‘No Future’: Go back to your Constituencies and Prepare for Power(s)’?

That paraphrased quote above (substituting ‘Power(s)’ for ‘Government’) comes from David Steel, during the heyday of the SDP-Liberal Alliance in 1981. Sadly, it was an exhortation which proved to be woefully over-optimistic. (Incidentally, David’s wife apparently supports ‘Yes’ – which is nice.)

Many people write about the prospects waiting for us after a ‘No’ vote. Some ‘nervous undecided’ are looking for a reason to vote No, for a guarantee that something more will come, in lieu of the original DevoMax ‘second question’ which came out of the Scottish Government’s consultation exercise, but David Cameron insisted on removing from the ballot paper. In this respect, the absence of any agreed package on offer gives a great boon to the No campaign, as they can talk about the idea of ‘more powers’, without any need whatsoever to define and agree what those powers would be…leaving it up to the relevant sector of the electorate to project on to that conversation what they think or want it to mean.

Polls have noted changing preferences amongst people in Scotland for what powers should be devolved to the Scottish Government – the 2014 Scottish Social Attitudes Survey noting a 10% increase on the previous year for those wanting all powers (41%), and 29% (down 3%) wanting only defence and foreign affairs reserved to Westminster. When asked about the specifics in another survey last year, 60% wanted to see welfare (eg benefits, pensions and things like the so-called bedroom tax) under Holyrood, 53% control of oil revenues, 52% taxation (e.g. income tax, corporation tax) and only 35% Defence (e.g. Scottish regiments, nuclear weapons). But control of welfare, taxation and defence is not on offer from any of the Westminster parties – although it appears that some combination of these elements is what members of the public mean when they talk about ‘more powers’…and, more dangerously, may actually think that is what Westminster representatives mean when they talk about more powers coming.

Indeed, there is a further convenient muddying of the waters, as the implementation of the Calman Commission (under the Scotland Act 2012) will only be completed in 2015 – so they can avidly promise ‘more powers’ without having to do anything further, as the schedule for the legislation passed 3 years ago means that ‘more’ is coming. So the stunt of the political leaders signing a ‘guarantee’ of more powers on August 5th of this year can simply be fulfilled by the rest of the powers already scheduled to be enacted in 2015. Specifically, this does not mean more control over money – merely the requirement to collect a percentage of tax. This requires the construction of a Scottish HMRC to collect the tax, with the additional costs of hundreds of millions per year coming from the Scottish budget, and the resulting squeeze threatening cuts in services if Scotland stays with the Union…which actually means a loss of powers, in terms of financial freedom for the Scottish Parliament to choose to spend its budget as it desires, because it will have a portion of its budget already externally allocated in order to pay for these tax costs straight away. Of course, a Scottish equivalent of HMRC would need to be established as part of the process of independence, but the difference of controlling all the requisite economic levers and operating them in a connected rather than ‘silo’ fashion would enable the costs to be offset by the benefits directly accrued (as well as being able to be absorbed within the surpluses from Day 1 that the Financial Times has already indicated will be present for Scotland on February 3rd of this year – more on this separately). Without independence, establishing this new tier of bureaucracy simply means more cuts – in addition to the cuts Westminster already have planned.

Beyond this, is Westminster really likely to do anything about granting any more powers beyond the Scotland Act 2012? Professor Gavin McCrone (he of ‘the 1974 McCrone Report’ fame) told BBC’s Good Morning Scotland on 3/8/2013 that a No vote could simply result in such proposals being shelved: “There is a danger that people in Whitehall will just put the files away and say ‘well, we don’t need to worry about that any more’. And if that’s the case I think it would result in quite a bit of disillusion and disappointment in Scotland”.. Certainly, the 1979 experience, where the devolution referendum was famously preceded by a promise from the Tories to offer a ‘better’ devolution package, resulted in just such a shelving. And the Quebec Referendum of 1995 (the acknowledged model that Westminster is following with its ‘No’ campaign) also featured promises from that No campaign of further devolution if people voted No – promises which failed to materialise after the narrow victory for ‘No’.

Douglas Alexander, a former colleague on the University of Edinburgh’s Student Representative Council (where his portfolio was accommodation), has said that any further devolution will only come after another commission on constitutional change like Calman, which took ten years to decide on and fully implement its schedule (assuming it will deliver according to plan). And even within that, although the recently-announced Conservative proposals for further devolution also include setting tax rate bands and air passenger duty, this hardly delivers control over the necessary economic levers to grow the economy.

Fundamentally, the likelihood of anything beyond the Scotland Act 2012 being countenanced by the Westminster parties seems highly unlikely: they refused to allow a second question on the ballot paper (which they would have won easily); they had the opportunity to introduce more powers (or even announce a commission) in the long run-up to the vote (which would have weakened the campaign for independence far more than their regular Whitehall interventions have done), but were reluctant to do anything (even down to including such proposals in the Queen’s Speech) about it while in government; the minimalist proposals (which do not change any of the areas that Scotland already has control over) put forward by the different parties have often been opposed and subsequently watered down by their Westminster centralised headquarters (as happened with Calman and Labour’s DevoNano proposals announced this April). The Scottish branches of the Westminster parties know that there is no broad support for what is seen as giving anything ‘more’ to Scotland across London’s parliament, and as such it seems highly unlikely that any powers would be forthcoming: the Scottish groups might argue for it, but they can be flatly refuse by their larger London siblings. Remember, any increases in devolved powers (unlike their much easier cancellation) have to be approved by a majority of Westminster MPs (many of whom appear to think that the amount of devolution currently existing is too much), otherwise they simply will not happen, regardless of how many ‘pledges’ are signed by politicians.

This is one reason why commentators – including Andrew Neil – have commented on the greater likelihood of punitive reprisals, rather than more powers to the Scottish Parliament, in the wake of a ‘No’ vote. Even the meagre ‘powers’ already scheduled to come to the Scottish Parliament as a result of the Scotland Act 2012 could be cancelled at Westminster’s whim, either by the current government or the one that gets elected in 2015 (as – again – was demonstrated all too clearly by the House of Lords revoking one power from Holyrood unilaterally in December 2013). There are no guarantees with devolution: Holyrood exists solely at the pleasure of Westminster, and could be closed down tomorrow should the UK government so decide.

This article has only dealt with more powers – and not the detailed ‘No Future’ that has already been laid out for us by the Westminster Government, and zealously endorsed by their opposition rivals with unseemly haste. And perhaps that detail – with or without any tweaks to devolution – is more of a concern in the wake of a ‘No vote.

 

“[It is] fraudulent to give the impression that if there is a No vote Scotland will still get greater powers. The prospect of further powers is ridiculous.” (Tam Dalyell, Sunday Times, 4/8/2013)

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