Finding the common ground

In the wake of Kezia Dugdale’s retirement from blogging, and having noted the often poisonous atmosphere that pervades some of the darkest corners of the Scottish blogosphere, I think now is a good time for me to come out with an idea that has been floating around in my head for the past few months.

This is an attempt to find the common ground in the constitutional viewpoints of SNP supporters and those of other persuasions. It recently struck me that we all have much more in common than we perhaps imagine.

The eureka moment came after I had a discussion in the pub with a card-carrying SNP member and full-on nationalist. We both sought to gain a good understanding of each other’s views and as the conversation went on we found that we had a lot more in common than we felt at first glance.

I set out my federalist position, using the opportunity to point out that the SNP, too, shares my view that having different powers at different levels of government can be a desirable thing. For instance, it is well-known that the SNP would wish for an independent Scotland to be a member of the European Union.

Furthermore, under current SNP policy, a very important policy instrument would never be controlled by Scotland. The SNP recognises that Scotland is not an optimal currency area, thanks to the large amount of trade Scotland does with the rest of the UK and the rest of the EU. Most likely, an SNP-designed independent Scotland would continue to use sterling in the short-to-medium term while adopting the euro in the longer term future. This means that monetary policy would be set either in London or in Frankfurt, not Edinburgh.

Already we see that the independence issue is not so black-and-white as some of the debates might lead you to believe. The SNP do not support full independence. I am sure that there are some people on the fringes who do, but they are thin on the ground and are certainly not represented in mainstream politics.

That means that there is not actually a great deal that separates the SNP from the ‘unionist’ parties. All of the major parties believe a similar thing. Admittedly they do so to varying degrees. At one end we have the Labour and Conservative position of maybe considering a greater degree of fiscal federalism. At the other, we have the likes of the Greens who want more powers for local government in addition to the Scottish Parliament. And the Lib Dems have long supported federalist solutions.

From my perspective, this is actually pretty damn close to being a consensus in Scottish politics. The introduction of a Scottish Parliament was almost seen as a given in 1997, but even then the Conservatives had a good bash at running a ‘no’ campaign. Were there to be a referendum on having increased fiscal powers for the Scottish Parliament a few years down the line, surely any ‘no’ campaign would be a pathetic laughing stock. Certainly, anyone calling for the abolition of the Scottish Parliament would be totally ignored.

It seems to me that most people now have very similar viewpoints on Scotland’s near-future constitutional direction. The differences are almost a matter of semantics, or at least of niggly details.

That was the conclusion I came to in the pub during this discussion. My nationalist sparring partner, if I understood him correctly, was more or less saying that once Scotland had fiscal powers it was more-or-less independent enough anyway. He was telling me, as a Lib Dem sympathiser, that given this huge amount of common ground the Lib Dems ought to be working with the SNP to try and advance these ideas.

In May 2007 I understood and supported the Lib Dems’ decision not to go into coalition with the SNP. There was a damaging perception that the Lib Dems would just get into bed with anyone so it was a good idea to try and put the lid on that. The flip-side, though, is that the Lib Dems are beginning to like an appendage of the Labour Party — and this isn’t the time to be that.

Worse still, particularly given the large amounts of common ground between the SNP and the Lib Dems on a variety of different issues, the Lib Dems are beginning to look like the sulky party. I am starting to think it would be much more constructive for the Lib Dems to start working with the SNP. Of course, given the relative success of the SNP minority administration so far, it wouldn’t be surprising if the SNP just thumbed their nose at any Lib Dem approach.

All-round, it is beginning to look like a huge missed opportunity. That underlines why I think we need to start focusing on the common ground rather than the minor differences and the petty squabbles.

Scotland sorely needs a proper national conversation right now. Unfortunately, the way things have worked out, we are having two conversations in tandem and the risk is that everyone is just preaching to the converted without actually taking in what ‘the others’ are saying. It’s not very constructive.

I think if everyone ditched the political posturing and the party rhetoric, the politicians and the people would probably find a lot to agree with. Am I right, or do you think I’m being a bit wide-eyed and naive? I want to try and find out.

Here is what I propose. As a starting point, I am going to ask if everyone believes that different powers should be held at different levels. This could be Scotland as part of the EU, Scotland as part of the UK and the EU, or whatever other permutations you care to come up with. I have already noted that I think almost everyone agrees with the principle of this. Am I wrong?

Once we get past the first hurdle, I want to understand why people believe that certain powers should be held by certain institutions. What powers should the Scottish Parliament have? In which areas would it be acceptable for Westminster to retain control? What would be the ideal role of the EU? If you think Westminster should be taken out of the equation completely, what is the reasoning behind that? I don’t necessarily want this to be a game of ‘fantasy constitution’. I’m only interested in realistic ideas.

I’ll post what I think the answers to these questions are within the next day. I hope some other bloggers join in so that we can see where we all agree and get a proper handle on where the disagreements come from.


  1. I’d absolutely stay clear of those corrupt barstewards in the EU whatever Scotland’s future. And the least amount of government the better. Whether that’s a Westminster one, or a wee pretendy parliament one, I don’t really care. We shouldn’t have both though.