After the all-night event at the ESRC Future of the UK and Scotland Hub, Richard Parry gives initial reflections on what the result means for devolution policy.
In the long run of the referendum campaign, a Yes vote matching the SNP’s vote on the 2011 elections (45% constituency, 44% list) was a totally respectable outcome, giving the SNP a constitutional credibility to go alongside their policy credibility in government. The home rule journey continues, based on impressive cohesion and passion of the Yes side.
What intruded on this orderly outcome is the extraordinary burst of political and policy action that followed the wake-up call of YouGov polls showing Yes on 47% and then 51%. The lasting legacy of this is the mid-80s% turnout that has re-established the possibility of mass politics on the UK scene. In political terms, it focused energy on Scotland and exposed the neglect and misunderstanding of its politics and governments by the Westminster village. It also elicited a remarkable heavyweight intervention by the international political and financial elite appalled at what seemed like a gratuitous destabilisation of systems and networks. Whatever Scotland might say, the world was saying no.
The significance of the party leaders’ vow’ on further powers is that it has prevented the deferral of action on devolution until after the May 2015 General Election. Their timescale is an accelerated one, requiring intensive discussion during October and November. The three party documents are dissimilar, Labour’s lengthy, the Liberal Democrats’ flimsier, and the Conservatives the most interesting and most radical. The most significant direction of movement is into major welfare benefits – attendance allowance and housing benefit, both cognate to already devolved functions. Attendance allowance fits better, interacting strongly with personal care policies, but housing benefit is supposedly doomed as a separate benefit and set for absorption into Universal Credit. The policy development process around this is in a mess.
The way forward set out by the No side lacks credibility. Gordon Brown’s timetable announced at Loanhead on 8 September was delivered as if he were still Prime Minister and it was Labour’s policy that was to be implemented. He seemed to think that Command papers and White Papers were different things, and set up St Andrew’s Day and Burns Night as milestones in policy formulation. However rapidly legislation develops, its progress will be halted by the UK general election and may not withstand the rigours of scrutiny in England during it. Veteran observers of Brown may see in the ‘vow’ text a typical formulation of his, designed to set an effective spin while disguising content. David Cameron’s signature was a political act, not one of a Prime Minister acting on advice. The process faces the fact that Labour’s is the most cautious of the three sets of proposals, and the danger is that David Cameron and his civil servants will use the opportunity of a rapid elite exercise to blunt the boldness of his own party’s approach and head off a new version of the Scottish Constitutional Convention.
At the end of the day, we arrived at a result readily predictable early in 2014 but reached through an extraordinary route. In policy terms, it accelerated the breakdown of the previous consensus of the Calman Commission about the limits of devolution and forced an accelerated timetable for expanding devolved powers even before the last extension had taken effect.
It has been so exhilarating. In our own place and time we have done the apparently impossible and found a way of recovering the level of political participation and engagement last seen in the early 1950s.