Who owns all tomorrow’s Scotlands?

by | 19 Jun 2023

The latest independence paper is better than its predecessors. Unfortunately it has been presented more as a way to shore up SNP support rather than reassure people who have doubts.

I would almost have bet on the fact that the first post-Sturgeon ‘independence paper’ published by the Scottish Government would be on a written constitution. As a subject this is shooting fish in a barrel for pointing out the problems of the UK, gives you the chance to tell a nice story and is pretty hard to get wrong.

I’ve been pretty strongly critical of the previous Scottish Government independence papers because they’ve been, well, not good. This one is… OK. But there are reasons to be concerned about allowing party interests and constitutional safeguards to get mixed up.

First, the positives. There was one thing in particular that I was looking for in this paper and its there in a way that reassures me just about enough. During the Sturgeon era both her and then-constitution person Mike Russell made the vaguest possible statements about some kind of involvement of the public in some kind of process for producing a constitution eventually at some point.

But my concern grew substantially when they refused to even hint about what timescale that might take or in whose hands it was to trigger that process. It struck me particularly sharply because during indyref I had an exchange with Nicola Sturgeon that made clear to me she was unwilling to commit to a participatory process for writing a constitution (which worried me significantly).

That was why my ears pricked up with the refusal to set a timetable for when the process to begin creating a final constitution would begin. I find it very difficult not to believe that Nicola Sturgeon wanted to produce her own constitution with no real commitment ever to move beyond that.

So it is with great relief that I find that commitment is finally in this document – and with a timescale of having to be initiated in the first parliament (though that’s just to start the process so depending on how it is produced, we could be stuck with only the interim constitution for quite a while).

And for me the biggest disappointment with the paper is Annex B where it directs you to find more information about how its proposed ‘Constitutional Convention’ will work, and where I found no useful information whatsoever to give me even a hint of how it would work. That is concerning, because that is one of only two things that actually matters here.

For me the only two things that matter at this stage are the competence of the interim constitution and the process for producing the final one. The rest is really just noise. This is why I fear this not-great-but-not-terrible paper isn’t necessarily actually all that helpful for the cause of independence just now.

For winnable voters the more you can separate independence from the SNP, the better it works – and one of the best opportunities to do that is precisely on the arrangements for the constitution

The reason for this is to do with the proportion of voters who are the difference between where we are and where we need to be – the ‘soft No’, the undecided and the waverers. They are not generally SNP-aligned. They are the difference between the SNP’s vote share and the numbers we need to achieve independence.

They are not a homogenous group, but, from the research I’ve seen and from personal anecdotal experience, they are more suspicious of the SNP than a committed independence voter. In fact some of them would be a lot more likely to support independence if it wasn’t for the SNP. That is just inevitable in a party-political environment.

So, for that group, the more you can separate independence from the SNP, the better it works. And one of the best opportunities to do that is precisely on the arrangements for the constitution, because that is what regulates politics and ensures that Scotland isn’t some kind of corrupt one-party state (which is a fear on the part of some winnable voters).

Had I been advising I’d have suggested some simple changes in this paper. My version would have been shorter. It would have promised that the interim constitution would have been produced by independent technical experts designed to keep things as ‘status-quo’ as possible democracy-wise until the people had spoken. It wouldn’t have been the government writing it.

And then, having set out the basic reassurances that everyone would expect to see there, I would have made almost all the rest of the paper about how the participatory final constitution process would have worked, to give out the message that this will really be a ‘people’s constitution’.

As it stands it is proposed that the Scottish Parliament gets to veto or amend the constitution produced through that process, despite that constitution largely regulating them. But the bigger problem is to do with the blurring between SNP and independence in presentation.

Because this paper was trailed with eye-catching things that could be in the constitution, and they’re all SNP policy issues. Which is to say that the message coming to these undecided groups is that the interim constitution is a way of implementing SNP policy. That is a problem.

Why? Because let’s just say trust isn’t high right now. This independence paper is promising citizen participation with about as much specific detail as when the SNP told its membership they could get a chance to ‘discuss’ independence strategy at a special party conference. Of course, it turns out that what they can do is rather more like sit for an entire day listening to speeches from the SNP payroll.

This paper reads to me like it is looking inwards more than outwards, a text which exists to reassure the faithful rather than win over the wavering

This is not a group of people whose promises and commitments have turned out to be reliable across rather a wide range of issues and which has a worrying track record on the kind of power-sharing democracy it promises in this paper.

I mean, I’ve not had a proper chance to look at it yet but it looks like the SNP’s pet NEC has just unilaterally rewritten the rules for electing the party leadership, and as best I can tell from a first glance it has removed the right of the membership to elect the deputy leader. They can do that because the SNP changed the party’s constitution so the NEC can rewrite the party’s constitution. The membership have no say in this and can’t even elect a majority of the NEC.

This is a group of politicians who now seem to write bespoke leadership election procedures according to who they want to be elected, and that is on top of being a government which has now produced a bespoke complaints procedure for every complaint made about a government minister, one written to reveal everything, one written to conceal everything. It’s almost as if these procedures are being written to produce specific outcomes…

And that is on top of this paper being launched by a First Minister who is himself pretty clearly the beneficiary of some pretty blatant election-rigging. What I’m really trying to get across here is that this is a party with a shaky track record on democracy which is holding just a little too much ongoing control over the design of a democracy for a new nation. That is the wrong message.

It is not as outrageous as what Sturgeon-Russell appeared to be proposing, but it raises the question – what is this all for? You see if the purpose of these independence papers is to persuade the winnable voter, the strategy would be to separate them as far as possible from government.

But if the purpose is to persuade the faithful that something is being done, the strategy would be to place stories in advance saying that the new constitution will deliver on pre-existing SNP policies. Which is it?

What has been published today is basically a less-good version of Foundations for Freedom, the policy paper written by constitution expert Elliot Bulmer and published by Common Weal in 2018, though it has a lot less detail. We’ve waited a long time to be told not very much.

As a statement of rough process for a constitution this is fine-ish. As a document to provide us some real detail it hasn’t worked. As a discussion paper even I was getting confused by what constitutes a ‘would’ and a ‘could’ (it keep drifting between firm commitment and statement of possibility).

But as a campaigning document it is a very big missed opportunity. It reads to me like it is looking inwards more than outwards, a text which exists to reassure the faithful rather than win over the wavering. In that regard this does certainly look like continuity. Unfortunately, unless we start looking outwards we’ll never break the current logjam.

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