Joan McAlpine: Time politicians warmed to a debate over energy
Let's forget this concern with the forensic scrutiny of fiscal taxation, the Scotland Bill is more about power to the people
THERE'S nothing like a highly personalised rammy to get the journalistic juices flowing. Until last week, the Scotland Bill trundled slowly along the parliamentary tracks. Sterling efforts were made, by those who oppose it, to explain why the great "transfer of power" it claims to represent was nothing of the sort and could damage Scotland.
Until last week, that is, when two academics were Wendied before the parliamentary committee hearing evidence on the bill. To be Wendied is the the modern, Scottish equivalent of what was called a hand-bagging in the reign of Margaret Thatcher. It refers, of course, to Wendy Alexander, the former leader of the Labour parliamentary group. Now she's back and, it seems, little changed. To be Wendied was defined, in her heyday, as being hit with a barrage of facts, figures and counter-arguments at break-neck speed. One sympathetic journalist at the time described it thus: "It feels as if your head has been removed, kicked around in a game of five-a-side and stuck back on again."
Last week the kicking was being delivered to Professors Andy Hughes Hallett and Drew Scott, both economists, who threatened to walk out of the committee after Alexander went for them - aided and abetted by the Conservative committee member David McLetchie.
Suddenly, everybody's talking about the Scotland Bill. They might not understand the long-term deflationary implications of the settlement it proposes. They haven't a clue about Office of Budgetary Responsibility's role in forecasting Scottish Tax Receipts under its proposals, nor the complex "temporary adjustment" measures put in place if those forecasts are incorrect. If they knew how much Westminster was going to charge Scotland for this extra burden they might sit up and notice - but, frankly, it's all just too complicated.
But they understand what it means to be Wendied. The story has suddenly acquired "legs" as we say in the newspaper business. The professors have now complained about their treatment to the Presiding Officer Sir Alex Fergusson. Alan Trench, an academic at the Constitution Unit who is the adviser to the House of Commons Welsh Affairs Committee, has refused to give evidence in protest at their treatment. Trench is non-aligned, but has criticised the Scotland Bill's proposals as weak and unworkable, so he is feart of being Wendied as well.Now Neil Kay, emeritus professor of economics at Strathclyde University, has joined the genteel brawl, by describing the professors' harsh treatment "utterly disgraceful."
The Scotland Bill faction appears to be fighting back, feeding stories to publications intent on undermining the Hughes Hallett and Scott assertion that fiscal responsibility could grow the economy of Scotland by 1.3 per cent after five years. Yet the purpose of their evidence to the committee was to discuss the Scotland Bill. Alexander previously asked as many people as possible to come forward to improve it.
That was the purpose of the professors' visit to Holyrood - to demonstrate how the Scotland Bill could cut the money Scotland gets back from Westminster by around 800 million a year.
Of course, that was not what Wendy wanted to hear, hence the ambush and criticism of their earlier work on fiscal autonomy, using the supposedly neutral committee system to attack the SNP government.
So the "war of the economists" has aroused the nation's interest.
But if this results in a war of attrition over the percentage point of economic growth that fiscal power will deliver, any excitement is likely to wane - or at the very least retreat back on to the business pages.
The whole language of this argument needs to change. We are not talking about some arcane economic theory. Fiscal responsibility/levers/autonomy even freedom is a hard sell if people think it's about taxes - that's if they understand it at all. We should be talking about power to the people, economic power, or simply more power.
The Scottish Parliament is our means to protect and defend Scotland, so let's enhance it further. Let's have power over our own resources - which are considerable as Scotland is in surplus. There is a democratic and moral argument to be made here and it ought to be made in simple terms.
One example is the cost of fuel, something that Nationalists have, quite rightly, focused on this week after the coalition reneged on earlier promises that they would ease the burden on motorists. Having to spend 70 filling up a family car is a disgrace anywhere, let alone energy-rich Scotland.
How can Labour continue to argue that Scotland would somehow be damaged by full economic power when we are sending 12 billion south to London in North Sea oil revenues this year, 2bn higher than forecast?
The price at the pumps has dominated the headlines this week, but the injustice that flows from the refusal to devolve energy doesn't just affect the individual motorist. One in three Scottish households are unable to keep warm properly. That translates as 770,000 homes who spend more than 10 per cent of their income on heating, the definition of fuel poverty.
Control of energy policy would also offer the ability to deal with the high transmission fees that Scotland pays to transport green energy.It cannot be right that electricity from a hydro-scheme in the Highlands costs more than electricity generated by coal near London. It is an even bigger disgrace that the transmission charges Scotland pays are then used to subsidise England's nuclear industry.
This is what the Scotland Bill will keep in place, an unfair, unjust system. During the 1980s and 1990s Scots talked about a democratic deficit. This century, let's talk about the economic deficit as well.
• Joan McAlpine is an SNP list candidate for the south of Scotland in May's Scottish Parliament election.
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