IT IS no great surprise that only hours before the Salmond-Darling television debate, the leaders of the three main unionist parties at Westminster published a joint declaration promising – or seeming to promise – more powers for the Scottish Parliament.
And the catch? Scots voters have to reject taking sovereignty into their own hands at the referendum on 18 September.
There you have it folks: reject self-government – admittedly an option that carries risks. Reject the bracing air of being responsible for your own destiny.
Instead, rely on Messers Cameron, Miliband and Clegg to offer you unspecified powers over “fiscal responsibility and social security”. But only after you have surrendered the one card that forced these gentlemen to make their joint declaration: Scotland’s first and only sovereign vote in 307 years. For three years you have been told – on a daily basis – that Alex Salmond has not spelled out in enough detail what independence would entail.
Yet suddenly the Westminster Dynamic Trio want you to give up the prospect of self-government in return for…er, completely unspecified extra powers for Holyrood.
Buyer beware. Here exactly is what the Westminster parties are promising:
“The Scottish Labour Party, the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party and the Scottish Liberal Democrats have each produced our own visions of the new powers which the Scottish Parliament needs. We shall put those visions before the Scottish people at the next general election and all three parties guarantee to start delivering more powers for the Scottish Parliament as swiftly as possible in 2015”.
So we have three conflicting versions of enhanced devolution which will be voted on at the 2015 general election. These packages will be voted on by the entire UK electorate as part of wider party manifestos. We have no idea of who will form the next UK government or even if they will have a working majority.
Currently, the opinion polls favour a narrow Labour majority. But Labour is offering the weakest devolution package, largely because its Westminster backbenchers are hostile to surrendering more of their remaining influence to Holyrood. More significant still, Labour MPs in the north of England and Wales are jealous of the funding that goes to Scotland (though it is allocated on strict population grounds).
Prognosis if Labour wins in 2015: modest enhancement of income tax powers for Holyrood in exchange for significant reduction in baseline Treasury grant, with cash being reallocated to north of England (where Labour needs to win back seats) and Wales.
Do not expect Chancellor Ed Balls to give too much away when it comes to devolving control over business taxation or welfare rules.
All this counts double if the SNP is voted back as largest party in the Scottish Parliament elections in 2016. Scotland will be told to impose student fees, prescription charges and more means testing.
If the Tories win next year, there is the possibility – amazingly enough – that Cameron will transfer greater local control over taxation to Holyrood than Labour presently contemplates. There has even been loose talk of handing over greater autonomy for welfare spending. Once again, buyer beware.
Any such radical transfer of fiscal responsibility will come with a price tag.
The Tories are more willing (on present form) to devolve fiscal powers because they have little support in Scotland, and therefore little to lose. They can safely trade more devolution for a cut in Scottish representation at Westminster; i.e. a cut in Labour MPs from north of the Border. Result: social democratic Scotland will be trapped in a permanently Tory UK. Roll on a decade or two and the Tories will have put out the English NHS to private tender. Scots will be told that if they want a state-funded welfare system, they should increase their own taxes. Of course, devolved Holyrood will have no control over the Scottish economy, and so will be unable to grow the wealth needed to fund a proper welfare system.
This assumes that a Tory Party triumphant at next year’s general election will, in fact, deliver on its promise of more devolution. It’s just as likely that the Tories will tear themselves apart over Europe.
Meanwhile, in any hung Westminster Parliament, expect backbench Labour MPs to do what they did in the 1970s and sabotage giving Scotland more power, especially if they think it will weaken Labour’s long-term prospects of gaining power at a UK level. In other words, the pious declaration from Cameron, Miliband and the hapless Nick Clegg (who is unlikely to be re-elected to parliament next year) is not worth the paper it is written on. Power devolved – as Enoch Powell rightly said – is power retained in London.
Am I being too cynical? Clearly, the Scottish referendum debate has stirred interest in a federal solution to London’s iron grip on power and wealth.
The Tour de France seems to have revived Yorkshire nationalism. And the Tories have even begun to flirt with the idea of developing the Greater Manchester conurbation as an economic counterweight to the congested English south-east. All this is to the good.
Unfortunately, federalism in the UK is a non-starter. England is a nation of counties and lacks the evolved political and economic structures necessary for cohesive federal units. I dare say they could be conjured up but it would take decades.
Which is why the solution on offer via the Scottish referendum makes more practical sense: a de facto confederation of Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Each with a sovereign parliament but sharing a common head of state, currency, free trade area, and defence policy.
Of course, all this is already implicit in the SNP’s independence proposals and been comprehensively rubbished by the same Unionist parties who are now offering enhanced devolution.
The difference in the two approaches is that the SNP project offers the prospect of a structured, stable partnership of sovereign nations within the British Isles. The latest unionist plan for asymmetric devolution – even if ever implemented – will only create the seeds of its own destruction.