October 26, 2007

Alex Salmond goes Ballistic

Alex Salmond is no stranger to publicity. He has just returned to lead the Scottish Nationalists and in the last Scottish elections took them into a majority in the Scottish Parliament. But neither is he a fool. His recent letter to the 189 leaders of the signatory nations to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty asking for Scotland to have observer status at their meetings blatantly controvenes the spirit of the leglislation that set up the Scottish Parliament. The Parliament has various competencies- most of which are to do with Scottish domestic policy- but has absolutely no powers to deal with the defence policy of the UK- which is a matter for Westminster. Alex Salmond knows that as much as anyone does- and he does this conscious of this knowledge. He might be able to have an observer there- but the observer could have no more powers than any other observer.

He doesn't seriously expect to be at the nuclear proliferation talks in any capacity- British allies around the world and there are lots of them will pay no attention to his declaration- well apart from a mildly amused grin or an exasperated sigh at yet another piece of paperwork going through a busy bureacratic machine. Mr Mugabe and some more of his ilk may choose to grandstand about the dealings of an 'independent Scotland' but it will make little difference to their standings internationally or internally. This is not an important international issue- but it might just be important domestically- and that's the debate that Mr Salmond is trying to influence.

Mr Salmond makes no secret of his real desire- Scottish independence. That's been his desire all along- and the desire of the SNP themselves. The Scottish Parliament was designed all along to assuage that concern. The Labour party wanted to indicate that it was sympathetic to the concerns of Scots who wanted independence, and so it designed a commitment to devolution. It also wanted to appeal to Scots who believed in a federal constitution- and to English and Welsh people who were less attached to the idea. Labour thus brought in assymetric devolution- creating real constitutional problems, Scottish MPs for instance can vote on English issues whereas their English counterparts can't vote on the same Scottish issues, but they also never faced up to another central problem. But there was another problem that no Labour politician ever addressed in the relationship between the Parliaments.

Mr Salmond at present stands up as leader of the Scottish Parliament- not of a Scottish party. He stands as the representative of Scotland and to be honest the election at which he came to power is more recent than the election which brought in the British government. So Mr Salmond can justifiably claim to be more representative of current Scottish opinion than the Labour Party led by Gordon Brown. Previously when he sought to make points about Scottish constitutional independence he did so as the leader of a party, now he does so as the representative of the Scottish nation- indeed he does so with the dignity and majesty of his office. This makes Mr Salmond's intervention more important in UK Politics.

His reasons for making the intervention are also entirely predictable- as predictable as his increased power. He makes the intervention in part to get away from domestic politics. Domestic politics is always difficult for politicians- battling Westminster particularly over nuclear weapons enables a politician to look strong and brave. Dealing with the latest crisis in the health service is much more difficult- especially when like Mr Salmond you don't have a majority in your own Parliament- Mr Salmond is running a minority government in Scotland and in a minority government posturing is easier than policy. Mr Salmond has the political inclination to do this- as a nationalist- but he also has the interest to do it- it leaves him looking noble, fighting for Scotland against Westminster without having to take an unpopular decision. It risks him looking like a comedy figure, too interested in his own ego, but at the moment with Mr Brown's government an unpopular one, Mr Salmond can probably afford the political gamble.

I expect this gamble to be repeated again and again. Bashing Westminster is in the self interest of any Scottish government as is bashing England. Jack McConnell (Salmond's Labour predecessor) did it last year when he told the tabloids that he wouldn't support England in a world cup. The issue that the Labour party never explained was how these neccessary tensions between the two Parliaments would not lead to opinion on either side of the border growing more and more divided. Scots defining themselves away from England and asking why their Parliament didn't have powers over nuclear weapons or the war in Iraq or whatever other cause becomes the flavour of the month. The simple politics, as Sir John Major argued in 1997, propel a devolved assembly into combat with the central Parliament and eventual independence. That is even more true when the structure is left uncomplete and incomprehensible by the adhoc opportunists of Millbank.

In 1997, Labour came to the country with a constitutional agenda that was shoddily drawn up and incompetently executed. You could back federalism and House of Lords reform and still think that incidentally (I am close to that position myself). The problem is that Labour left too many threads dangling and didn't think through much of what they did- most of it was done on the spur of the moment and the future left to sort itself out. The success of that approach was that whilst things went well there were no problems. But perhaps as Labour begins to suffer in the polls and lose its majority in the devolved assemblies- or even regain that majority and lose in the Westminster Parliament- they and we might regret Tony Blair's shoddy workmanship. The major three parties are unionist now- though they all mumble about increased devolution- but that might change. Such disatisfactions may lead to more radical constitutional reform than Labour ever intended.

Tony Blair famously felt the hand of history on his shoulder- I wonder if he ever considered where it might be pointing!


Gabriel said...

A fascinating issue is the nationalism and fractionalism in the now old european nations. I always thought the tensions between different ethnicities (if that is the right word) in countries like the UK were relatively small or insignificant in the modern days, but it seems old scars aren't closed even in a few hundred years.

To me, the most important question would be what does Scotland have to gain by being independent in the modern days?

edmund said...

Good p9oints all- historiclay i think it's worth considering such may have been the problem with Home Rome people are often very cricial of Joe Chamberlain-but the fact is his federalism scheme may have worked better.

Vino S said...

As I said on my blog, I think Mr. Salmond is acting quite cleverly on this issue.

Re your point about asymmetrical devolution, we have had this discussion before and I have said that I don't think that the status quo pre-1997 was that logical either - since Scotland had its own legal system but no legislature.

El Dave. said...

The arguments about asymetric devolution are something of a canard; there is assymetric devolution in Spain, for instance, and the Canadian provinces approach having their own foreign policy, as they have trade delegations and are able to set their own taxation rates. The federal government supports it, rather than panicking over it. There are still separatist movements - Quebec, the Basque Country (which is also irredentist) and Catalonia - but no particular desire to kick them out of the country.

If the issue is a perceived imbalance or unfairness, I would be interested to see if there was less support for an independent Scotland in Wales and London as opposed to (the rest of) England.

An MP elected to Westminster should be an MP on an equal standing with all others; that principle is implicit in each MP having one vote, regardless of how many electors chose that MP. That some MPs should not be able to vote on some issues worries me more than the West Lothian Question, if for no more reason that in our convention-based constitutional setup, we'd need to decide on what issues are strictly English, and what level of strictness should apply. Should border Scots MPs be able to vote on planning law south of the border, for instance?

More likely is that we'd set ourselves up for a constitutional crisis when, in a narrow Parliament, some Scottish MPs voted when they're not meant to. What do you do then?

For the record, I probably favour some sort of federal system.

Gracchi said...

Gabriel- yes that is a really interesting issue- I think the presumed gains come partly from the fact that most nationalisms are based on a sense of the other and for Scotland the other is England.

Edmund well it depends where- in Ireland I think independence has worked very well. Federalism might be the answer particularly for scotland and Wales though.

Vino I'm perfectly willing to agree that pre-1997 wasn't that logical- though it was the consequence of a treaty between the two Parliaments in 1707. But I think post 1997 opens up real anomalies on the different value of a vote in different parts of the UK.

Dave Yeah I think the Spanish and Canadian examples are interesting. I know more about Canada having Canadian friends and I wouldn't be as sanguine as you are about the popularity in the rest of Canada of Quebec! As to your points about MPs- I would actually agree which is why personally I would go with an English Parliament which would have exactly the same powers over Englnad as the Scottish Parliament had over Scotland. I do think there is a problem though in the current system in which different electors have different powers over each other.

Political Umpire said...

The conceit behind the Scottish Parliament was absurd: that the Scottish nationalists would pack up their tartan and go home if they received the watered down Parliament that Labour created.

In fact it was pretty obvious what would happen: give the Scottish Parliament some powers and within no more than ten years they will take the lot. Then there'll be an almighty row about border crossing and financial transactions, to say nothing of who gets what out of the North Sea oil and the armed forces.