Much of the answer to the Federal UK question may well rest on the result of the upcoming Inverclyde by-election.
In the near term at least this can be viewed as a very legitimate perspective. To see Inverclyde in the bigger picture it’s necessary to look at the events of the last few months, where an “impregnable” labour majority in the polls was not only overturned during the run up to the Scottish elections, but by viewing the electoral map of constituency seats it’s reasonable to say it was virtually annihilated. The response by the Union parties to May’s landslide victory by the SNP in the Scottish GE has been disorganized, haphazard, ad-hoc and scatterbrained - to put it into its best possible light. Nobody seems able to deal with what had just happened. Remember the shock and awe reactions exhibited by the commentators on the BBC on election night as the results came pouring in? Some at Pacific Quay were almost reduced to on-air tears. Yet this was Scotland’s voice and Scotland had spoken.
Would the Union proponents listen?
Initial reaction said yes, as Cameron came out loudly declaring that Scotland’s referendum wishes would be respected. In reality he had no choice, for although Scotland lives under what should be an almost unbreakable international treaty, that treaty has arguably been broached enough times to be void. Scotland simply hadn’t had anyone prepared to stand up for her rights before - until now. The times are changing, and lack of cohesiveness in the Union ranks was quickly exemplified as Michael Moor, our erstwhile Irish born Secretary of State for Scotland, ludicrously announced that Scotland would need two referendums. Other sources at Westminster kept relatively quiet on these statements, though the Scottish Government certainly voiced its opinion. The UN also weighed in through precedent, namely Kosovo, re-enforcing the articles in the UN charter. Sadly David Mundell didn’t appear to think these minor technicalities required reference as he waded in after his boss.
There have been arguments about what will go into a referendum ballot – all the way down to who will choose the form of the questions to be asked. These arguments are pointless, and appear to mainly exist as a way to fill column inches and attempt to stave off the impending demise of daily print media. The questions will be decided in Scotland, as will the timing.
The “Save the Union” campaign also appears to have difficulty in finding a champion. All fingers in the Union camp appeared to be nominating a single individual. The MSM dutifully filled column inches to enhance and reinforce the nomination, all seemed to be going well – credentials were marched out, achievements were lauded, accomplishments feted, at least until John Reid quietly informed the union camp “thanks, but no thanks – too busy chaps”.(House training his Ermine, no doubt!). “Save the Union” is still in turmoil, or as its proponents want to put it “Vote [Yes] to keep Scotland in the Union” – another less than subtle attempt to hijack the wording of the referendum campaign.
With Labour the official opposition in Scotland, although consistently declining in vote share by anywhere up to 5% at every Holyrood Election, it was worth waiting and watching to see what direction the party of the Red Rose would take.
After May’s disaster, would Labour retain the existing policy and format of a United Kingdom – no other choice given to us? Or would they start to reflect, and perhaps for the first time in many years, at least appear to put a nation above special interests, either their own or their benefactors?
The first inkling of the response of the red rose came this week in the form of an official comment by one Eric Joyce, MP, and his statement basically being that a need for a Federal UK (F-UK) was becoming apparent. Eric Joyce may only be a back bencher, but his comments have seen reasonably wide circulation in the MSM in the past. With a reasonably short timeframe allowed to gauge the response to the F-UK comments by Mr. Joyce, possibly look at internal feedback, see what folks were saying on its website, checking for outrage and potentially discovering surprisingly little, Labour had a possible direction. The next individual to be paraded before the media hounds was George Foulkes. An apparent step up the ladder, for whereas Eric Joyce could be discarded as an independent voice / personal opinion if the feedback was hostile, this becomes increasingly difficult as more senior voices are added.
Little Happens By Accident.
What can be projected with the timing of these announcements right before the Inverclyde by-election is that little happens by accident. Labour is likely testing the waters of a Federal system as a potential way to preserve the path to the ermine. There is likely to be little more heard about an F-UK from the party apparatchiks until after the Inverclyde election at least. However, Inverclyde may well quietly assume the significance of a turning point in Scotland’s story - as quietly profound in its own way - as May 5th 2011.
That would put both Labour and the Lib-Dems potentially in alliance as to a Federal UK, especially so after Willie Rennies’ reported comments last week about the demise of the present UK being no longer just a theoretical possibility. The Lib-Dem’s have never formally abandoned federalism.
The media has largely been ignoring Inverclyde, in England there’s barely a mention. In Scotland, unless you live there, it’s not exactly the daily headline news of the last week. It is entirely probable that this lack of media coverage is directly due to the May 5th result. Reporting a second very bloody nose for Labour within two months is not what Scotland’s MSM has historically been anxious to do.
Look for three potentialities from Inverclyde.
Firstly is a Labour win with a majority equal to, greater than, or within a very few percentage points of their UK-GE result there. In this scenario expect the F-UK dialogue from Labour to be muted, perhaps to largely disappear for a time with the 2011 Scottish GE results beginning to be viewed as a “blip” or “aberration”. Business as usual would likely be the order of the day. Do not expect the MSM to pursue the F-UK question.
Secondly, this outcome has the incumbent party retaining the seat with a substantially slimmer majority. Should this happen we can expect a few more voices added to the F-UK bandwagon. The waters will continue to be tested, there may even be a vote, but unless Labour’s backers decide it is in their best interest that vote may be engineered to fail. After all, Labour still won.
Thirdly, this scenario has the SNP winning the seat; this would require a highly substantial swing and will send shockwaves through Westminster, not just Labour. A similar swing in England would be national headlines for weeks and potentially cause major policy reviews. The best we can hope for in Scotland is that it will force Labour to formally adopt the Federal UK path.
With an SNP win expect more F-UK noises from increasingly senior Labour members, possibly culminating in a vote, or perhaps simply a statement at the next party conference. Expect it within a few short months. One thing is clear, while the Labour party in Scotland, and Labour UK are presently leaderless, directionless, and largely clueless with respect to Scotland and her present political position, they will not always be so. Already Labour is testing the waters to find the path of least resistance back to the positions of power. Inverclyde is the first, and perhaps most significant test on the road for it has the potential to force the Labour party on a federal path from which there will be no retuning for either them, or the UK.
Inverclyde can decide the parameters of the third question – is it to be a fight and a wrangle in which Calman and the current Scotland Bill languish until the referendum as “the best way forward”, or is it be full fiscal autonomy and a Federal UK supported by the Union Parties. From a Union perspective, F-UK would certainly be better than No-UK.
Alex Salmond would likely be forced to support an F-UK as a third option irrespective of personal feelings, it is unlikely to be politically expedient to do otherwise. He may have a stark choice between statesman and obstructionist. Scotland should have a largely Union supported path to referendum. In many ways the path of independence will be decided by the people of Inverclyde based around their purely local issues and questions while the rest of us simply watch, hope, pray or fear depending upon our perspectives.