Alison Elliot: Home rule can save us from strain

Lord Smith of Kelvin launches the Heads of Agreement. Picture: Alex Hewitt

Lord Smith of Kelvin launches the Heads of Agreement. Picture: Alex Hewitt

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THIS year has been an emotional treadmill for people in Scotland. It’s understandable if we bid it farewell with relief and have a brief rest from constitutional cogitating.

The coming year will bring its own challenges, as the Smith proposals are digested and fed back through manifestos for the Westminster­election. And there are plenty of pressing issues to pick up again, now that the referendum is out of the way.

For many people, however, 2014 leaves a lot of unfinished business. The impetus to continue to press for independence is obvious: that dream is no respecter of political timetables and we’ve always known those who believe it’s right for Scotland will keep campaigning for it, whatever the referendum outcome.

But there is also a restlessness among those who believe Scotland’s future lies within the United Kingdom. For all that the Smith report is a considerable achievement in delivering agreement among diverse political actors, it does not match the ambitions and well considered proposals of many of the thousands of people who took the trouble to make a submission to the Commission. Once articulated, these ambitions will also continue in the form of a disappointment with Scotland’s constitutional position and will surface again at a later date. Devolution as currently practised is a process that has no natural end point short of independence.

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That is why proposals for home rule merit consideration.

Home rule has had several manifestations in the past but it is now being proposed as a sustainable form of governance, fit for Scotland in the 21st century. It combines mature autonomy for Scotland on the issues that matter most to people on a day-to-day basis with the advantages of being part of the wider political union that is most natural in terms of our history and our dominant trading markets. Based on clear principles of subsidiarity, financial responsibility and mutual respect, rather than being a response to local political circumstances, it has the ­potential to offer escape from a ­neverendum on the one hand and creeping devolution on the other. Both sap people’s energy and create the instability that is bad for business and that inhibits bold and coherent policy development.

We need a clear distribution of powers that respects subsidiarity, the principle that decisions should be made closest to the population they affect. If Scotland is to deal with housing, it needs to be in control of the financial levers that relate to that. If it’s going to use local insights about how to approach child poverty, it shouldn’t be stymied by having to implement a reserved policy that pulls in the opposite direction. And if a power is reserved, it should be clear why a Scottish take on the matter is inappropriate.

In paying for Scottish Government policies, the balance has to be struck between raising funds in Scotland and sharing funds (and some of the priorities that go with them) with the rest of the UK. For an adult settlement, the default position should be that Scotland raises the funds it spends, with additional resources coming from Westminster or Brussels only when necessary for specific needs. It could be done, with Scotland shaping a fiscal regime that fits its economy and facing up to the financial responsibilities that go with the priorities we set ourselves. And that would form the basis for a relationship between Edinburgh and London that is more respectful than we have at present, and that might not be resolved without a properly articulated constitution for the country.

The principle of mutual respect should extend to recognition of the Scottish tradition that it is the people who are sovereign, not the parliament. During the referendum many relished the chance to have their say. There’s an appetite for political change and for greater autonomy. This could be translated into a sustainable settlement for a mature and confident Scotland within the UK. «

• Dr Alison Elliot OBE is a member of the Campaign for Scottish Home Rule steering group, a former moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland and associate director of the Centre for Theology and Public Issues at Edinburgh University.

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