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Last Updated: Friday, 18 January 2008, 14:26 GMT
Party people confront new realities
By David Porter
Westminster correspondent, BBC Scotland

You know what it's like, you wait ages for a committee on constitutional reform to come along and then two arrive at once.

union flag
The future of the Union is a hot political topic

Compared with rows over money, politics and the ''competence'' of cabinet ministers, CR (constitutional reform) as it's known in political jargon may not be the sexiest topic in the world.

But once again, it's grabbing the attention of the political classes, albeit in a pointy-headed sort of way.

Perhaps in such circumstances it was fitting that as venues go it was never going to be one of the most glamorous or impressive of settings.

But when the next chapter in the devolution story is written, Room B at One Parliament Street London SW1 may deserve more than a passing mention.

It was here, a non-descript meeting room in Whitehall, that a cross-party body met this week to chart the next stage in constitutional reform.

So, who was there and why were they there?

First the who - the leaders of the three unionist parties from Westminster and Holyrood had gathered to flesh out their plans for a new constitutional commission looking at plans to increase the powers of the Scottish Parliament, and crucially also consider plans to give Holyrood more tax raising powers.

It meant that representatives of Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives from both London and Edinburgh were sitting round a table looking to the next stage of the devolution project.

Holyrood and Westminster are feeling their way to the new political realities

The SNP - which of course favour full independence - were noticeable absentees.

So, what brought these groups of people together?

The SNP's victory in last year's Holyrood elections has forced the "other parties" to re-evaluate how devolution is working.

In answer to the Nationalists' independence white paper, titled "The National Conversation", Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives have come up with plans for expanding the powers of the Edinburgh parliament while keeping Scotland firmly rooted within the Union.

They want to set up a constitutional commission which would look at giving the Scottish Parliament more powers, including extra tax raising provisions.

Coded message

Now, here the nomenclature is important.

The title "constitutional commission" is reminiscent of something called the "constitutional convention".

To recap, this was the body set up to lobby for a Scottish Parliament before Holyrood was established.

The planned constitutional commission will now look at how devolution can be taken forward.

That is a coded way of saying it will look at expanding the powers of Holyrood, but as you would expect from unionist parties still remaining firmly part of the UK.

Saltire and welsh flag
Constitutional questions are for Wales and N Ireland and Scotland

Significantly, the meeting at Westminster was attended by the Scottish Secretary Des Browne.

That would suggest the UK Government is not opposed to the commission being formed, but it doesn't mean it would be bound by its findings.

The commission itself has not yet been formally established - its personnel and exact remit will be published shortly.

The whole exercise has been rubbished by the SNP.

They described this week's meeting as a waste of time and a talking shop.

The Nationalists, of course, have launched their own plans for further constitutional reform.

The SNP has called for an independence white paper as part of its national conversation with Scotland.

West Lothian question

Meanwhile, elsewhere at Whitehall - and well away from prying eyes - another committee was meeting to consider constitutional reform.

This one - codenamed CN (for constitution) - is made up just of UK ministers.

Its job is to bring senior cabinet ministers together to brainstorm on devolution and all things constitutional.

It's chaired by Justice Secretary Jack Straw and includes the home secretary, the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland secretaries and is looking at the wider question of constitutional reform throughout the UK.

As part of its deliberations it's likely it will consider the whole question of representation and MPs voting, in other words, the thorny issue of the so called West Lothian question.

One familiar with its workings said that part of its remit would be to ''reclaim devolution from Alex Salmond''.

Whatever happens, it does reinforce the phrase "devolution is a process not an event".

Holyrood and Westminster are feeling their way to the new political realities.

The venues for the talks so far may not have been over impressive, but the results could eventually be far reaching.



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