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Scottish Independence Debate / Urquhart: politicians must listen to the people

Independent MSP Jean Urquhart.

IT IS VITAL that the voices of ordinary people are heard during talks on greater powers for the Scottish Parliament, according to Highlands and Islands list MSP Jean Urquhart.

The pro-independence politician said she was “delighted” to read a comment from Lord Smith of Kelvin, who is chairing the Smith Commission on further devolution, stressing that “our people must have a say on extra powers”.

Urquhart said she was concerned that Northern Isles MP Alistair Carmichael “seems to be setting boundaries with regard to the devolution of more powers before the Smith Commission gathers in the crucial evidence of the people living in Scotland – including the voters of Orkney and Shetland”.

Last week Carmichael urged SNP leader-in-waiting Nicola Sturgeon to “show genuine leadership and accept the result” of the independence referendum.

He said Scots were “moving on with their lives after the long and passionate referendum” and that political parties were “already working hard to deliver the further devolution which we promised”.

“There have already been cries of reneging on the more powers vow even though the Smith Commission hasn’t even proposed anything yet,” Carmichael said. “The betrayal bandwagon is already getting dusted down.”

But with polls showing a majority of Scots favour some form of “devolution max” – not included as an option on referendum ballot papers – Urquhart fears the proposals that emerge will be too timid.

Last month a Panelbase survey suggested two thirds of Scots want to see the Unionist parties’ pre-vote vow on more powers to extend to “devo max”, taken to mean Holyrood having control over virtually everything aside of foreign affairs and defence.

Urquhart, who left the SNP and became an independent MSP two years ago, said it was imperative the outcome is not a top-down diktat.

“As we are now dealing with the ‘second question’ denied by the coalition government in spite of being the preferred choice by many, it is really important that the politicians pay attention this time.”

She was concerned that when political parties – “some who didn’t want devolution, far less ‘devo max’” – met with Lord Smith last week “we could be forgiven for thinking that finding agreement between them was the sole purpose of the commission”.

During the referendum campaign, Urquhart said, mainstream media outlets portrayed the debate as essentially a “party political one – the print media and television endlessly interviewing politicians or political analysts or political journalists”.

That failed to capture “the really interesting articles that were being written on the topic”, which were mostly to be found online, she said.

“Shetland News, and the many blogs and tweets and Facebook pages, papers written for journals and monthly mags, and the village hall debates and group meetings, certainly in my experience, were far more interesting than any televised debate. Scotland’s future reduced to a game show, slanging match or personality contest, to say nothing of the printed press bias.”

While the 18 September vote, in which Scotland rejected independence by a 55-45 margin, is a thing of the recent past, she said the pre-referendum ‘vow’ by the three main pro-Union parties’ leaders was “the immediate future”.

Urquhart said she hoped local authorities, organisations, community groups and individuals would submit their opinion on devolved powers to the Smith Commission before the 31 October deadline.

“The discussions round kitchen tables, in cafes, in pubs, in any community spaces, in schools, in offices, are all continuing,” she said. “The debate is far from over.

“The political parties will legislate, but this is too big an issue to be left to politicians and an opportunity to have them follow where the people lead.

“It is heartening to know just how many submissions have been made and are still to be made as the talk of devolution, yes and independence, continues in this brave new world of constitutional reform.”

She continued: “We all have 10 days to make our contribution to this second big debate, so whether it’s the Crown Estate, energy, welfare, employment or setting the minimum wage, this is an opportunity to have your say and make it count.

“This may seem like a tight timescale, but the issues that have been raised throughout the past few years and the information circulated during the referendum campaign should provide some clues.”

Shetland MSP Tavish Scott is one of the Liberal Democrats’ representatives on the Smith Commission. Last week he called for the process to look at handing powers from Edinburgh to other parts of Scotland including the Northern Isles.

Urquhart said “few would disagree”, including those at Holyrood and within the Scottish Government, with the idea.  But it “just happens not to be within the Smith Commission remit”.

“It is important to keep banging the decentralisation drum, but equally important for it to be in the right hand!”

She added that the SIC’s “considered approach” along with local authorities in Orkney and the Western Isles had “motivated many to re-look at every aspect of local governance and responsibility. Political activism by local people to set priorities for their own communities must be welcomed by exactly the same principle.”