ALISTAIR Carmichael, the secretary of state for Scotland and northern isles MP, has said Thursday’s independence referendum has put the UK on the road to becoming a federal state within the next few years.
Less than 24 hours after the Scottish electorate voted 55-45 against independence, Carmichael told Shetland News that new powers to raise taxes and distribute welfare would be devolved to the Scottish Parliament after the general election next May.
This, he said, would unlock the key to a federal UK as it would create a constitutional imbalance between Scotland and the rest of Britain that would have to be addressed.
“When you have Murdo Fraser from the Conservatives on one side and Gordon Brown on the other saying the logical conclusion on the constitutional path we now travel is a federal UK you have to think this is an idea whose time has come,” he said.
Carmichael dismissed comments by Scottish first minister Alex Salmond during his resignation speech on Friday afternoon that the “vow” to devolve greater powers was already unravelling.
Salmond’s comments were in response to a disagreement that day between prime minister David Cameron and Labour leader Ed Miliband over devolving more powers to the other three British nations as well as Scotland, and concerns the promised timetable for reform remained unpublished on Friday night despite a promise to do so.
Carmichael also said that the mechanism to “hard wire” greater powers for the Scottish island councils within national government were already “in train”.
Speaking on Friday evening, the 49 year old Liberal Democrat said that the referendum campaign had been the most powerful emotional experience he had been through since he began campaigning for the Liberal Party when he was just 13.
“I have never before been in a campaign where literally my country was at stake and that brings with it quite a remarkable degree of emotion,” he said.
He said he and others had been warned by Canadians involved in the campaign for independence in Quebec that the last few weeks especially would have an emotional intensity he had never experienced.
“We smiled and nodded and thought not us, but they were right,” he said, adding that he had friends who had gone without sleep for days in the build up to the vote.
Now the Scottish people have chosen to stay within the UK and the major political parties in Westminster have pledged to devolve greater powers to Holyrood, he said the UK was inevitably heading towards federalism.
“As somebody who has always believed in a federal UK because that seemed to be the most sensible way of redefining the political unit that we have, I have got an opportunity to deliver exactly that,” he said.
The three major parties would arrive at a consensus over devolution that would have to be implemented immediately after the May general election as it would be in all three major parties’ manifestos, he said.
“There will probably be people on the back benches who won’t like this, but you can’t stop something which is in all the manifestos of the three parties, which is why we will get it through the House of Lords as well.
“We will ultimately finish the job of devolving tax raising and welfare powers to the Scottish Parliament and that will create a disparity between the government in Scotland and the rest of the UK, especially England, which is the only unreformed part of the UK.
“You would then have an inevitable process, which David Cameron himself identified today, leading to reform in England.
“So there is the opportunity for radical constitutional reform that will ultimately finish the job of devolving powers to the Scottish Parliament that will unlock the key to a federal UK.”
Carmichael added that the English were more than ready for having a debate on constitutional reform as a result of witnessing the experience in Scotland.
“I am married to an English woman so I have relatives across England and I can tell you that they are up for that debate in a way I have never known before. It’s a debate that’s actually happening.”
Meanwhile any suggestion of Shetland becoming a Crown dependency like the Isle of Man, as Carmichael suggested immediately prior to Thursday’s vote, appears to have evaporated.
Instead he has already started implementing the Framework for the Islands he launched in August in response to the Our Islands Our Future campaign by the three island councils.
The Framework promised to “island proof” legislation before it was passed, to provide a dedicated “desk officer” in the Scotland Office and greater representation in Europe.
It also invited the islands to have representative on the Scottish Business Board and the PILOT forum where the government meets the oil industry.
Carmichael said that the island councils had been benefitting from a dedicated desk officer at the Scotland Office since last November and steps were now being taken to provide the European representation and the position on the PILOT forum.
However he said the greatest strength of the Framework was that its agenda was controlled by the island councils themselves, and not by the government.
“All the structures are there for the island councils to use and it’s up to the councils themselves how they use them.
“But the Framework has been designed in such a way that the Scotland Office or the UK government can’t walk away from this. The only people who can allow them to walk away from this are the islands councils themselves.”