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Alex Salmond and the future governance of Scotland

Alex Salmond is officially First Minister of Scotland and head of the Scottish Executive. According to the distinguished writer and journalist Magnus Linklater, writing in the Times, Salmond no longer refers to ‘the Executive’ and simply talks of the ‘Scottish government’. In the year of the 300th Anniversary of the Act of Union (a union entered into the by Scots to better protect and defend the Scottish nation), Salmond published on the 14th August, a draft white paper on further constitutional reform. What is going on?

Salmond is an interesting politician with ‘the gift of the gab’. He is head of a minority government that has been in office only a few months. During the elections he also campaigned for an English Parliament, trying to sow discontent amongst English MPs at Westminster where Scots are now over-represented given the devolved powers of the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh. He has now turned the tables on the opposition (full independence and an independence referendum is opposed by the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Parties in Scotland and their joint announcement was made in advance of full knowledge of the draft proposals) by launching what he calls a ‘national conversation’. Salmond has done so in a manner that appeals directly and convincingly to Scottish cultural values:

‘Divergent views are the very essence of democracy; robust debate is part of what makes us Scottish. The exchanges, the premises and the debate must be passionate — how else could it be in Scotland? But let these contributions be based on fact, reason, logic, rather than smears, allegations or misinformation. Scotland deserves no less’.

This is the sort of self-image that Scots like and the notion of a debate founded on passion and balanced out by reason has wide appeal. The present Parliament is itself the long-term outcome of a National Convention. The other parties cannot refuse a debate least they look complacent, content with the status quo. Salmond is for independence but the debate will be about a range of options for extending the powers of the Parliament. Salmond’s strategy has already upset the political balance and has precipitated the resignation of the Labour Leader, Jack McConnell. Faced with Salmond’s ‘no change is not an option’ the Labour leadership looked out-of-touch. Given that the Scot Nats seem to be worrying the Labour Party in Scotland so successfully (Labour had been the predominant party in Scotland for nearly fifty years, till the Scot Nats secured their marginal lead in the Parliament in Edinburgh), debate in Scotland is likely to be lively.

The United Kingdom is and has always been a bit of a compromise: it is neither quite a unitary state nor is it a federal state. Gordon Brown is aware of the political as well as the constitutional issues. What could be uppermost in his mind politically is the extent to which his UK government is based on the support of Labour MPs returned from Scottish constituencies. If the Scottish Labour Party is seen to be out-of-touch or in disarray, then Gordon Brown is constrained with respect to the timing of any general election. Constitutionally, neither independence nor reform of the Scottish system of government is a devolved issue. The UK Parliament is the constitutional authority. In calling for a ‘national debate’ in Scotland, Salmond is well within his rights but there needs to be a UK discussion too. Brown, who is also a Scot, talked publically about ‘Britishness’ prior to becoming Prime Minister. He has promised action on constitutional issues but Salmond has stolen a significant march on him. On devolution alone there is a lot to sort out. Prior to the elections to the Scottish Parliament, Brown said that he would not work with Salmond and his party. Of course he must and Salmond has just made it clear why.