Tough challenges

Saltire flag Image copyright PA
Image caption Where Scotland is going will be decided in autumn 2014

Jeremy Purvis was a thoughtful, intelligent member of the Scottish Parliament in the Liberal Democrat interest, dealing primarily with financial matters, before his party succumbed to a hurricane of voter disquiet last year.

Given the extent of the defeat, there must have been moments when he felt like hiding in a cupboard for a spell before emerging to eschew politics in all forms.

Not Jeremy. Instead, he has immersed himself in the search for a constitutional alternative to independence which might command widespread support. He leads a cross-party group which advocates Devo Plus - or enhanced powers for the Scottish Parliament, particularly in the field of tax.

His contributions - including the latest, published today - are intelligent and thoughtful, in keeping with his previous efforts as an elected MSP.

However, I fear he may have taken on a particularly tough challenge with this latest manifestation of his group's plans.

The objective, as I understand it, is to get the three Unionist parties - Labour, Conservative, Lib Dem - to commit jointly to a particular vision for devolution reform, to evangelise that shared vision prior to the independence referendum and to insert common wording in each party manifesto for the next Holyrood elections in 2015.

Big players

Today's report envisages a "New Union" - with powers permanently vested in Holyrood, including the ability to raise the majority of its expenditure.

Mr Purvis believes that he has solved the conundrum of entrenching devolution against the sovereignty of Westminster - a puzzle which defeated the Constitutional Convention.

Now, to be clear, Mr Purvis is not working alone. Devo Plus started as an initiative by the think tank Reform Scotland and its energetic chair, Ben Thomson.

Further, the group which Mr Purvis corrals involves notably senior and reflective MSPs, each big players in their own parties: Alex Fergusson, Tavish Scott and Duncan McNeil.

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Image caption Tory leader Ruth Davidson talked of a "line in the sand"

However, that involvement on a personal basis does not guarantee support for Devo Plus from the party leaders. It means simply that each party is sufficiently interested to be involved.

Of the three parties, the Liberal Democrats are arguably the most enthusiastic for Devo Plus - and not just because Jeremy Purvis is one of their number.

The Lib Dems have customarily ridden point on the constitution, advocating federalism when others were cautious about devolution. As things stand, the Lib Dems already have a plan in place, generated by Ming Campbell's commission.

For the others, it is rather different. I expect both Labour and the Conservatives to respond, in practice, with considerable caution to Mr Purvis' report. Indeed, one insider told me bluntly: "This isn't going to happen."

For why? For a range of reasons. There are those who will argue, privately, that Devo Plus is a damaging distraction when the focus should be upon defeating the option of independence.

They will say that the Unionists simply have to pose endless questions to the SNP, obliging Alex Salmond to come up with endless answers. Why, they will say, muddy the water with a debate on the Unionist side about alternatives to the current settlement?

There are others who accept that it will almost certainly be necessary for additional powers for Holyrood to be on offer, in outline, prior to the 2014 referendum - but even in this regard there is no uniformity.

Time to talk

Broadly, the Tories are sceptical about the necessity to move too far at this stage. That is Ruth Davidson's instinctive position - remember her "line in the sand" declaration during the Conservative leadership contest. A position since modified in the light of events - but not much.

The Tory position right now, again very broadly, is that all the focus should be on defeating the Nationalists in the referendum. Should that be secured, the focus shifts to implementing the details of the Scotland Act with its borrowing and new tax powers.

Then - and perhaps only then - it might be time to talk about possible additional powers.

Labour has a different approach - and one which is likely to lead to disparity, rather than uniformity. Labour has a constitutional commission of its own - which is due to outline an interim report at the party conference next Spring.

But that will not be the final word. Labour strategists fret that, if they show their hand too soon, such policies will in effect be discounted by the time of the referendum in 2014. So expect a comprehensive Labour offer rather closer to the referendum itself.

It might be neater, it might well be easier to explain, it might be more coherent on the campaign trail, if all three Unionist parties could reach a common goal.

But I do not believe, at this stage, that it is likely to happen. Not least because they would be likely to disagree over the fundamentals and the detail. Which, some might argue, would scarcely help their cause.