Ian Swanson: Devo deal a hard follow-up act

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LORD Smith of Kelvin earned plenty of plaudits for his job heading the organising committee for this summer’s much-lauded Commonwealth Games.

But the businessman and chairman of the Edinburgh-based Green Investment Bank has his work cut out in his latest role, leading the cross-party talks to find agreement on Scotland’s post-referendum future ahead of next year’s Westminster general election. Scotland 2015 is very different from Glasgow 2014.

Rival party proposals, a tight timetable and critics waiting to pounce mean Lord Smith faced an unenviable task in producing an agreed package of extra powers for the Scottish Parliament.

Before yesterday’s first meeting of the five parties’ representatives, he issued a statement saying he believed the will was there to reach agreement. But senior figures fear any deal will inevitably be a “lowest common denominator” compromise which will satisfy no-one.

Liberal Democrats and Conservatives both back more or less full devolution of income tax powers to Holyrood, but Labour is divided – with some ready to fall into line and others, like Gordon Brown, insisting that such a step would be walking into a Tory trap, allowing them to ban Scottish MPs from any say on tax issues at Westminster.

One insider says: “At first, I thought the Smith commission would not be able to reach any agreement at all. But if it doesn’t, we all lose big time. So it has to come up with something – but it will be the very minimum.”

The idea is that after an agreed package is published at the end of next month, draft legislation will be prepared for whoever forms the UK government after next May to take forward as a bill.

The SNP has signed up for the Smith commission, but it is also on the lookout for any sign of backsliding by the pro-UK parties on the commitments they made during the referendum campaign.

Politicians in the other parties are annoyed by premature cries of “betrayal” from the Nationalists, who have been boosted by a massive surge in membership and are still in enthusiastic campaigning mode despite the No vote. Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg has compared Alex Salmond to a Japanese soldier fighting on in the jungle unaware the Second World War was over.

Pro-UK politicians speculate privately on whether the SNP will find “an excuse” to walk out of the Smith talks. The party did not take part in the Scottish Constitutional Convention which drew up the blueprint for devolution, nor the Calman commission which led to the 2012 Scotland Act giving extra powers to Holyrood.

One source says: “The SNP could play it either way – they could sign up to whatever is agreed by the Smith commission, making clear it does not go as far as they want but committing to making it work; or they could find some reason for pulling out of the talks, saying it’s all a sham and they’re just going to carry on campaigning for independence.”

The parties are all calculating their moves with next year’s general election in mind. The key question is whether voters will treat the poll as they have treated Westminster elections in the past – a decision on who becomes the next UK government and therefore not a time to vote SNP – or if this time it will be different and people will vote for the Nationalists as a way of pressing Scotland’s case.

It may never happen, but the other parties are living in fear of another election surprise from the SNP.