Shortly before Scotland went to the polls, Messer’s Cameron, Clegg and Miliband signed a “vow” which appeared on the front page of the Daily Record on 15th September 2014. The contents and subsequent interpretations of this “vow” are now framing the discussion of Scotland’s constitutional future.
Before we go any further, let’s remind ourselves of what the “vow” actually said.
“The people of Scotland want to know that all three main parties will deliver change for Scotland.
We are agreed that:
The Scottish Parliament is permanent and extensive new powers for the Parliament will be delivered by the process and to the timetable agreed and announced by our three parties, starting on 19th September.
And it is our hope that the people of Scotland will be engaged directly as each party works to improve the way we are governed in the UK in the years ahead.
We agree that the UK exists to ensure opportunity and security for all by sharing our resources equitably across all four nations to secure the defence, prosperity and welfare of every citizen.
And because of the continuation of the Barnett allocation for resources, and the powers of the Scottish Parliament to raise revenue, we can state categorically that the final say on how much is spent on the NHS will be a matter for the Scottish Parliament.
We believe that the arguments that so powerfully make the case for staying together in the UK should underpin our future as a country. We will honour those principles and values not only before the referendum but after.
People want to see change. A No vote will deliver faster, safer and better change than separation.”
The first interpretation and promotion of the “vow” comes from the pro-independence camp. If you only consumed information from this camp, then you would belief that the above pre-referendum “vow” promised a form of devo-max where everything except defence, foreign policy and the constitution is devolved.
The promotion of this interpretation is two-fold. Firstly the belief amongst some Yes campaigners that it was the ‘Vow that won it’. This is despite analysis from Edinburgh University and others that suggested the “vow” had a limited impact on voters final decision. Secondly, and certainly more importantly, the Yes sides desire to, understandably, frame future conversations.
By pushing the idea that the pre-referendum “vow” equals devo-max, the Yes side are deliberately raising expectation levels among Scottish voters, particularly given the unionist parties understandable inability to present a united devolution front at this time. The simple reason being that when, as is likely, further powers are devolved, they will almost certainly be some way short of devo-max. This then enables Yes campaigners to cry ‘we told you so’ and re-opens the independence debate.
This interpretation promotes the idea of some form of limited ‘Home Rule’ (not devo-max) within the UK based on a Labour Party vision for Scotland. A vision that arguably and currently contains less devolution than that offered by the other two main UK political parties pre-referendum. This interpretation is being presented by former PM Gordon Brown and was on show during yesterday’s House of Commons debate on Scotland.
Again, this interpretation is preparing the ground for party political reasons. Scarred by the numbers of Labour voters that supported independence and perpetually struggling with internal divisions, promoters are suggesting that any package of powers recommended by the Smith Commission and agreed/rejected by the UK Coalition Government will fall short of what Scotland (read Labour voters) believed it was going to get.
By doing so, advocates are readying the ground, yet again, to blame the Tories. This core vote message slots in nicely with the expected and well-trodden Labour anti-Tory election messaging in Scotland ahead of May’s UK General Election.
This interpretation is being pushed by English Tory MPs on the back of the Prime Minister’s speech on the morning of the 19th September where Cameron resurrected English votes for English Laws (EVEL). Under this interpretation, Scots can have further devolution once the correct processes (i.e. Smith Commission) are completed and only if EVEL is dealt with. As Sir George Young MP and others pointed out during yesterday’s House of Commons debate, there is already two classes of MPs at Westminster.
This interpretation is again setting the scene but at a UK rather than Scottish level. If Scotland is to get further devolution, then England must get recognition too. How this is done is up for discussion. But, by banging on about EVEL as much as possible, English Tories are attempting to force Labour into taking a stance it really doesn’t want too. If Labour were to accept EVEL, it could potentially limit any future UK Labour government’s ability to pass reform in key policy areas such as health and education. However, rejecting EVEL portrays them as anti-English rights ahead of a very close General Election in May.
An alternate interpretation:
That the “vow” was nothing new and was more of a repackaged reiteration of what had already been said by the unionist parties during the long campaign. The above “vow” was not a commitment to anything other than some form of further devolution of as yet defined powers at some point in the foreseeable future.
In other words, when Messer’s Cameron, Clegg and Miliband signed the “vow”, they were essentially saying ‘we’ll get back to you with something pre May’s General Election’.
The Smith Commission is now fulfilling that “vow”.