With the Scottish Conservatives set to come out for income tax-setting powers for Holyrood, a seminal moment will have been reached, writes Brian Monteith
Today the Scottish Conservatives will reveal the findings of the Strathclyde Commission, the inquiry that the party established to consider how devolution might be improved by making the Scottish Parliament more accountable to the people it serves through it taking greater responsibility for raising the money it spends.
It is not about giving Alex Salmond a consolation prize, for our First Minister is not especially bothered by what powers he has within the United Kingdom. We know this to be true for he hardly uses the powers to raise taxes or create new ones that are already within his command.
Nor for Conservatives is it about trying to seduce some of the electorate to vote for maintaining the Union or even for their party. The need to create a greater connection between a Scottish Parliament and those that feel the pain of providing their hard-earned money for its spendthrift ways has been a concern of Tories ever since Holyrood was conceived.
The problem for Conservatives has always been in finding where the balance in tax-gathering between Edinburgh and London would lie. Advocates of greater financial responsibility, such as Murdo Fraser and Struan Stevenson, have fought a long and sometimes thankless battle but, now it is clear, they have convinced the rest of their party. The Strathclyde Commission will, so the briefings go, come out in favour of Holyrood being responsible for the setting of income tax in Scotland, with all receipts going to the parliament.
This will be a seminal moment in the journey of devolution – and, as a consequence, the referendum debate.
For there is no doubt that in finally crossing the Rubicon of agreeing to devolve substantial tax-raising powers, the Conservative Party will bring about a new cross-party consensus about how the Scottish Parliament should be financed, which in turn will change significantly the behaviour of the 15-year-old institution.
The Conservatives have trumped Ed Miliband and Johann Lamont by choosing to go further, with a more ambitious and coherent scheme. The Liberal Democrats and Conservatives now both advocate greater devolution than their partners in the Better Together campaign, meaning Labour’s proposals represent the minimum the electorate can expect.
Only by the Unionist parties risking public uproar, which would lead to electoral suicide, could they now go back on their word.
A No vote will not result in the status quo; it never could, for devolution is already set to change with the application next year of the Scotland Act 2012 that gives greater tax-setting and gathering powers. But thanks to Tom Strathclyde’s committee, we also now know a No vote will mean further devolution on top of that.
The only way to stop devolution developing – whereby Scotland has a greater share of decision making whilst continuing to spread our risks and share in the opportunities that come from being in the UK – is to vote Yes and leave the altogether.
I can already hear Alex Salmond’s Pavlovian retort that you can’t trust the Tories. Cameron can be expected to welch on the deal; remember Lord Home and the promise of greater devolution that was broken by Thatcher. And don’t forget Thatcher’s poll tax being applied on Scotland first – and any other Thatcher myth the First Minister cares to mention.
But the issue of breaching trust does not come down to blaming parties, for all have examples they would rather not talk about. The responsibility for building or losing trust rests with the leaders – the decision makers.
It was the SNP that brought down the Labour government and ushered in Thatcher, after all. Not yet in the House of Commons, this was hardly Alex Salmond’s fault. Later, Margaret Thatcher was against introducing the poll tax in Scotland ahead of the rest of the UK – that was the Scottish Conservatives’ own doing under the lobbying of its then chairman Jim Goold and a number of MPs. Still a university student, this was hardly David Cameron’s fault.
Blaming political parties for past errors when the responsible participants are either dead or long retired is immature and ill-befitting of those who hold great office. That is not to say the offer of political jam tomorrow is not about trust, it most certainly is, but the appropriate question must be: who – between Alex Salmond and David Cameron – should we trust more? Should we trust Alex Salmond – the politician who did not write off student debt or deliver local income tax because he did not have the parliamentary majority to do it, but when in 2011 he got that majority his government still did nothing; or David Cameron – the man who delivered more devolution by introducing the Scotland Act 2012, a Labour policy his party (even in Scotland) had no hand in, and although having the authority to prevent an independence referendum still agreed to one even though the timing and franchise was set by the SNP?
Should we put our faith in the Prime Minister, who is prepared to trust his people with a vote on European Union membership, even though it may go against his wishes of remaining in the EU – or in the First Minister, who will not countenance giving the Scottish people a say on the terms that an independent Scotland would be offered to join?
Should we trust the First Minister, who said he had legal advice on an independent Scotland remaining in the EU, went to court at taxpayers’ expense to keep that advice a secret, only for us to find out later that there was no advice at all – or should we trust the Prime Minister, who took the huge electoral risk of saying before the general election we would face austerity and that tough decisions would be needed if we were to have any economic recovery?
Unlike Lord Home or Thatcher, Cameron can be trusted to deliver greater devolution because this is his policy; he owns it.