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How the Superwoman episode may help Lord Smith unite a nation

  • Commission must focus on powers not party manifestoes
  • Smith’s leadership will be vital in current political chaos

Lord Smith of Kelvin is a powerful leader with a track record in business and public life that is second to none. But as the man charged with pulling Scotland’s warring factions together to create new powers for Holyrood even he must be wondering if he can survive the bear-pit of the Scottish political arena.

The old saying that a week is a long time in politics has rarely been more apt. The resignation of Johann Lamont as leader of Scottish Labour followed last weekend’s elevation of Nicola Sturgeon to the top of the Scottish National Party. The triumvirate of female party leaders, also comprising Ruth Davidson for the Conservatives, was initially hailed as rare and welcome, but is now destined to be amongst the shortest in history.

The fall-out in the Labour party has the potential to upset the work of the Smith Commission but he has declared that nothing will stand in the way of him hitting his deadline. Indeed, he considers the tight timetable a bonus because “if people are given more time they merely fill it with more discussion”.

The problems besetting Labour, however, are bound to be a distraction from the constitutional debate. Put simply, it is a crisis that Smith and his team of advisers could do without as they try to unite a divided nation.

Writing in the Daily Record earlier this month, he said he was working with the five parties to find agreement between them on what the new powers should be.  “My job is to bring politicians from different parties around the table and help them make that happen,” he said. “It won’t be easy but Scotland expects them to reach agreement.”

Won’t be easy? With a deadline of 30 November, he may be starting to wonder if it won’t be possible. Labour is in disarray and as the only serious challenger for power in Scotland in recent times this has focused minds on the direction of Scottish politics as a whole, let alone the constitutional issues.

Smith’s long experience in business, cultural and charitable work, and as a government adviser, has made him the “go-to guy”, admired for his management and leadership skills, and increasingly as someone who can bring order to chaos. Those abilities will be sorely tested in the coming weeks.

So what should be the driving elements for the Commission?

Aside from the task of herding squabbling politicians, he needs to ensure the debate focuses properly on constitutional issues and not party political manifestoes. The Scottish government’s White Paper was shamefully disguised as the latter with its promises to scrap various taxes and reshape the public finances. This was not the role of the White Paper which should merely have outlined the powers that would be available, without giving any specific policy pledges.

Too often the referendum debate sank to the level of street-corner bribery over whether citizens would be better off under one outcome or the other. These unseemly spats were not matters for settling the constitution, but for a general election.

Secondly, Smith should ensure that any new powers do not adversely restrict the freedoms and opportunities of those living in the rest of the UK. To do so would be counter-productive. It would prompt resentment and tit-for-tat measures and potentially add to the cost of government and business.

He should cut through the demands to end poverty or to turn Scotland into a tax haven, or remove the responsibility to take up arms in foreign conflicts, by instilling a sense of proportion and reality into those who believe such outcomes are both desirable and achievable.

Smith’s role is not to create Utopia, but a country that will feel confident, optimistic and able to manage its own affairs within the wider communities of the UK, the European Union and global institutions. Independence or Devo Max were always likely to result in broadly the same settlement, assuming Scotland was and is prepared to take its share of responsibilities as well as the benefits that come from having greater powers.

In his quieter moments, Smith must think back to the infamous fall-out that first brought him to public notice and how it compares to his current challenge. In 1997, during his time as chief executive of Morgan Grenfell Asset Management, he made headlines after suspending star manager Nicola Horlick over claims – which she denied – that she intended to poach key staff for a rival firm. Smith had just promoted her, and the story caught the attention of the world’s media. Horlick had already made headlines of her own, having been dubbed “Superwoman” for combining her demanding job in the City with being a mother of five. She was reinstated, but the bad taste lingered for years.

Smith rarely likes being reminded of the episode but it was an experience that taught him a few  lessons about the media and management. Not that it did him any harm. In the years since, he has amassed some 60 appointments at a range of corporate, cultural and charitable organisations, including the BBC, National Museums of Scotland and the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, which he steered to great success.

He regards Lord (Norman) Macfarlane of United Distillers, Diageo and the eponymous Macfarlane group, as his mentor and a source of inspiration. Now, through his own multiple executive and non-executive roles, and his work with government on corporate governance issues, he is arguably the Scottish business community’s father figure, inspiring another generation of managers.

His experience in business owes much to failing English exams at university which led to a career in accountancy and finance. His academic failings did not hold him back. He held the rare privilege of chairing two Scottish FTSE-100 companies simultaneously: SSE (owner of Scottish Hydro) and the Weir Group. Smith has a keen eye for identifying talent and was a big admirer of both Keith Cochrane, chief executive, at Weir and Ian Marchant who held the same post at SSE.

As he eyes the political landscape he must ask himself if sorting out Scotland’s constitution is not only his biggest challenge, but a case of biting off more than he can chew. A lot rests on his shoulders, but at least the boy from Maryhill will not flinch from tackling whatever is thrown at him.

See also 21 September blog

Can Lord Smith unite a divided nation?

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