Andrew Wilson: Whitehall must learn to let go

Real devolution of power must be allowed. Picture: Alex Hewitt
Real devolution of power must be allowed. Picture: Alex Hewitt
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BETWEEN saying and doing many a pair of shoes is worn out. So the Italians say, anyway. You know the theme. Actions speak louder than words. Don’t simply tell someone you love them, show them. Alfred Adler, the Austrian psychologist, put it more starkly: “Trust only movement. Life happens at the level of events, not of words. Trust movement.”

I think he goes too far. Words matter, we are emotional animals after all. A child needs “communicated” as well as “acted” love, as do we all.

Watch any child’s face as they read your mood looking instinctively for a clue of what your emotional intent is. Smile and they smile too.

So yes, the movement counts. Especially when it comes to the actions of people who trade in promises and ­intent. What else is politics if not the use of promises and intent to win the power to manage and change the world we inhabit?

So what have we heard in recent weeks and days from the political ­system? We have heard that the greatest shift in responsibilities to date is going to transform Holyrood and empower it with meaningful autonomy that is as close to federalism as we dare dream: a powerhouse parliament to face the challenges of an ever changing world.

We have heard that the two governments in London and Edinburgh must find new ways of working together to resolve the tensions in the system and to make the devolution of tax and other powers work.

As this column noted last week, if the Smith Agreement is to be meaningful at all then how its clauses are legislated for and then implemented matters most. If the spirit of its intent is lived up to then the possibilities are real. If Whitehall takes the opportunity to cling tight to 
power and nickel and dime its way through tortuous negotiations then it shall founder.

The precedent is not great in this regard. Stamp Duty and Landfill taxes account for just over 1.5 per cent of the Scottish block grant and yet negotiations over how to implement their devolution have been utterly tortuous since it was agreed in the 2012 Scotland Act. Agreement on how to adjust the block grant on an ongoing basis has yet to be reached after two years of discussion.

If a more sizeable power is to be ­devolved and the spirit of Whitehall resistance remains the same then this could be very painful and the opposite of the intent of the parties in the Smith Agreement.

We already know from reports of the negotiations that the people in the room wanted to go much further than the eventual agreement and that the final hours saw a hand extend from London to grab lots back to base.

For the sake of everyone this simply cannot be allowed to go on. Adult behaviour needs to kick in and actions need to follow words if a reasonable outcome is to be reached.

The Whitehall and Westminster system needs to learn to let go and allow different approaches to be tried around the UK. Seeing this as something very clever mandarins can tie up in knots while the politicians handle consent will just not do.

Stamp Duty and its replacement by Land and Buildings Transactions Tax is a case in point.

The Scottish Parliament unanimously passed the legislation on its concept and structure in 2013. The October budget then set the rates. Now the actuality of them you can like or not, but the whole model has largely just been copied by George Osborne - and they say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

The difference is that Swinney’s move was revenue neutral while Osborne decided to spend more than £800 million a year in giveaways on his. He can, of course, because he has a broad set of powers with which to play.

Interestingly, I wonder if the ­Osborne decision allows Swinney the opportunity to look again at his numbers as it changes the goalposts on what revenue neutrality would ­actually mean.

All of this is tied up further in the adjustments that are then made to the block grant and Barnett formula.

While this all may sound arcane it is at the heart of how public services are funded and delivered and will determine whether the real devolution of power within the UK can be embraced and made to work. It would be ironic if the one side in these discussions fighting so hard to convince us that it wanted to make real devolution work pragmatically was the one doing its damndest to stymie it.

But that is how it looks now from where I sit.

Every instinct tells me that the resolution of these issues will define the shape of what happens next in our politics and government. All will flow from the spirit that informs the actions that reflect the words.

On this Adler was correct. If you want to judge whether the implementation has respected the hard work of Lord Smith in forging his agreement, trust movement. «

Twitter: @AndrewWilsonAJW