Back to the future with IONA?

Three cheers for the Guardian for giving space to the future of the Union ( the English-Scots version) and two to Simon Jenkins for trying to shake the Westminster establishment out of its complacency. Partly, he has in mind the commission being set up to review the conundrum of the  “West Lothian Question” under which Scots ( and to lesser and different extents NI and Welsh MPs) can vote on English-only domestic measures but English MPs can’t vote on matters devolved to the three other jurisdictions. I could quarrel with nearly every sentence in Simon’s piece but the shock value is great.

The disintegration of England’s island union began when Ireland departed a century ago and is now progressing in the same direction. Salmond’s devo max is not a rerun of Bannockburn. It is a reasonable step down the road being taken by free peoples across Europe. In responding to it, England should grow up.

The piece was sparked by a little noticed passage in David Cameron’s Tory conference speech accusing Alex Salmond of being a “feardie” for ducking the barmy idea of a referendum on Scottish independence now.  Salmond replied with a Guardian interview.

His ire was provoked perhaps by a carefully scripted jibe by the prime minister at the Conservative party conference last week. At the party’s Scottish reception, Cameron called Salmond a “big feartie”, a scaredy-cat, for refusing to hold an independence referendum now rather than in three years’ time.

Salmond dismissed this as a “banality”, but his irritation was clear, fuelled by the Scottish National party’s landslide win in May’s elections for Holyrood. His anger did not appear synthetic. Scottish nationalists nurture a visceral dislike for English Tories.

Even so, Salmond – who acknowledged he does, partly at least, feel British – suggested he is willing to form alliances. He is prepared to compromise on introducing significant new powers for Scotland, despite deep reservations.

He is also willing to compromise on his referendum, with a second question to give Scotland economic autonomy without leaving the UK. On current polling, this measure is more likely than full separation to win majority support.

The trouble is, Salmond and the SNP have yet to spell out clearly what “devolution  max” actually entails. But Alan Trench who has been discussing it and the” two questions” referendum issue in his blog Devolution Matters for some time now.( See The new National Assembly; making the institution match its role” model 4. 22 Sept)

Model 4: ‘Full autonomy’, with the regional level having pretty much complete autonomy over matters other than foreign relations, defence, macro-economy (currency and similar issues). It would make all decisions about such matters as welfare benefits, tax rates and charges, whether there should be a health service, what that would do and how it would be organised. That, in effect, is what the ‘devolution max’ option under discussion for Scotland would involve.

With Cameron just jeering at the SNP, Salmond is strategically on win:win at the moment. If he fails to get devo max (which the present Scotland Bill falls well short of), he can play the victim. If he were somehow to get it, he could either settle for it as a triumph or treat it as a major step to the fulfilment of his quite soft view of an independent Scotland in a “ social union” with England  and affecting the rest of  ”these islands”, as described here by the SNP leader at Westminster Angus Robertson.

“Twenty-first century independence will be good for people in Scotland. I think it will also be transformative for people in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.”

So roll back to the vision of IONA, “Islands Of The North Atlantic?

In the meantime let’s quietly forget the looming black hole in Scottish finances which the SNP can safely dismiss as largely a myth, for as long as they think they can blame the Whitehall system for it.



Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London

Living History 1968-74

A unique, once-in-a-lifetime 10-week course at Stranmillis University College Belfast featuring live, in-depth interviews with leading figures from this tumultuous era in Northern Ireland’s cultural and political history.

Live interviews with: Bernadette McAliskey, Austin Currie, Brid Rogers, Baroness Blood, Dennis Bradley, Baroness Paisley, Lord Kilclooney, Tim McGarry, Danny Morrison, Sir Kenneth Bloomfield and others…

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