As I watched Johann Lamont’s antics over the past week I was reminded of Monty Python’s famous “Dead Parrot” sketch. There was the hapless leaderette of British Labour’s northern division desperately trying to assure us that the parrot of devolution is merely resting; or pining for the fjords and not dead. Not dead at all. Honest, guv!
History may well record that it was the incoherent midden of a report from North British Labour’s Devolution Commission which rang the death knell for devolution in Scotland. That devolution was finally killed by this rag-bag collection of constitutional tinkerings that ran the gamut from the merely inadequate through the totally unworkable to the utterly incomprehensible and, if Ms Lamont’s efforts when interviewed on the matter were any evidence, completely inexplicable.
“Scottish” Labour’s offer to the people of Scotland is remarkable not only for the paucity of its ambition, but for the pride taken in its vacuousness.
It is remarkable, not only for the fact that it explicitly prioritises the preservation of the British state and its structures of power and privilege over the needs and desires of Scotland’s people, but for the frankness with which this subordination of Scotland to the ruling elites of Britain is stated.
If this insulting offer didn’t kill devolution it certainly made it disreputable.
Another view is that devolution died the day that a majority SNP government was elected, putting an end to the British parties’ efforts to prevent the people of Scotland having a say in the constitutional status of their country and making a referendum inevitable.
I would contend that the origins of devolution’s demise lie much deeper. I would hold that devolution, as a constitutional settlement for Scotland, was always inherently fatally flawed.
Scotland is a nation. Devolution doesn’t work with nations.
Devolution only works where the legitimacy and authority of the devolving power is generally accepted by the polity to which power is being devolved. The legitimacy and authority of the British state is NOT generally accepted in Scotland – other than by those whose prejudices do not permit them to question it.
It seems a long time ago now that there was a certain tension within the independence movement – I’ll put it no more strongly than that – between what we might cal the gradualists and the absolutists. The latter insisted that devolution was a trap. That it would be likely to be accepted by the people of Scotland as an adequate substitute for independence.
Gradualists, on the other hand, regarded devolution as a way-station on the road to independence. They saw devolution as a process – ironically putting them in agreement with what is now claimed by many unionists. They said that, being a process, devolution must lead to independence. This inevitable trend towards independence could only be thwarted if it was accepted that the devolution process also involved powers being taken away from the Scottish Parliament and returned to Westminster. Something which itself would only serve to emphasise the need for full political autonomy and so aid the independence movement.
Needless to say, the gradualists have been proved right.
The only question, then, is at what point does the devolution process end. The British parties try to pretend that it can be an ongoing process forever. That we can keep on endlessly tinkering with the constitutional settlement, switching powers backwards and forwards between Edinburgh and London at the whim of British politicians. But that is simply not feasible. In fact, it is nonsensical.
The purpose of all the talking shops that the British parties indulge in is, not to find the solution which best addresses the needs and aspirations of Scotland’s people, but to find the fix which will preserve the ultimate power of the British state and fend off the threat to that power posed by Scotland choosing to restore its rightful constitutional status.
The ink was barely dry on the original devolution settlement before it was recognised as unsatisfactory. Then we got Calman. Now, even before the Calman fix comes fully into force, even the British parties are acknowledging that it too is inadequate. It’s an accelerating process. The constitutional fixes of devolution are now being recognised as useless before they’re even finalised.
Even as British Labour in Scotland are presenting to the people of Scotland the package that they’ve spent two years cobbling together they are talking about the need for a “continuing conversation” about what powers the Scottish Parliament should have.
They are asking the wrong question.
The issue is not one of what powers the Scottish Parliament should have but of who gets to decide what powers the Scottish Parliament should have.
Only the people of Scotland have the legitimate authority to make that decision. On Thursday 18 September 2014, for the first time in history, the people of Scotland will have the opportunity to exercise that authority through the democratic process. We will hold in our hands all the powers that the parliament of a nation should have. All the powers that we know we want for our parliament.
We can choose to continue to be the ultimate political authority in Scotland by affirming our sovereignty with a Yes vote. Or we can choose to hand that authority back to those whose sole imperative is to ensure that the Scottish Parliament never has the powers that the people of Scotland want.
Devolution is not an option. Devolution is dead.
Of course, we still have to hear from the Tories. Maybe they can nail the dead parrot back on its perch. But I doubt it. I hear some people saying that Ruth “Line in the sand” Davidson may take the opportunity offered by the abysmal failure of her unionist ally, Johann Lamont, and try to portray the Tories in Scotland as the real champions of devolution. But there are problems with this.
While it would not be difficult for the Tories to come up with something better than British Labour’s offering, they still face the same problem that led to that offer being such a shambolic flop.
Whatever proposals the British parties come up with they are always going to be too little for the people of Scotland or too much for the Westminster elite – and probably both.
It is entirely possible that Ruth Davidson might devise something which at least looks sensible when stood next to the gibberish we’re getting from Johann Lamont, but it is not possible for her to devise anything with more substance.
But even if the Tories do make a better fist of concealing this lack of substance than Lamont has, they still face the problem of convincing a now highly sceptical Scottish public.
If “Scottish” Labour can’t persuade the people of Scotland that the devolution parrot is just tired and shagged out after a long squawk, what chance is there that the toxic Tories will be able to do so?
Dead parrots don’t fly. Devolution is dead. There is little likelihood that we will see its obituary in the mainstream media. But it is time for the rest of us to move on. It is time to stop talking about devolution as if it wasn’t an ex-parrot. It is time to focus on what is really on the referendum ballot – independence or nothing.