Joyce McMillan: Why ‘new powers’ won’t be enough

Smiling for the cameras: David Cameron and Nicola Sturgeon outside her office yesterday. Picture: Andrew Milligan/Getty
Smiling for the cameras: David Cameron and Nicola Sturgeon outside her office yesterday. Picture: Andrew Milligan/Getty
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DAVID Cameron still doesn’t realise that what Scotland really wants is an alternative to the politics of austerity, says Joyce McMillan

ON A bright, cold January morning, the Prime Minister comes to Edinburgh, and announces what he calls a “great day for Scotland, and a great day for the United Kingdom too”.

The occasion for his slightly forced exuberance is the publication – always promised before Burns Night, and duly delivered – of the government’s detailed plans for legislation on new powers for the Scottish Parliament, as agreed by the Smith Commission back in November, after the parties of the Union made their famous pre-referendum vow.

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The streets of Edinburgh, it has to be said, are hardly full of cheering citizens; and in the hours following its publication, the debate around the draft legislation takes on a predictable shape. The parties of the Union declare that it represents a vow well kept, while the SNP quickly spy a couple of areas of slippage from what they believe the Smith Commission agreed; and the Prime Minister and the Scottish Labour leader, Jim Murphy, echo each other’s language in suggesting that this announcement should mark the end of Scotland’s recent intense phase of constitutional politics, with politicians shifting their attention back to the powers they have, and how they intend to use them.

In truth, though, the Prime Minister’s wish to see constitutional peace break out is hardly likely to be fulfilled, not least because the Smith Commission’s proposals themselves – a predictably rough-hewn and speedy compromise among five political parties with very different goals – show every sign of being unstable at best. The BBC’s Douglas Fraser has already pointed out that in choosing to devolve many aspects of income tax to the Scottish Parliament, the UK government has essentially sacrificed the central mechanism which is used, in most federal or devolved systems across the world, to stabilise the relationship between the centre and the devolved areas, which tend to control taxes on property or consumption.

If we add to the mix the high level of confusion about what is meant by the Smith Commission’s “no detriment” rule – which apparently suggests that no decision made by a devolved government should actually put Scotland at a financial advantage, or vice versa – the proposals begin to look like something of a dog’s dinner, and one that could cause endless ill-feeling between Westminster and Holyrood.

Behind the debatable quality of the Smith proposals, though, lies a much more profound failure to grasp the nature of the current political debate in Scotland; in essence, the British establishment seems unable to get beyond the idea that the Scottish Yes campaign represented some kind of explosion of rash and unthinking patriotic sentiment. Hence the idea that the Queen, by counselling people to “think very carefully”, would be seen as supporting a No vote. Hence Jim Murphy’s misguided belief that in order to attract back disaffected Labour voters, he has to talk loudly about leading a “patriotic” party, and about “putting Scotland first”.

And hence, above all, the belief that in order to keep Scotland in the Union, the government at Westminster has to keep placating our nationalist impulses by offering us ever more home rule – even when it evidently has no clear idea of how to reconcile its latest proposals with the traditional notion of Westminster as a unified and sovereign UK parliament.

Yet as the lack of excitement about the Smith proposals shows, the debate in Scotland – at grassroots level – is barely about the detail of constitutional change at all. It is, at heart, about the defence of social justice and public services, against an economic consensus at Westminster – reflected in last week’s cross-party vote for continuing austerity after the general election – that seems to reflect very different priorities. And in that sense, many of Scotland’s Yes voters were acting not parochially, but as part of the wider European rebellion – now spearheaded by Syriza in Greece – against the failed top-down politics of “austerity”, which methodically punishes the most vulnerable, and hammers the quality of life of middle earners, in order to bail out a system whose workings become ever harder to reconcile with any notion of fairness or sustainability.

Because the Smith proposals offer no hope of any real alternative to that failed consensus, they are likely to have little real impact on grassroots Scottish politics. A genuine devo-max proposal – giving Scotland access to all of its own tax revenues, subject to an annual subvention to London for shared costs – might have shifted the burden of responsibility and blame, and challenged the Scottish Government to put its money where its mouth is, and set a course for a more Nordic Scotland.

The current proposals, though – devolving just one major tax area, and otherwise tightly constraining Scottish Government action within UK austerity plans – will be of interest mainly to technicians of government. And for all the SNP’s ideological vagueness about where it actually stands on austerity – or even on why, if all Westminster parties are the same, it prefers Labour to the Tories as a possible partner – it will have no difficulty in pinning any failures of devolved government over the next half-decade on the contradictions of the Smith settlement, particularly when many leading economists share its view of Smith’s flaws.

Yesterday in Edinburgh, David Cameron described these latest proposals as a devolution settlement “built to last”. The truth is, though, that compared with the Scotland Act of 1998 – simple, partial, but debated for a decade before drafting, and surprisingly robust – this latest framework looks like a house of cards.

The reason for its weakness lies not only in the hasty constitutional process that shaped it. It also reflects the complete absence, 17 years on, of the powerful and reasonable hope for a reformed, more democratic, more equal and compassionate Britain that drove the UK opposition politics of the late 1990s; and that gave the new devolved parliaments such a strong political base of hope and goodwill on which to build, as they set out into the New Labour age that began so brightly, but ended in a series of betrayals – not of constitutional promises, but of a progressive government’s basic duty to regulate wealth and promote peace – that may, with hindsight, be seen to have weakened the Union beyond repair.