Kenny Farquharson: Salmond must now embrace Calman

The SNP has to learn the power of compromise and consensus

WHEN they write the Scottish political history books, how will this past week be remembered? As the first time a Scottish Government had its budget kicked out by the Holyrood Parliament? As the moment when a stubborn wee baldy Green MSP secured 33m to give Scots free loft insulation – and then threw every penny back in the Government's face? As the week that finally proved the SNP and the Tories have consummated their long political courtship? (You can now imagine the late-night phone calls between Alex Salmond and Annabel Goldie. "You hang up, Alex, dearest." "No, you hang up, Annabel, darling." "Okay let's hang up together. One, two, three… ")

All of these events will deserve a mention. Yet they may be overshadowed by a development last week that was ignored by some and misunderstood by others. An event that could turn out to be a milestone on the long and rocky road that is the campaign for Scottish home rule. I'm talking about the offer by Tavish Scott, leader of the Lib Dems, to support the SNP budget on one condition – that Salmond agrees to join the campaign to secure for Holyrood the power to borrow money. I know, it sounds innocuous, but bear with me.

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Salmond has reportedly agreed to make a submission along those lines to the Calman Commission, the group set up by the opposition parties to look at what extra powers should be devolved from London to Edinburgh. The SNP has been consistently scathing about Calman, branding it a Unionist conspiracy. Until last week, a central plank of Salmond's strategy was that the SNP could not afford to get involved in the debate about more powers for Holyrood. It had to stay ideologically pure on the constitutional debate and only argue for full independence – in the First Minister's own words, "keep its eyes on the summit" lest it risk sliding down the hill. This stance has now been ditched, and it changes the landscape of the debate on Scotland's future in a most encouraging way.

The SNP's antagonistic attitude to Calman was nonsensical. A decade ago the SNP threw in its lot with the campaign for a devolved Scottish Parliament within the United Kingdom. Why was it right then but wrong now? These have always been thorny dilemmas for the SNP. The decision to boycott the Scottish Constitutional Convention in the late 1980s split the Nationalist movement and, arguably, sidelined the SNP from the debate about the future direction of the nation. Similarly, I recall grumblings within Nationalist ranks when senior figures such as Mike Russell found common cause with Labour politicians in the cross-party Scotland United movement that took to the streets after the 1992 general election.

The SNP is a welcome recruit to the campaign for more powers for Holyrood, short of full independence. Such work is an honourable part of the party's traditional role in the constitutional debate – to be "the power for change" in Scottish politics, pushing forward the cause of self-government, regardless of whether the change is incremental or momentous.

There will be some diehard Nationalists who are uncomfortable with this. But if the SNP is genuinely interested in advancing Scotland's cause, and not simply in advancing party advantage, then this should not be a matter for much soul-searching. Would a true patriot really prefer to see the growth of the Scottish Parliament stunted in the theoretical hope that this could make full independence slightly more likely at some point in the future?

Salmond's concession to the Lib Dems was not lightly made. But, now that it's done, he should make a virtue of it. The Scottish Government should engage with Calman on all the issues under consideration, not just borrowing powers. Using the considerable resources at his disposal, the First Minister should present the intellectual arguments in favour of transferring individual powers from London to Edinburgh. And it should argue this while accepting – tactically and temporarily – that this is about improving devolution within the UK.

The past week – a bad one for the Nationalists by any and every measure – should give the SNP pause for thought. The party needs to learn to do something that goes entirely against its instincts, and has done for as long as it has existed as a political force. It has to learn the power of compromise and consensus.

This weekend Salmond is in a conciliatory frame of mind. Next week he may pass a budget that has the unanimous support of the Scottish Parliament – with Labour winning support for new apprenticeships, the Tories winning support for small businesses and town centre regeneration, and the Greens getting their lofts lagged. If it happens, it will be provide the political unanimity of purpose the Scottish people demand of their politicians at a time of economic crisis. Naturally, it begs the question: why on earth was this not possible last week? If Labour's idea on apprenticeships is timely and affordable – the answer is yes on both counts – then why couldn't it have been accommodated last week?

Salmond's approach to minority government is a curious one. Instead of reaching out to other parties to see what common ground can be built on, his approach is simply to try – usually in vain – to bulldoze the SNP manifesto through Parliament. For his own sake, and Scotland's too, this has to change. Engaging with Calman would be an encouraging first step.