Andrew Wilson: Scots must set independence pace

"Welcomed step along the way" in home rule journey. Picture: PA
"Welcomed step along the way" in home rule journey. Picture: PA
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I READ the Smith Commission outcome last week and watched the reaction. My overwhelming feeling was a yearning for us all to just pause, draw breath and savour a moment when we progressed together.

We have come a long way from when the Tories ruled without mandate and did so with impunity. At least until the 1997 election.

Smith’s chief success was that all five parliamentary parties went into the negotiating room together, stayed there and then came out with an agreement on next steps. That combination has never happened before. If it had, then the parliament we gained in 1997 might have had a more sensible set of responsibilities than it does now and is set to get next.

Given the division of the referendum, the pressures of a coming general election, an ill-defined brief and a very short time frame, that there was an outcome at all was remarkable. Lord Smith is to be respected for that achievement. Completely.

Do I think the report is the last word in this phase of Scotland’s home rule journey? Of course not. I doubt anyone seriously does. Is it a welcome next step along the way? Definitely.

Politically, the main thing that has happened is that the Labour party has been dragged kicking and screaming to the point where they have caught up with the Tories’ ambitions for Scotland. That is quite a thought. That they dug their heels in on so much that could have been in the report demonstrates that they have yet to create any sense of purpose for their ambitions in Scotland beyond opposing in all directions. I have been there. It doesn’t win.

All eyes should now be on the detail of what emerges when Whitehall bill teams get their hands on the report. Will the spirit of the report be kept in the detail of the legislation and its implementation afterwards? Watch this space.

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How the block and formula are altered, the revenues calculated and managed, incentives and rewards set within the system, all offer Whitehall the chance to keep its grip. If it does, this could be Calman and the 2012 Scotland Act all over again.

The experience of the negotiations since 2012 has been dire, with the Treasury taking every opportunity to nickel and dime.

If the fundamental culture of how government business is done in the UK is changed, then things could get quite interesting.

The strength of the institutions of Holyrood needs to grow with the powers they will control. Parliament itself needs the resource and the make-up to properly examine the work of government. That would strengthen and improve the government itself, as all power needs proper challenge to sharpen its approach.

My major concern is that the financial underpin retains a large gap between spending power and revenue-raising responsibility. And while control of income tax looks big, the political reality is that it is a brave finance minister that would do much that is radical with it.

The balancing mix of other tools to ensure the economy thrives competitively, growing the tax base and sustainable funding for services, just aren’t there.

This means there is a significant way to travel to reach anywhere close to what could be fairly called home rule.

The risks baked into the system are that politics gets defined by disingenuous and symbolic gestures on miniscule tax moves. Designed to look progressive and fair, such an approach could succeed in only damaging incentives and failing to deliver for the people that need help most.

Politics could get very short-termist at the very time when long-term reforms are needed.

So much is challenging public services, the economy and government. We need our politicians at all levels properly focused on reform and with the tools to get a good job done well.

The doing of this is much harder than the theorising. But we know that transforming improvement is possible if built from the base up. How Nicola Sturgeon’s new team are able to transform local democracy and its funding is one of the most significant and interesting policy challenges of the next phase.

My instincts are that the UK parties remain anchored behind the position where most of the population stand on what should be done where. Too many influential people look ahead in reluctance rather than enthusiasm. That will need to change.

And the SNP will need to keep its composure if it is to keep its surging support firmly behind it. Lessons need to be learned from what happened in the referendum and, if they are, the opportunities to govern very well for a very long time to come are real.

If it wasn’t for the SNP, none of the powers the parliament is getting would be on their way. They should pause to take credit and own that reality.

The dream that will never die could yet be made reality. But only at the pace the people will walk.

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