Duncan Hamilton: Why the Scotland Bill’s shortcomings are nothing to crow about
FIRST, to Dublin. David Cameron popped in to sign a treaty and talk about the new relationship between Ireland and the UK. Given that Ireland is obviously an example of a nation which decided to leave the United Kingdom, the Prime Minister’s remarks are of wider interest in Scotland.
Quite rightly, Cameron celebrated the fact that, “All the friendship between our peoples, our countries, the shared culture, sport and all the ties that we have are flowering to their true and fullest extent”, noting that, “I can’t think of a time when they have been stronger or better.” His declared intention was to work together on energy, trade and business policy and to work on “how we can be good partners in the European Union pushing for pro-growth, pro-enterprise, pro-trade policies. So, I think you have seen a great flowering in this relationship. It’s got enormous potential.”
Quite right – that’s a first-class statement of common international endeavour and the perfect definition of the social and economic relationship Scotland would have with England post-independence. Does that sound remotely like the “independence is isolation” refrain which has defined the Unionist campaign in Scotland? No, but then I really must learn not to keep looking for consistency from Cameron. It’s a quest bound to end in disappointment.
Remember the last time he visited? That brought the pledge that if we vote No to independence, “further options for devolution are on the table”. Despite repeated questioning, neither the specific options nor the particular table in question were ever identified. Should you find either, one A Salmond of Bute House, Edinburgh, would certainly be interested to hear from you.
This time, Cameron was more restrained, simply offering to remain “open-minded” if we said No. Great stuff, so we actually now appear to be going backwards in this process? What kind of a serious PM runs at the mouth offering deals he can’t define and then revisits the scene of the crime a month later to offer even less than the last time he ventured north? Will he be back again next month to tell us the good news that he has no plans to abolish Holyrood?
In fairness, this was also the week that a deal was finally done between the UK Government and Scottish Government on the Scotland Bill going through Westminster. It means some increased tax powers and capital borrowing powers. Crucially, there is an agreement on the Scottish Parliament having to agree to changes which might impact on the block grant as a consequence of the new fiscal powers. That is sensible. The Bill plainly doesn’t touch the sides of the present debate – it doesn’t even match up to the recommendations of the Scotland Bill Committee under Wendy Alexander – but as a small step in the right direction it deserves recognition.
Alex Salmond sought much more – including devolution of corporation tax, the Crown Estate, alcohol and tobacco excise duties, and broadcasting. He also sought a guarantee of Scottish representation at EU meetings. His opponents predictably pounced on the absence of those concessions as a sign of defeat for the Scottish Government, the Lib Dems even saying the SNP must be “red-faced by their surrender”. Odd day, isn’t it, when a Lib Dem party claiming to be for Home Rule rushes into print to celebrate the refusal of the UK Government (of which they are part) to respond to those aspirations?
Labour has also set up a review (let’s call that Operation Long Grass) for the purpose of identifying a list of additional powers they want devolved. Yet both parties take time out to glory in those which are being denied. Why they think that will entice the floating Scottish voter, I do not know. Most Scots would sign up immediately to what the First Minister sought from Cameron and more. Quite why alienating reasonable mainstream opinion makes sense to Unionist parties remains one of the great mysteries of this debate.
In any event, the cheap shots miss the point entirely. A constitutional impasse on something as relatively minor as this package really wasn’t worth the hassle for the Scottish Government, once the guarantees on the Scottish block were secured. Getting this package through won’t make a blind bit of difference to the referendum result, not least because everyone accepts there is much more to come. The UK Government needed a deal and, for very different reasons, so too did the Scottish Government.
Getting the Scotland Bill agreed and moving on to the main event is therefore smart politics. If the Unionist parties want to crow about having contained the powers of the Scottish Parliament let them do so. Most Scots will take a more considered approach – one that welcomes the limited additional financial devolution and the control over air guns, drink driving and speed limits, but sees them for what they are – the latest instalment on an overdue account.
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