Analysis: Peer sticks to his guns as the unionist parties shift their focus to devo-plus

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THERE is a school of unionist thought that every time the UK government grants more powers to Scotland it is a step along the road to independence.

The former Conservative Scottish secretary Lord Forsyth falls firmly into that camp.

But Forsyth’s antipathy towards the Scotland Bill has been widely misunderstood. He opposes it because he believes it will result in a poorer financial deal for Scotland (due to its proposed cut in the block grant). It therefore comes as no surprise that he isn’t thrilled about David Cameron’s apparent desire to rethink the devolution settlement if Scots vote No in autumn 2014.

Yet Forsyth’s critique misses, I think, the subtlety of where not just the Prime Minister, but Unionist parties in general, are heading with all of this.

Yesterday, Alastair Darling said devolving complete control of income tax to Holyrood would be “relatively easy to implement”, while Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie repeated his desire to “see a parliament that raises what it spends”. Taken together with the Prime Minister’s speech on Thursday, the direction of travel seems clear.

It amounts to what has been termed “devo-plus”; that is, devolving most taxes (except VAT and National Insurance) to the Scottish Parliament, as distinct from “devo-max” (under which all taxes would be transferred), which the Unionist parties – and particularly Lord Forsyth – view as independence in all but name.

One part of Forsyth’s critique is difficult to refute. Ruth Davidson was elected on the basis of the Scotland Bill representing “a line in the sand” in terms of the devolution settlement. Her own UK party leader has now indicated his intention to cross that line, which undermines Davidson, although not irretrievably. Amid continually shifting constitutional sands, Lord Forsyth has at least been consistent: he’s never liked devolution, and doesn’t want any more of it. In that respect, he’s an increasingly lonely voice, but also an articulate one. Although he’s on good terms with the Prime Minister, he could cause him a lot of trouble from the House of Lords.

Those occupying the middle ground will most likely decide the outcome of the current constitutional debate. Poll after poll shows most Scots want neither the status quo nor independence, so the unionist parties are simply playing catch-up with majority public opinion. Lord Forsyth might well get left behind.

David Torrance is a biographer of Alex Salmond and has written a book on Margaret Thatcher’s relationship with Scotland