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Brian Monteith: Unionists need alternatives

The Better Together campaign has not mentioned the Scotland Act 2012. Picture: Neil Hanna

The Better Together campaign has not mentioned the Scotland Act 2012. Picture: Neil Hanna

  • by BRIAN MONTEITH
 

If Scotland votes No, how we are governed will change, though politicians are not talking about it, writes Brian Monteith

It is one of the strange aspects of the debate about Scottish independence that neither the Better Together campaign nor the three main unionist parties mention the Scotland Act 2012.

It is argued that it is an irrelevance because it has been overtaken by events. In some respects political developments have indeed passed it by; the Liberal Democrats have published a report saying how they would like to go much further while the Labour and Conservative parties will do so in spring – and anyway there’s the referendum on independence in September.

There are no political leaders with any clout in Scotland that expound the view that the latest Scotland Act will be the last for some time. Even Ruth Davidson has allowed her line in the sand to be washed away. Nevertheless the debate about what will happen to Scotland if we reject independence is conducted as if how we are governed now will remain the status quo when all politicians know that the arrangements will change in 2015.

This unavoidable fact might be considered an inconvenient truth for nationalists, for the new arrangements could reveal two realities for the unionists to point to.

The first is that the Scotland Act gives testimony to the credibility of the unionist parties, that they can be trusted to bring forward changes to devolution that gives more power over taxation to the benefit of the Scottish Parliament. This credibility is especially robust because the legislation was introduced and passed by a Conservative-led coalition government following a cross-party process that evolved from a Labour Party policy initiative.

If the unionist parties continue to argue that they will give further powers to Holyrood then their record suggests they can be trusted on the matter. Indeed it was the SNP that initially put the process in jeopardy and eventually backed down – rather like it first did with the constitutional convention all those years ago that delivered the Holyrood parliament in the first place.

The second point is that it will be the SNP, and especially John Swinney, who will have to bring forward financial proposals applying the new powers that the Scotland Act gives to vary existing and new taxes. The SNP is very keen to tell the public what it will do with independence – spending hundreds of thousands of taxpayers’ pounds on a white paper, accompanying junk mail and Radio Salmond Roadshow for a constitutional policy that remains a minority pursuit – but has thus far told us hee-haw about how it will approach the financial implications of legislation now on the statute.

Where are the projections, the option papers, the questions and answers, and the call to arms that the new powers will be used to make Scotland more equal, more egalitarian, more Scandinavian, ad infinitum? Or are we to believe that in the same way the SNP does not utilise the current powers to vary a number of existing taxes, it has no intention to change anything?

Just as the SNP has already shown it is scared to make Scottish independence seem too different from Scotland remaining part of the UK – by keeping the pound, the monarchy, the Nato membership, the Bank of England oversight, the university research funding, the open borders, among others – it appears the SNP is also scared to make devolution any different too.

These are points that I am surprised the No campaign has not yet raised: it is as if the Scotland Act is the dog that does not bark, that it has been muzzled by its owners.

I mention this because there is a great disappointment amongst many activists of either persuasion and by interested spectators of the debate that the white paper has not been the game-changer that was hoped. Rather than be the inspirational document it could and should have been, it is the longest wish list ever composed.

Journalists are now being briefed by the Yes campaign that three events next year will make up for this disappointment and provide a swing towards Salmond and his campaign.

It is said that the European elections will make europhile Scotland look more different from a eurosceptic England, that the growing possibility of a Conservative re-election in the 2015 general election will scare Scottish voters, and that the Labour and Conservative parties’ reports into further powers will come up short and be unsatisfactory to voters. It is argued all of these developments will push more Scots towards Yes and be, individually or together, the much needed game-changer.

It does not take a sharp political analyst to notice that all three of these arguments are highly negative: scaremongering you might call it. It is as if the Utopian promises of the white paper never happened.

It is also noticeable that such optimistic hopes over experience take no account of opinion polling showing Ukip could do well in Scotland in next June’s elections, or that the odds are so stacked in favour of Labour being returned to office that the best David Cameron can hope for is another coalition agreement with the Liberal Democrats.

That either a coalition or Labour government is a prospect at Westminster is an important factor – for the total voter numbers, vote share and MPs of the Liberal Democrat and Conservative parties in Scotland, or Labour by itself, were both greater than the combined performance of the SNP and Green parties in 2010 – and could be so again.

Then, on the final possibility – that the offer of greater powers cannot be believed – all unionist parties can point to the Devolution Act and say they can be trusted to deliver. SNP complaints about a reduced or abolished Barnett Formula are beside the point: the reason behind greater powers is for Scottish politicians to take as much responsibility for their spending as possible. As with independence, further devolution means the Barnett Formula as we know it must go.

The status quo must change. It is time the No campaign took the muzzle off and let its dog bark – and bite. Release the hounds!

 

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