Ahead of the referendum I had stated that a factor in my decision to vote Yes was the uncertainty of a No vote, and the risk that comes from having such limited democratic influence over our constitutional future, as determined by the UK Government.
In the final days of the referendum campaign Gordon Brown stated that the UK will quickly pass significant additional powers to create a ‘federal’ solution for Scotland within the UK. Following some late polls that put the Yes campaign ahead, a sequence of high profile statements from Brown were then linked to a ‘promise’ from the main Westminster party leaders David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg which has become known as ‘The Vow’ (as printed by the Daily Record). The Vow guaranteed ‘new powers for the Scottish Parliament’, ‘fairness to Scotland’ and ‘the guarantee that with the continued Barnett allocation, based on need and with the power to raise its own funds, the final decisions on spending on public services in Scotland, including on the NHS, will be made by the Scottish Parliament’.
Given that the UK is listed as one of the most socially unequal countries in the developed world, we can take the guarantee of fairness with a pinch of salt, and you’d be advised to keep your salt dispenser handy for the rest of it. Gordon Brown was the Prime Minister before David Cameron and during his term in Government he also promised to look at significant additional powers for Scotland , which begs the question: what happened when he was in power? In 2009, the unionist parties responded to the increased popularity of the SNP by establishing the Calman Commission. Despite the fact that the commission stopped far short of fiscal autonomy or anything close to federalism, Brown chose not to act on the proposed changes. Instead it was a considered foregone conclusion that whoever won the 2010 General Election, the UK Government would devolve some more powers – it didn’t seem to matter what – to allow them to state that they are working to build a ‘stronger Scottish Parliament’. It followed that the Conservative / Lib Dem coalition approved some of the additional powers in the Scotland Act 2012 to be delivered in 2016 (7 years after the initial Calman Commission report).
Now, you may wonder what the relevance of all this is. The unionist parties portrayed the Calman Commission as thorough analysis of the maximum devolution the Scottish Parliament could manage. Yet somehow, before the proposed changes have even been implemented, they were now arguing that more powers could be devolved. This represented a significant shifting of the goalposts from the No campaign, but they clearly felt that they could get away with it. Perhaps the poor understanding of Scotland’s existing devolution settlement fuelled their confidence; I’ll analyse the Smith Commission report in my next blog but it states: ‘A challenge facing both Parliaments is the relatively weak understanding of the current devolution settlement. This is not surprising given what is a complex balance of powers.’
Knowing that not many people had looked at the detail of the Calman Commission, the idea of a repeat process was pitched as a eureka moment from the unionist parties – implying that the referendum process had made them realise that Scotland did need more powers after all. Frankly, it was more effective for them to say that they will start a new process to look at further devolution than to say ‘look guys, we performed our assessment on what Scotland can handle and you’ll get your lot in 2016 when the Scotland Act 2012 comes into place’. They must have noted that Alastair Darling’s repeated efforts to campaign on the latter pitch was clearly having no impact, so it was better to pretend it hadn’t happened at all.
To come back to the promises of more powers and ‘the guarantee that with the continued Barnett allocation, based on need and with the power to raise its own funds, the final decisions on spending on public services in Scotland, including on the NHS, will be made by the Scottish Parliament’. More powers were already guaranteed by the Scotland Act 2012 and the devolution of some tax receipts (notably 10% of income tax receipts) was already set to lead to a change in the Barnett allocation. Given that the Barnett allocation process is fundamentally defined by all taxes being centrally collected at Westminster the integrity of this was compromised ahead of the Smith Commission, therefore The Vow was flawed even ahead of the referendum.
With one of the key successes of the referendum campaign being public engagement and participation, it was stated that the Smith Commission would take submissions ‘from political parties, a wide range of business and civic organisations and the wider public to help guide its consideration of what further powers should be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. The Commission welcomes all such submissions, and will give them due weight in arriving at its final conclusions.’
Unfortunately, the arbitrary timetable that was set for the Smith Commission meant that they only had a matter of days to analyse the 407 submissions from civic institutions, organisations and groups, and 18, 381 from members of the public. As the Wings Over Scotland site highlights, this gave the Commission a total of 47 seconds to read and thoughtfully consider each submission.
For the record though, I provided a personal submission for the Smith Commission, which followed the stated guidelines:
- Overview of my proposals:
I believe that the Scottish Parliament should be given full fiscal autonomy within the UK – with all taxes collected in Edinburgh and arrangement made between the parliaments to ensure appropriate levels of funding are provided to the central UK budget. I believe that the EU model for national funding would be a good model for this.
A distinction between the UK and EU would be that the UK would retain a common Defence policy – but this should be formed by the UK’s commitment to the function of the UN in foreign affairs and peacekeeping missions. It would be possible for the UK Defence Force to form a similar arrangement to that of NATO, allowing Scotland to form a distinct political approach to Defence (shifting focus from nuclear weapons and submarines to vessels that could patrol our waters in a more practical manner).
- The principles underpinning my proposals are as follows:
The UK political system is failing too many and serving too few. Successive UK governments have pursued flawed trickle-down economic policies to the detriment of the UK citizens at large. All that can be seen from Westminster today is a series of short term solutions and a focus that is too narrow for the diverse challenges that exist throughout the British Isles.
The process of First Past the Post has driven the UK political system to a two party system, where Conservative and Labour governments have followed similar agendas since I was born in 1980. The outlook for the future looks much the same too, with both parties committing to a continuation of the austerity measures set rolling by George Osborne during this term.
The 2007 election demonstrated the weakness of accountability in the UK system – the Labour Government had taken the UK to war in Iraq during the previous term on the premise that they had Weapons of Mass Destruction. Meanwhile at home we spend billions of pounds on Weapons of Mass Destruction based on the claim that they act as a deterrent. This hypocrisy was mirrored by the opposition and so the electorate were impotent in any efforts to hold this abuse of power to account and Labour were returned to office.
I believe that significant change in the devolution settlement for Scotland will ensure that our political system is accountable to the people of Scotland.
- My assessment of the current situation is as follows:
I believe that the current system of devolution has been progress from the pre-1999 arrangement. However, there are still many flaws. The fact that the Scottish Parliament has policy control over the core public services in Scotland but does not control the financial budget for these makes the system unaccountable.
The current form of devolution is so convoluted that very few people understand where certain powers lie (noting that the additional tiers of government at the EU and council level also add to the lack of clarity for the public). Since devolution, the Scottish press put disproportionate focus on the Scottish Parliament, despite the majority of macro-economic powers residing at the UK level.
Polls have shown that there is a desire for full fiscal autonomy to be brought to the Scottish Parliament. This will not only improve the accountability but also the economic performance within Scotland, enabling more effective progress is made on societal issues.
- The advantages to Scotland and the UK as a whole (and/or its constituent nations) of devolving the power in question to the Scottish Parliament are as follows:
I believe that decentralising the political power to the constituent nations within the UK will create an enhanced economic arrangement for all UK citizens. The priorities currently set at Westminster do not reflect the diverse needs of the economy within the UK, and Scotland has suffered from this.
As was reported during the referendum by the London School of Economics, the political system within the UK is antiquated and inefficient. Decentralising this power and forming new systems around this creates the opportunity for enhancing economic efficiency across the UK, allowing our collective economy to compete effectively in the modern world.
- The disadvantages to Scotland and the UK as a whole (and/or its constituent nations) of devolving the power in question to the Scottish Parliament are as follows:
Introducing further levels of tax variation across the UK could be perceived as a negative, however this is actually a standard model for many economies today (from the United States of America to the cantons of Switzerland). I believe that the benefits of more localised financial control will have a larger positive effect than the potential inconvenience of additional levels of tax variation.