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Politicians must listen to Scottish people’s clear views on home rule

This article by Ben Thomson appeared in the Herald.

 

The Campaign for Scottish Home Rule was always absolutely clear that we had to involve people from across Scotland in the debate about Scotland’s constitutional future.  The campaign’s steering group, including people from across the political spectrum and from outwith party politics, agreed a set of principles which should underpin any future constitutional settlement and these formed the basis of our submission to the Smith Commission.  However, we always wanted to test our principles to see if others agreed.

Such engagement is also in tune with the new mood of participative democracy ushered in by the referendum campaign.  People will no longer unquestioningly accept decisions handed down from on high.  They want to be involved in debating issues and also feel that their views have been listened to and taken into account in the decision-making process.  So, since the New Year, we have carried out our own consultation process, staging events across the country from Inverness to London, to hear what people thought.  We also carried out an online survey which generated 1,512 responses.

I am delighted that so many people took the trouble to respond to our survey and would like to thank them and all the people who came to our consultation events.  The online survey has thrown up some fascinating results, with 84 per cent of all those responding believing that the proposals of the Smith Commission did not go far enough and 87 per cent wanting more powers to be devolved. 88 per cent thought that Holyrood and Westminster should both raise the money that they spend and 81 per cent wanted to see a written constitution.

Interestingly, when analysing the responsibilities people thought should remain at Westminster, the top six were defence, national security, foreign affairs, outer space, currency and war pensions.  In contrast, over 95 per cent thought that areas such as drug misuse, betting, energy, transportation and social security should not be reserved.

While I accept that those who responded to our survey were self-selecting, it shows there is a real desire for a meaningful Home Rule settlement which gives us far more power to shape our own future.

It is instructive to compare our consultation with that of the Smith Commission.  Lord Smith set out his admirable intentions in his submission to the UK Government in November last year when he stated that he “was determined that the voices of civic institutions, organisations and groups and of the public would be heard……”.  Following the referendum, the response to the call for submissions from the public was enormous and in the four weeks up to 31st October over 18,000 people and organisations voiced their opinion.  However, it seems the Smith Commission did not really listen to those opinions.

The Smith Commission’s own analysis of the data was quietly put up on its website and this analysis showed that the views of the public were very different from the deal eventually brokered by Lord Smith.  This is not to take anything away from the Commission’s achievement in reaching an agreement between the politicians but, as we know, it was a compromise. What we also now know is that it was a missed opportunity to listen to what the public was saying.

What was actually offered in new powers fell far short of what the public was calling for in their submissions.  The Smith Commission largely ignored its consultation, showing its recommendations were a result of horse-trading between the political parties.  To this end, the Smith Commission was not only a missed opportunity to help the Scottish Parliament raise the money it spends; but, more importantly, a missed opportunity to listen to the people of Scotland.

That is also the conclusion of the recent study by the University of Edinburgh’s Academy of Governance.  When commenting on the Smith Commission’s engagement process it said that ‘Despite the impressive distilling of such submissions, the public and civic society was not meaningfully or fully incorporated into this process.  The engagement process, despite being admirable in the context of the constraints it had placed upon it, remained superficial.’

So the lesson from all this is simple.  If you hold a consultation to garner the views of the public, then you need to listen to what they say and respond to it in some way, rather than simply pretending it doesn’t exist.  Otherwise, why bother with the consultation in the first place.  The public will, rightly, be more annoyed if they take the time to give their views and they are ignored than if they are not given the opportunity to have their say.

The views of people in Scotland are clear.  Our own data, along with the Smith Commission’s own analysis of its submissions, adds to the weight of poll after poll showing that the majority of people in Scotland want a fair and meaningful Home Rule settlement.  We will have to wait and see whether the politicians listen.

This article appeared in The Herald on 28 March 2015.