Charles Kennedy: Why our destiny must lie in the direction of the F-word

Charles Kennedy writes on a federal future with a stronger Scotland within the UK. This article originally appeared in the Herald newspaper:

A long-standing friend, an avowed nationalist, has been fond of joking over many years that, come the Great Day of Freedom, any government of a new-found, truly independent Scotland would have but one policy to pursue:

to carry the rest of us with them and to hold our varied and disputatious airts and pairts together and immediately retake Berwick Upon Tweed.

I stress that he is joking but, whichever side you incline towards and whatever the outcome proves to be, an acid party political and national challenge awaits us all the morning after. Doubtless a lengthy period of reflection, elements of recrimination and a shared sense of self-analysis will ensue. Curiously, given the way the campaign has developed, this is one contest that cannot end clearly and neatly with to the winner the spoils.

If Yes triumphs, the hard work really gets underway in giving reality to the independence rhetoric; if the Union maintains, we Better Togetherists had better get together sharpish, on a more broadly-based platform drawing from the experiences of the pre-devolution Constitutional Convention, elements of Third Scotland and the like. Nationalists should be ready to play a full and constructive role.

The real curiosity however is not simply a role for all post-referendum; instead it is the extent to which far more attention will have to be paid to what happens within and across the future Scotland, regardless of the result. An agenda is emerging that can be as relevant to a Scotland inside or outside the UK.

In the pre-devolution days of one- party Tory domination there was much legitimate railing against the excessive concentration of power within Whitehall. The centre accrued and amassed while the periphery lost out. Holyrood represented an emphatic emancipation from the power of centralisers. Yet look at the Scotland that has been developing and ask: where lies that aspiration today?

Our emergency services have been made national, more centralised and less regionally accountable. Consider the furore over armed police and wonder if that (unstated until unveiled) policy would have got so far under previous, more localised structures. Ponder the plight of our so-called local authorities and reflect upon the extent to which frozen council tax concordats with central government serve to enhance local accountability and diverse innovation more tailored to community needs.

Observe the way in which senior academics have felt the need to stress the essential independence of our universities and the right to protect academic curriculum freedoms that may diverge from national economic guidelines laid down by the prevailing political orthodoxy.

These substantial trends serve to change the culture and the nature of our varied and often contradictory small nation. It is a direction of travel that will yet leave us all diminished as individualistic Scots and lead to an ever increasing tendency in the direction of central diktat accompanied by the longer-term dangers of a developing civic poverty.

The chain of command is top down, the culture target-driven. The derivatives, from the tick box methodology to the growing Leviathan of key performance indicators holds sway. And too much of what I hear and read of the independence version of Scotland's future seems predicated on still further imposition by the "new centre" on the rest of us, individuals and communities alike.

I am into my fourth decade of Scottish parliamentary representation at Westminster and I do not detect positive omens from the vantage point of the Highlands and Islands either. Moving the Second Reading of the Bill that established the Highlands & Islands Development Board (Liberal measures enacted by Labour men) in the mid 1960s, Scottish Secretary Willie Ross felt moved to describe the Highlander as "the man on Scotland's conscience." I doubt somehow that such a touching rumination could sit easily alongside the reality of ministerial decision-making under our present governing ethos. Highlands & Islands Enterprise has seen important powers moved to Edinburgh, the Crofting Commission similarily. Taken with the other national trends, these represent a diminution of our distinctive agenda and capacity to determine it closer to home.

This has posed a referendum campaign challenge but it equally presents a post-referendum political opportunity. The challenge has been for Labour to strike the correct note that addresses its central concern, the alienation of hitherto (mainly male) Labour central belt voters toying with voting for independence. That, of course, is where the bulk of the votes lie. The problem is that the rhetoric and messaging associated with that task do not greatly resonate on the wider Scotland, be that the Highlands and Islands, the north-east or across the Borders.

The opportunity must be to persuade that massive national hinterland that a wider and deeper recognition of Scottish diversity must inform post-referendum policy and decision-making. Nelson Mandela described his country as "the rainbow nation". Our own, as Commonwealth visitors have yet to discover, is more akin to the four seasons in one day variety. Little wonder that such fickleness demands something other than the one-size-fits-all where the business of governance is involved.

These dilemmas are not insuperable. A post-referendum Westminster, with Scotland a continuing participant, must try to encourage if not ensure that the further transfer of powers to Holyrood does not stop there; that at least within the Better Together parties there must be a will to win the argument that pursuing a rolling back reaches beyond Edinburgh to our other great cities, regions and islands. Indeed, the islands' authorities have lit the torch. regardless of the outcome, they seem likely to anticipate a greater say in their own day-to-day decision-making. Let that principle be given practical effect for the rest of the mainland.

The wider Scotland should retain its critical faculties where the prospect of an independent Scotland is concerned. Throughout this campaign, whenever policy trickiness has arisen, the Yes campaign has been keen to stress that it is not the SNP; a bit like the Catholic Church suggesting it has no responsibility for the latest Papal utterance. Time and again, the refrain that the future political governance of our land will be decided solely by Scots voting freely in an independent country has become conflated with a menu of supposedly desirable policies that seem guaranteed come what may. These twin assertions do not add up.

All of which leads to the F-word: federalism within and across Scotland; federalism throughout the wider, developing UK. That is where we are heading, in fits and starts, in a very British way. It is a process that can and should follow on from September 18; which is one reason why, on balance, the good burghers of Berwick, be they Uppers or Dooners, may yet legitimately sleep secure.

Share this post on social media:

Sign in with Facebook, Twitter or Email.