technical requirements for a formal currency union (which it should be noted the SNP embraced), but then following this up with a clear and unequivocal rejection of those terms on the grounds that it would not be in the interests of the continuing United Kingdom, George Osborne – with support from Ed Balls and Danny Alexander – was able to put the SNP and the Yes campaign in general on the back foot.

Not only is Alex Salmond unable to claim that Scots could keep the pound, he is also unable to say what alternative currency arrangement they would enjoy as he is well aware of the tactical defeat he concedes by announcing a Plan B. It is because of the absence of a formal currency arrangement and the unattractiveness of the alternatives (informal adoption of the pound, the Euro or a new Scottish currency) that a variety of big Scottish employers such as RBS, Standard Life and Scottish Life have made public announcements about the negative effects and what they may have to do to avoid them – including in the latter two examples of relocating some or all of their operations.

The Yes campaign has resorted to a fingers-crossed approach of telling the public that Unionists are bluffing, that it’s a Tory conspiracy – but that is an almighty gamble to take when it could costs jobs, increase mortgages and generally lay waste to the Scottish economy for the medium term at least.

We can expect further examples of the loss of shared benefits from being part of the United Kingdom being confirmed in the next few months – not to bully the electorate but to put it absolutely beyond doubt what people can expect. It is called providing an evidence-based, informed decision – something that politicians are supposed to welcome but only one side now appears happy about.  This is because it is slowly dawning on Yes supporters – and the key ‘don’t knows’ – that the UK is entitled to protect its own interests, be they economic, social or cultural, and that no matter how much Salmond huffs and puffs he cannot dictate what the UK’s position should be.

This does not stop him trying. The height of arrogant absurdity was when Salmond said that British people should not have any right to a referendum on sharing the pound if the Treasury and his government negotiated an accommodation. I have no doubt that any British government would be committing electoral suicide if it sought to take such an approach as there would be a public clamour for a say in the final decision, with a great deal of ill-feeling having had the opportunity to build up. As evidence of this likely scenario coming true, such a demand has already been made on this site a month ago, even without such fallout.

Separate from trying to consider how any divorce settlement might look the next key stage in the referendum campaign will be the development by first Labour and then Conservatives of options for taking devolution further, responding to the widely held belief that devolution remains unfinished business and that to lay out what the next stage may bring will help secure an emphatic victory that will put back the cause of independence for at least a generation.

The problem for Labour is that it is seriously divided on the extent of what powers can be devolved and it is struggling to find a resolution on which it can find unanimity. Proposals are meant to be published by its devolution commission in time for the Scottish Labour conference in two weeks’ time and what is finally agreed will represent the main offering to the electorate of what it can expect if it votes No.

The Scottish Conservative Party will not publish its paper, from a committee chaired by the well-liked former Leader of the House of Lords, Tom Strathclyde, until May and it remains to be seen if it will water down the Labour proposals or come up with something more radical and new. What can be expected is that all the parties coalesce around the idea of a post referendum constitutional convention that looks at devolution in a UK context, adding to the mix not only the powers and responsibilities for the Scottish Parliament, Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies but trying to find agreement about how England should be governed, or at least how its legislative process will fit in any new dispensation.

As I have argued here before, it is folly to continually cede powers to Scotland or elsewhere without any regard to what happens in England – it only feeds the Celtic appetite for more, as the appearance is given that more will always be possible. Only when there is the certainty afforded by making an agreement that looks like it can and will last – by bringing England into the process – can we expect the constant revisiting of constitutional politics to recede. That way we can hopefully end the process that one part of the UK is allowed to vote on the shape of the United Kingdom without any say by others who may find their own legislative process made unjust or be expected to pick up bills that are not theirs.

This eventual involvement of England and therefore English MPs is rather fortunate for Labour for it is not generally understood just how riven with bitterness the Scottish Labour Party is, with many of its Westminster MPs having unprintably low opinions of the Labour MSPs in Holyrood – and the favour being returned.

It has to be remembered that the long term trend for Scottish MPs is that thanks to devolution it will become harder to attain high office as they are unlikely to be chosen by future governments to populate ministerial responsibilities that are covered by devolved administrations in their own constituencies.  The example of Labour’s John Reid being Health Secretary is probably the last and should not be expected again – the same goes for many other departments such as Education, Transport and Agriculture.

That being the case, and with many items of legislation under discussion at Westminster that do not apply outside England, Scots Labour MPs have seen their influence and opportunities for experience wane to the point where they often feel they are only lobby fodder. This low self-esteem is fed and evidenced by their relative invisibility in the Scottish media.  Just what do they do to justify their salary and expenses when their cousins at the Scottish Parliament are dealing with health, education, transport, culture, – and much, much more?

The prospect then of devolving further powers over the economy, be it Scotland taking a greater share of the income tax it raises or varying individual taxes such as Air Passenger Duty (already devolved to Northern Ireland) – and as is now being mooted, some aspects of welfare – must therefore send a shiver down most Scots Labour MPs’ spines. Couple this with the prospect that Conservatives and possibly Liberal Democrats can be expected to argue for a reduction in Scottish constituencies from the current 59 and there is recipe for much plotting and backstabbing behind the scenes.

Shadow Foreign Secretary, Douglas Alexander, recently made a speech arguing for much greater devolution – but this will be resisted by many and different opinions can be expected from Jim Murphy and Ian Davidson, amongst others. The Scottish leader, Johann Lamont, being based in Holyrood does not command universal loyalty of Scots Labour MPs and Ed Miliband can thus expect to be called in as umpire to calm the warring factions down – using the call of unity to defeat the nationalists and then the Tories as practically his only weapon.

Nevertheless, for all the likely infighting Labour will broker a deal within its ranks – and this will have the benefit of ensuring the public knows about it and can expect it to be delivered if Miliband wins the election in 2015.

If Scotland votes No (PaddyPower’s odds for a No vote currently stand at 9-2 on), and the proposal can be signed-off with the other parties before that event, the real losers are likely to be the SNP – giving Conservatives an incentive to cut a deal and win seats in Perthshire and beyond.

20 comments for: Brian Monteith: Now it’s Labour’s turn to take the fight to the Scottish nationalists

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