One of the disappointments of the first two decades of devolution, reflected Lord McConnell on Wednesday morning, was the unfulfilled hope that a new, more constructive and collaborative politics would emerge in Scotland.
Devolution’s architects specifically designed an electoral system with a proportional element, believing this would avoid domineering majority governments and instead lead to cross-party coalitions and power sharing. The debating chamber at Holyrood was given a continental horseshoe shape, rather than Westminster’s deliberately confrontational two-swords’-length set up.
But giving a speech for my think tank, Reform Scotland, to mark the 20th anniversary of the first Holyrood election, Lord McConnell – first minister from 2001 to 2007 – lamented that MSPs had instead largely embraced the tribe-first, whack-a-mole habits found in the Commons.
It appears that Nicola Sturgeon was listening. When the First Minister got to her feet in the chamber on Wednesday afternoon to deliver a much-anticipated speech on her future plans for independence, she made an offer to the opposition parties.
The Brexit process, Sturgeon said, has proved the constitutional status quo is “broken”. “There is no denying that Brexit has exposed a deep democratic deficit at the heart of how Scotland is governed,” said the First Minister. “And – whatever our different views on independence – it should persuade all of us that we need a more solid foundation on which to build our future as a country.”
Even if the opposition parties couldn’t commit to the idea of a separate Scotland, they should accept the devolution settlement in its current form is “utterly inadequate” and bring forward their own proposals to rectify the situation. This might involve the passing of new powers over the economy, trade and immigration from Westminster to Holyrood. She pointed to Scottish Labour’s recent call for employment law to be devolved.
“Perhaps there is already more common ground than we like to admit; a starting point that we can build and expand upon. The fact that we do not agree on Scotland’s ultimate destination should not stop us travelling together as far as we can.”
Mike Russell, the Scottish government’s constitutional affairs minister, has been charged with working with the other parties, and Sturgeon also talked of bringing in “a respected and independent individual who could broker such discussions”.
This was perhaps the most interesting part of a speech in which Sturgeon said she wants to hold an independence referendum before the current parliament ends in 2021. That statement was seen as little more than red meat for the SNP faithful who will gather in Edinburgh for the party’s spring conference this weekend.
In reality, no Westminster administration is likely to give its permission by then for a second vote. Sturgeon will have to win a pro-independence majority at the next devolved election, on a manifesto pledge to hold a referendum some time before 2026. And she won’t risk a vote until the polls show she will win one. They don’t show that, at present. Indeed, she said she would speak later this week about “further growing the support and demand for independence” – a realistic acceptance that this will take time, patience and effort.
So it seems like Sturgeon is instead hedging her bets. If she can’t have indyref2, she might at least be able to secure more powers for Holyrood, taking Scotland that bit closer to the exit door.
Scotland would “try to set an example of constructive, outward looking and respectful debate. We have seen in Westminster what happens when parties fail to work together. If others across this chamber are willing to move forward in that spirit, they will find in me an equally willing partner.
“Twenty years on from the establishment of this parliament I believe we can do better.”
Lord McConnell would agree. The question now is whether the opposition party leaders at Holyrood feel the same.