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Ben Thomson: Carving out a new union

Both sides of the debate can take a major bite out of devo plus. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

Both sides of the debate can take a major bite out of devo plus. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

  • by BEN THOMSON
 

With the independence referendum a fait accompli, now is the time to establish devo plus as the way to enhance Scotland’s role within the UK, writes Ben Thomson

UPON launching the Devo Plus group in February, which grew out of Reform Scotland’s Devolution Plus paper, I outlined a number of ways in which I believed Scotland could move from its current status quo towards a new, accountable and lasting settlement. We did not then, and do not now, have a stated preference for any particular method; the key criteria was for devo plus to happen, and to happen quickly.

Since its inception as a group, and individually before, those of us involved in Reform Scotland have been clear that Scotland needs a significantly enhanced form of devolution.

Why do we think devo plus is the best solution? First, it recognises the strength of the relationship with the rest of the United Kingdom. We are an island that mutually agreed to share a common sovereign over 400 years ago; the rest of the UK is Scotland’s largest trading partner; and we benefit internationally from the clout we have as part of the UK.

The SNP has also recognised these strengths, which is why its proposals now include a Union of the Crown, monetary union, social union, joint banking regulation and a host of other shared services – in fact, there seem to be more unions in the independence proposal than we have under the present arrangements.

However, devo plus also recognises that the UK is overly-centralised. Even after the implementation of the Scotland Act, about 85 per cent of all revenue is raised through Westminster, but the majority of spending is done at a local or devolved level.

This imbalance, where Holyrood has insufficient fiscal powers to run its own affairs, is a disincentive to responsible management of public services. It creates a culture of protecting and spending the budget rather than how to produce the most effective public services. It also lacks the flexibility to create Scottish solutions for the Scottish social culture and economy. At the core of devo plus is the principle that each level of government should be responsible for raising the majority, if not all, of the money it is responsible for spending. It also enshrines – once and for all – the rights of Holyrood, permanently creating a new union between Scotland and the rest of the UK.

At the time of the Devo Plus launch, there were four distinct ways of achieving devo plus. One was by a simple act of parliament without the need for a referendum. This may have seemed optimistic, however I do believe that it would have been achievable if the concept of a referendum had not already been implanted into the political and public consciousness.

It might be argued that a referendum is a fair way to allow the people of Scotland to decide the relationship the country has with the rest of the UK. However, a referendum can also be divisive and will not necessarily lead to what opinion polls tell us most people in Scotland want, which is greater powers within the UK.

The referendum may create a “them and us” culture between those who want Scotland to separate and those who do not. Whichever side of the debate wins will have to manage a large discontented minority.

After the surprise majority win by the SNP in the last election, Westminster and the Scottish Government together could have delivered some variant of devo plus without the need for a referendum. Scotland could have gained fiscal responsibility for raising the taxes to pay for its expenditure and the powers of the Scottish Parliament could have been made permanent and not be changed without the consent of both. This new union arrangement would have given both sides most of what they wanted, achieved the best solution for Scotland, delivered the most popular option and done so without the need for a referendum.

The second possibility was to have an additional question on the referendum ballot paper offering something based on devo plus. Though far from an ideal solution, it would have been a speedy way to reach our goal. A model based on the 1997 devolution referendum, where voters were asked first whether they wished to retain the status quo or change it, before being asked whether the change they sought was independence or devo plus, could have been made to work and carry legitimacy. Backed by opinion poll after opinion poll, I am quite certain that devo plus or something like it would have very comfortably defeated both the status quo and independence options.

A third method, which I always thought unnecessary but which was talked about briefly in some political circles, was to have an initial referendum to establish the appetite for change, before a further referendum to establish the nature of the change.

And so we come to the fourth option; the one which we believe must now be executed. Using the methodology outlined in the comprehensive paper, A New Union by the Devo Plus group, the pro-Union parties can come together in advance of the referendum and agree that when the electorate votes No, it votes not for the status quo but for an agreed set of principles leading to the Scottish Parliament raising the majority of the money it spends, in the short term, and the totality of it, in the longer term.

This would be sensible, and right, and would give all of Scotland’s political parties something to hold on to. Devo plus is good for both sides of this constitutional debate. For the SNP, it gives the Scottish Parliament a permanence it does not have at present, where Westminster is capable of changing the rules or even abolishing the parliament if it so chooses.

It also gives Scotland real fiscal powers that can be used to drive the economy and provide better public services suited for Scotland. In addition, it takes away the possibility of a loss at the referendum.

For unionists, it provides certainty that Scotland will not separate – but, just as importantly, it provides a mechanism to create a change of culture in local and devolved government towards a stronger economy and improved public services. This is a change of culture that is going to be vital if we are to tackle the current economic problems and regain our competitive position.

In a recent survey in August 2012 by Mori, 41 per cent of people preferred devo plus compared with 28 per cent for independence and 29 per cent for the status quo. It is a demonstration that devo plus is the most popular destination, and it is incumbent on the pro-Union parties, in particular, to do themselves a favour by using the referendum to signal a clear move to devo plus.

Both sides of the debate are moving towards devo plus. The pro-Union parties are moving there, via the Scotland Act, from an original position of centralising unionism. The SNP is moving there, via Indy Lite, from an original position of Scottish republicanism.

With hindsight, we may wish that all parties had moved to devo plus without the need for a referendum. However, we must deal with reality – a referendum is coming, and we must ensure that it is used effectively to deliver the best way forward for Scotland.

• Ben Thomson is the chairman of Reform Scotland

 

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