Political machinations

Lord Smith of Kelvin Image copyright PA
Image caption Lord Smith has been keen to engage with civic Scotland as well as politicians

The Smith Commission - which holds its first meeting with political party representatives today - is an intriguing creation, operating at different levels.

Firstly, what it is not. It is not the cross-party Constitutional Convention which paved the way to Scotland's Parliament in the first place - nor is it the Calman Commission which generated enhanced powers in the Scotland Act 2012.

For Lord Smith of Kelvin, "l'etat, c'est moi." He sits, alone and palely loitering. Alone, that is, apart from some of the smartest civil servants on these islands. Alone apart from the torrent of advice which will come his way, not least from the political leaders he will meet today.

Unlike the Convention, unlike Calman, this is not a cross-party body. It will not - at least overtly - involve a cross-party fix. The senior political figures - and they are decidedly senior - who attend today are interested advisers, not members.

Serious people

Robert Smith will take soundings with the stated aim (remember the vow - sorry, Vow?) of outlining a Heads of Agreement document by the end of November.

However, there is one point of correspondence between Smith and the earlier endeavours. In each case, those previous initiatives ended up being translated into law by the UK Parliament. Not entirely, not every dot and comma - but the substance of the Convention and the substance of Calman survived intact.

I believe firmly that Lord Smith will expect pretty much the same to happen this time. He will not take kindly if he is viewed as a remote think tank, advancing broad themes to be selected or ignored by Westminster or, more precisely, by the next UK government. Hence the close focus and concentration attaching to this endeavour at all levels. Serious people want to get this right, now.

And those levels? Firstly, public engagement. Lord Smith has shown a commendable eagerness to engage with civic Scotland inasmuch as the very tight time scale permits.

Image caption Representatives of five political parties are represented on the Lord Smith commission

Secondly, the political parties. They have each advanced their ideas. The pro-Union parties have, at this stage, broadly replicated the various ideas they set forth during the referendum.

The Scottish government has set out proposals for maximal devolution, involving full control of most taxation (with the notable exception being VAT which is reserved to member states under EU rules.) These proposals have been endorsed by the SNP: who'd have thought it? The Greens have contributed their thinking, founded on a desire for a different style of politics.

Thirdly, those civil servants - drawn from the Scottish government, the Treasury, the Cabinet Office and the Scottish Parliament.

All will advise Lord Smith. But perhaps the prime dynamic for change will come from the Scottish government civil servants corresponding with the Cabinet Office, with the Treasury, as ever, counselling caution. As one observer noted to me, the Treasury doesn't trust its colleagues in Whitehall, let alone devolved administrations.

One avenue of thought is that Lord Smith might be open to the concept of "powers for a purpose", rather than simply a basket of additional powers culled from the various parties' proposals.

If that avenue is pursued, then we might see a plan for the transfer of, say, control over income tax - followed by a search for concomitant powers (such as employment law or the minimum wage) which might give Holyrood real clout to affect the economy, rather than simply varying tax within a broad economic ambit still governed by Westminster.

The Treasury, to emphasise, will not be happy - firstly, with the devolution of income tax; secondly, with the talk of concomitant powers. Therein could lie the roots of substantial negotiation and discussion.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The Treasury may not be happy with Lord Smith's recommendations

Another avenue of thought in this sector is that Smith might be about both hard and soft powers: that there will be a transfer of precise new powers but that there might also be a new recognition of the role and status of the Scottish devolved institution within the body politic of the UK.

Fourthly, there is Lord Smith himself. As billed above, he is not inclined to play the role of post referendum patsy. He does not see himself as holding the jackets while the political parties reach a compromise, possibly reaching the lowest common denominator.

I have previously noted that there will be pressure upon the Labour Party to go further than its existing stance on more powers. It seems fairly certain that they will do so - not least because Labour politicians (G. Brown et al) were prominent in promulgating the vow (sorry, Vow).

But what about the SNP? This is new territory for them. Think of it. They are taking part in discussions where independence is explicitly off the table. That factor resulted in their withdrawal from the Convention at a very early stage. It meant they were not considered for Calman.

Now, post referendum, the Scottish government submission begins by accepting that independence has been rejected - for now. That liberates Scottish Ministers and the SNP to participate in the Smith process.

However, as noted, they participated in the very earliest preparatory phase of the Convention. Do I see them walking out of the Smith Commission, as they quit the Convention? I do not.

Offering ideas

For one thing, it is a folk memory in the SNP that their departure from the Convention was too precipitous. Yes, they would have ended up leaving because independence was ruled out as an option. But senior Nationalists - A. Salmond among them - would have preferred to pursue talks for longer in order to pin the blame for the fracture more firmly upon the Unionists.

Secondly, this is strategically different. The times are different: the SNP is a party of government. The timetable is different: it might just suit the SNP, depending upon how events develop.

It could work like this. The SNP stays engaged with Smith, offering ideas, pursuing its agenda - and perhaps, ultimately, conceding that no more can be obtained from the Unionists.

The Nationalists try everything. They pursue every avenue of discussion. They engage in talks. They submit papers. They accept every invitation to debate. Then, perhaps, they accept the compromise which emerges.

But with a caveat. Perhaps they end up saying: "This is the best which could be obtained. This is the most the Unionists are willing to offer. This is the furthest they will go. If you, the Scottish people, agree with us that it is insufficient, then you have the opportunity to cast your vote accordingly at the UK General Election in May."

In comparable fashion, the Conservatives are stressing the issue of English votes for English laws. One can almost hear David Cameron saying: "I wanted to give new powers to you, the good and sensible people of England. My political opponents sought to thwart me. Vote Tory."

Political machinations are rarely pure and never simple.

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