SCOTTISH INDEPENDENCE: Labour and the Conservatives were at loggerheads last night over the devolution of more powers to Scotland as former Prime Minister Gordon Brown accused the Tories of setting a “trap” on income tax.
In a letter to his Kirkcaldy constituents, Mr Brown attacked Tory proposals to hand over complete control of income tax to Holyrood, claiming that it would “put the Union at risk” and was designed to stop Scottish MPs from voting on key parts of the Budget. The Labour MP also called on 100,000 Scots to sign a petition demanding that the UK parties “keep their promises [on more powers] with no strings attached”.
His attack came as Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson insisted that devolving complete control of income tax was her “top priority” and said she would not accept any watering down of proposals her party has laid out on the future of devolution.
In a speech to a packed meeting at the Tory Party conference in Birmingham, Ms Davidson said that devolving all control of income tax and Scottish VAT receipts is at the centre of her strategy for a Conservative revival north of the Border.
She made it clear that the Conservatives will be running on a tax-cutting platform in the Holyrood election in 2016 and announced the creation of a low-tax commission which will begin work in January.
Ms Davidson also said that devo max – whereby Holyrood controls everything other than foreign affairs and the armed forces – was “a non-starter”. The battlelines have been drawn even before a commission chaired by Lord Smith of Kelvin – with representatives from Labour, the Tories, Liberal Democrats, SNP and Scottish Greens – has convened.
With a deadline of January for it to come up with an agreed plan, hopes of reaching a consensus were in disarray yesterday as the SNP accused Ms Davidson of “trying to hijack the Smith Commission”.
Labour fears Tory plans to introduce “English votes for English laws” will mean its Scottish MPs would be blocked from voting on key Budget measures.
The Conservative conference has already heard demands from former business minister Lord Digby Jones and Communities Secretary Eric Pickles that Scottish MPs should be blocked from voting on taxation.
In his letter to constituents, Mr Brown wrote: “The Tory trap that we are in danger of falling into is to devolve all decisions on Scotland’s income tax rates away from Westminster and then to deny Scotland representation in votes on Budget decisions on income tax rates.
“This would be clearly against the material interests of the people of Scotland and put the Union itself at risk. They must now demonstrate that it is not true that, on the morning after the referendum, the Conservative party stopped thinking about Scotland and started thinking only about the Conservative party.
“Indeed, all parties have to be reminded again of both the no- strings-attached promises they made and their responsibilities to the whole country.”
Instead, he offered a 14-point devolution plan based on social justice, handing over control of many welfare measures and 75 per cent of income tax.
However, Ms Davidson made it clear that she is not willing to compromise on income tax and pointed out that four of the five parties involved in the Commission – set up by Mr Cameron – want all of income tax devolved.
She said: “We’ll make sure there’s no hiding place for politicians who want to jack up the tax bills of Scottish families.”
And she called on the SNP to rule out devo max, which she said “must be off the table.” She said: “Such a plan – which would devolve everything bar foreign affairs and the armed forces – is a complete non-starter. It is incompatible with remaining part of the United Kingdom, so the SNP needs to make it clear that this is off the table. I will be part of nothing that puts the strength of our United Kingdom in peril. And I do so knowing that I have the majority of the people of Scotland in my corner.”
Ms Davidson said she believes her devolution plans will cement a Tory revival on the back of a strong referendum campaign and claimed her low-tax policies will help the party win the centre ground of Scottish politics.
She told party members that SNP leader-in-waiting Nicola Sturgeon “will be the most left-wing First Minister ever” and will hand the Scottish Tories an opportunity to claim the centre ground north of the Border.
She said: “Nicola will take her party – and the country – leftwards. With all these fired-up new members, she’ll be locking horns with Labour, and they’ll be trying to outflank each other to demonstrate a kind of socialist machismo, elbowing each other aside to lay claim to the collectivist crown.”
Ms Davidson’s speech was aimed at positioning the Scottish Conservatives as the “party of the silent majority” based on the strong No vote in parts of Scotland where they have lost out to the SNP in the last 20 years, including Perthshire, Angus and Moray.
A bullish Ms Davidson promised to help return a “praetorian guard” of Scottish Tory MPs next year to Westminster to join their sole current MP, David Mundell. Ancient Rome’s praetorian guard had 12 cohorts, the same number as the Westminster seats in Scotland the Tories claimed they could win in 2010.
Despite her attack on the Nationalists, she would not rule out doing a deal with the SNP in Westminster or Holyrood, as leading pollster Peter Kellner, of YouGov, suggested the SNP could win 26 Westminster seats.
But the SNP identified Ms Davidson as the main block for more powers coming to Holyrood. SNP MSP Stewart Maxwell said: “People in Scotland were clearly and unambiguously promised substantial additional powers by the Westminster parties and it is just not on for Ruth Davidson to attempt to row back on that vow. If Ruth Davidson is now determined to impose limits on the additional powers Scotland should gain, why did she not speak out at the time?
“Gordon Brown has made clear the Westminster parties cannot casually rewrite or revise their vow and those are words that Ruth Davidson and her Tory colleagues should pay close attention to. It shows an extraordinary degree of bad faith for Ruth Davidson to now try and dictate the terms the Smith Commission and people across Scotland must be free to discuss.”