Brian Wilson: Obama’s right, the UK does work well

President Barack Obama commented that the Union 'seems to work pretty well'. Picture: Getty
President Barack Obama commented that the Union 'seems to work pretty well'. Picture: Getty
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STAYING in the Union and giving Holyrood more powers is also the most popular choice for Scots, writes Brian Wilson

From an outside perspective, said Barack Obama, “it seems to work pretty well”. With that simple observation, he hit the nub of the question. What is the problem that demands such high-risk surgery?

For fundamental Nationalists, that question does not arise. The problem is that we are part of the United Kingdom, full stop. Everything else is a rationalisation and what might happen after 18 September is a matter of marginal interest.

Whatever follows, from that perspective, would be a price worth paying for the status of Scottish statehood. That is a perfectly respectable point of view if honestly expressed, which it rarely is and certainly not by the SNP leadership. But it is also, without doubt, a minority one.

Back in January of last year, a poll which offered four alternatives – the status quo, two degrees of enhanced powers for Holyrood and full independence – found just 19 per cent support for the last of these options. That, more or less, can be defined as the core “come-what-may” separatist vote.

The “devo-max” diversion was, at that point, drawing to a close. The poll I refer to, like many others, reflected that debate and suggested that easily the most popular option would be to stay within the UK but with enhanced powers for the Scottish Parliament.

Since there was no set scheme of devo-max, the ploy of advancing it as an option for the ballot paper was purely tactical on the part of the Nationalists. It was a demand that could not be met and, anyway, it was not what they had spent 80 years campaigning for, so why would they want it, in their hour of opportunity?

In truth, their hope was that, by appearing to reject the reasonable demand for a “middle option”, the advocates of remaining within the UK would be deemed unreasonable, thereby drawing devo-max supporters into the independence camp when the choices were polarised. At that time, I wrote: “Each of the opposition parties at Holyrood is already doing its own work on [enhanced devolution]. They are also co-operating through Better Together. There should be no insuperable barriers to them gradually starting to negotiate what a revised balance of powers and responsibilities should look like after the independence question is out of the way”.

Eighteen months on, that still seems like a sensible way to proceed. With a 20 per cent lead, the partners in advocating a No vote can act from a position of strength. If they use it to establish a consensus on what would be on offer, the effect would be to provide the solid alternative to independence that most people – except the non-negotiable Nationalists – say they want.

This week, the Strathclyde Commission produced its report for the Scottish Conservatives, recommending that Holyrood should become responsible for rates and bands of income tax and also that key aspects of welfare policy should be devolved. It is a radical, intellectually coherent document that embraces the logic of devolution and addresses its pitfalls.

Critically, it takes head-on the largely bogus claim, heavily deployed for referendum purposes, that the Scottish Parliament lacks the tools and means to tackle social inequality and deprivation. In fact, Holyrood is awash with money – £36 billion at the last count – and has many relevant, unused powers. Addressing poverty is being used as a pawn in the game rather than the priority it should be.

The power to vary the basic rate of tax remains unused and was given short shrift when John Swinney invited voters to contribute “a penny for Scotland”. In the future, as in the past, the best regulator of Scottish income tax rates will be the realpolitik of the ballot box rather than a prohibition on what Holyrood can do, which is useful only as an alibi. Apart from the odd party political flourish, I found it difficult to see anything in the Strathclyde document to take issue with. It also had the merit of reminding us that making devolution work better is not only about powers. It is also about the processes and procedures of Holyrood, which are certainly in need of improvement.

For example, in the absence of a revising chamber, it is particularly important that there should be a strong committee system with loyalty to the parliament and quality of legislation rather than to party interest. The select committees at Westminster largely fulfil that test of bipartisanship, whereas the Holyrood ones have been reduced to cheerleaders for the administration. Strathclyde proposes that the chairs of these committees should always come from the opposition.

Critically, in my eyes, the report made the point that devolution should not stop at Holyrood. Surely all the non-Nationalist parties could agree on reversing the cult of Edinburgh centralisation, which is endemic within the current administration.

In January last year, I suggested that the Scottish Constitutional Convention should reconvene in advance of the referendum so that not only the political parties but “civic Scotland” could be engaged in the consensus on subsequent reforms. There need not be a final sign-off to an agreed plan by September, but further, clear confirmation of “work in progress” would become irrefutable.

The Nationalists’ only response is to hark back to Sir Alec Douglas-Home and some vague, unfulfilled commitment from the 1970s. More recent history does not suit them one little bit since it sends the directly opposite message – that each of the three pro-Union parties has remained true to its word and delivered exactly as promised.

Labour established the Scottish Constitutional Convention, which the Nationalists boycotted, and then, at the first opportunity, turned its conclusions into legislation. The Labour-Lib Dem administration at Holyrood prompted the Calman reforms, which are yet to take effect, and the Tory-Lib Dem coalition at Westminster did absolutely nothing to renege on them.

There now exists a template to guarantee the option that the great majority of Scots have expressed a preference for – remaining within a “strong, robust, united” UK while revising towards Holyrood the powers that are most appropriately funded and administered there. The differences between the conclusions of the three parties are minimal compared to the chasm between unity and separation.

Put that squarely to the Scottish people, and the conclusion will be overwhelming: the UK “seems to work pretty well” and is also capable of adapting without creating separate states within a small island.