AS a new year begins there have been several interesting interventions in the debate about Scotland’s constitutional future. Some have been arrogant and ill-informed, such as Adam Boulton’s comment that Scots should not criticise Blair’s knighthood because he “gave Scotland back its Parliament”.

As a former political correspondent, he really ought to know that Blair did so with reluctance and only because of the irresistible groundswell of support that had built up in Scotland over 18 years of Tory rule.

Then the “heir to Blair”, and another knight of the realm, Keir Starmer, stood beside two very big Union Jacks, to tell us about how we are “better together” in our wonderful “union of nations” while at the same time eulogising “our country” (which country?) and Britain as a “nation”.

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Language is important when you are lecturing people about respect. But more importantly, the leader of the Labour Party needs to realise that putting Gordon Brown in charge of a “Commission on the Future of the UK” does not begin to address the facts that polling consistently shows around 50% support for independence and that, after the broken promises of 2014, Gordon Brown is a busted flush.

Comment pieces from the pro-independence side of the debate have been no less controversial. Chris Hanlon’s think piece in this newspaper about including devo-max as an option in a second indyref was met with an almost universally adverse reaction including some very unparliamentary language from parliamentarians.

A slightly less controversial contribution came from Kevin Pringle in his Sunday column in another newspaper. Alex Salmond’s former spin doctor argued that the SNP should support Alba’s policy of holding a constitutional convention, which was originally proposed by the First Minister in her Brexit Day speech on January 31, 2020, and presumably delayed only by the pandemic.

The National:

I’d like to say a word in defence of Chris Hanlon (above). The idea that he is floating a kite for the SNP leadership is, I am, sure wrong. First, he is no longer the policy convenor of the party. Second, he lost that position to someone who I understand was the leadership’s preferred candidate. And third, when he was elected to the NEC in 2020 it was on a reform ticket as part of the SNP Common Weal Group so he can hardly be described as a leadership stooge.

That said, he has previously been the author of some very good policy ideas such as holding citizens’ assemblies, which the leadership subsequently adopted. However, I think he’s on his own with this one.

People should be able to write think pieces and float ideas without being shot down in flames. We need people to think outside the box even if it means they come up with ideas with which we don’t necessarily agree. At present there is not enough thinking and debating of ideas about the path to independence going on in the SNP and if this is not happening at the level of the NEC or conference, then it will happen elsewhere. Nature abhors a vacuum.

That said, I do not believe there are any circumstances in which the SNP should push for devo-max as an option in the next independence referendum.

The National:

In 2012 Alex Salmond put forward the idea of a multi-option referendum as a negotiating tool. His tactic was to present the Tories with a less palatable option so that they would capitulate and give him the Section 30 order he wanted. It worked.

A decade later, from the point of those of us who still seek independence, there are numerous practical objections to including devo-max as an option. These have been addressed elsewhere including by David Pratt in his column yesterday. They include confusing the public and splitting the vote with an uncertain as opposed to a decisive result. Polling conducted in 2019 showed that the vast majority, 70%, wanted the same question to be asked in a second indyref. I think they are right.

Besides, things have changed since 2012 in several very significant respects. Whereas then devo-max was probably the preferred option of the Scottish electorate, polling now shows support for independence consistently around 50%.

Secondly, for better or worse, so far as any negotiations go, the SNP’s cards are now firmly on the table. You would need to have come from Mars to not know that the FM wants a Section 30 order to hold a second referendum.

INDEED, that position has been re-iterated so many times that it is now cemented in the minds of most people at home and abroad that a second independence referendum is the only legitimate route to Scottish independence.

As I have argued elsewhere, by reference to constitutional precedent, it isn’t, but we are where we are.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, devolution has been discredited since 2014. This started with the breaking of the Vow and the promises of Gordon Brown and continued with the failure to take on board any SNP amendments to the post-indyref Scotland Bill even though we had 56 out of the 59 Scottish MPs and half the vote.

It reached its apex with the reality of Brexit and the fact that despite being enshrined in statute the Sewel convention has been shown to be not worth the paper it’s written on. The adage that power devolved is power retained has been shown to be wholly accurate.

A further problem has been the practical difficulties of delivering further devolved powers due to the breakdown in trust and communication between the Scottish and UK governments. This does not bode well for further paring and shaving of powers.

Perhaps most importantly, Tony Blair’s knighthood is a timely reminder that the conduct of foreign affairs and defence policy is central to what we want to do differently with independence. Devo-max would leave these powers firmly in the hands of Westminster. Rejoining the EU or indeed joining Efta and through it the EEA would be impossible. As would getting rid of Trident.

The National: Do you think Tony Blair should have been knighted? Pic: PA

That is not to say that there should be no discussion of devo-max. If a constitutional convention is to be a reality it will need to be on the table to secure the participation of members of the Labour Party and Liberal Democrats. The SNP parted company with the pre-devolution Constitutional Convention because the option of independence was not on the table.

Lessons from history need to be learned. This does not mean the SNP would need to support devo-max. We would need to have the courage of our convictions and stick to our raison d’etre. If Labour want to bring devo-max to the table, let them but they must own it and explain how it would work, despite all the failings of devolution since 2014.

What might a constitutional convention look like? I think it would need to involve all of Scotland’s elected parliamentarians. It would certainly provide a useful focus for SNP MPs, away from Westminster. However, it must also involve civic society and not just the usual suspects, by which I mean particularly government-funded lobby groups, it would be vital for it to involve grassroots organisations.

And the dialogue must be respectful. Scottish political Twitter has not been edifying over Christmas and New Year. Elected politicians, self-styled activists and commentators need to learn to disagree with each other respectfully.

Apart from anything else, if they don’t, when they get out on the doorsteps for the local election campaign, should they speak to ordinary voters with the bile or condescension some employ on Twitter they will lose not gain votes for their parties.

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As we enter 2022, we need to focus on how we secure independence, and we badly need some fresh thinking. If there is to be an indyref next year, there is a lot of work to be done. Fortunately, we have a dedicated Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution with junior ministers and civil servants, who are now working on independence again and I am sure we are all looking forward to seeing the fruits of their labours.

Whatever they come up with will be debated by the Yes movement and all the pro-independence parties and I hope the SNP will be true to our constitution in making sure their proposals are debated at our conference.

But what matters most of all is taking the not-yet-convinced with us. We need to build up the sort of overwhelming support that made the 1997 devolution referendum and its outcome inevitable, even when the UK was led by a PM with a big majority who didn’t really believe in home rule for Scotland.

Kevin Pringle is right that reviving the idea of a Constitutional Convention is one way of doing this.