Johann Lamont: Devolution will deliver

This is the latest in a weekly series of indyref essays in which influential figures explore ideas related to the Scottish independence referendum.

Johann Lamont believes improved devolution will best meet Scotland's needs. Picture: Jane Barlow
Johann Lamont believes improved devolution will best meet Scotland's needs. Picture: Jane Barlow

For a campaign that is so divisive, it’s surprising how much we have come to agree on.

All sides of the referendum campaign agree that sovereignty lies with the Scottish people and it is for them to determine who should exercise power on their behalf.

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The old dividing line in constitutional politics was between nationalists who believed all decisions should be taken by Scots here in Scotland and devolutionists, who argued we should share power where it was in our interests.

The Scottish Parliament confirmed this – an institution to take charge of our NHS, our legal system and our schools, all of which were uniquely Scottish, while sharing social security, immigration and defence with the rest of the UK.

It’s the best of both worlds argument that seems to have persuaded most Scots – even the SNP. Despite their famous declaration – “the best people to make decisions on behalf of Scotland are those who live and work here” – it seems the SNP has long abandoned that belief.

They are now prepared to share sovereignty with the other countries of Europe as full members of the European Union. Even more surprising is their U-turn on Nato, sharing defence policy with our allies. That means decisions jointly made for Scotland by Germans, Americans and other neighbouring countries.

But the most surprising thing has been their willingness to continue sharing sovereignty with the UK. On so many areas, they concede the necessity to keep sharing with our friends and neighbours, most notably on currency and monetary policy, but they seek to enfeeble Scotland rather than strengthen us. Their independence comes at the price of less representation and less influence not more.

They also want to share financial regulation, have a common energy market, UK-wide lottery funding, UK-wide research funding, the same lender of last resort, Ministry of Defence shipbuilding contracts, the Bank of England and open borders. In fact, whenever the Nationalists are hit with a tough question, the answer always seems to be to keep things the same.

In a sense, it proves that pure independence is an old-fashioned idea that has been overtaken by a globalised, inter-dependent world. So even though this debate has become increasingly fractious, a consensus has emerged that it makes sense to share our sovereignty where it is in our interests.

The real debate becomes where should power best be exercised to best serve the people of Scotland – at a European level, across the UK, here in Scotland or at a more local level. Arranging the constitution becomes like a postman in a sorting office, deciding what letters should be allocated to what slot.

On the most part, it’s just common sense. If we are going to share these islands, it makes sense to have the same defence, immigration and macro-economic policy. With pensions and welfare, is it not in Scotland’s interests to share the costs across 60 million people rather than five million?

Equally, Scotland has its own education system, its own NHS and its own legal system – that is why we needed a parliament to control these areas. On tourism, enterprise, energy, care, tertiary education, the environment, rural affairs, transport, housing, it made sense to take these decisions at Holyrood.

This was the orthodoxy back when Labour delivered a Scottish Parliament in 1999 and much of it is still relevant today. But it is undeniable that the success of devolution has created a thirst for more, and the people of Scotland want a parliament which has greater power, accountability and flexibility.

Meeting that challenge while still retaining the pooling and sharing of resources and protecting the benefits which Scotland gets from the Union was where we started two years ago when I set up the Devolution Commission.

At the same time, my counterparts, Willie Rennie and Ruth Davidson, set about the same task. What’s remarkable is how similar our conclusions were in the end.

We all concluded that taxation is they key area for further devolution which can bring about a more accountable parliament and a more mature politics in Scotland. We decided not to devolve all of income tax. While we want more authority for Holyrood, we did not want to break our links with the UK income tax system because we believe Scotland, which raises proportionately less in income tax than England, would lose out.

We also feared tax competition and a race to the bottom which would mean the poorest paying the price. Instead, we have a package of tax proposals which gives Scotland the best of both worlds.

On other areas of devolution, we agreed with the principle that a pensioner in Glasgow should be entitled to the same support as a pensioner in Manchester and Liverpool. But while we supported a UK-wide system of social security, we thought there was scope for further devolution on benefits which align with policy already set in the Scottish Parliament. So we have suggested bringing housing benefit and attendance allowance to the Scottish Parliament to give us more flexibility and to help shape housing and care policies.

Finally, on jobs, we thought that each community in Scotland faced its own challenges to get people back to employment and that is why we will look to devolve the work programme to local government.

This proves that devolution is not about whether the UK or Scottish Parliament makes the best decisions – it is about devolving power to the lowest possible level that makes sense.

Understandably, there has been lots of interests in the future of devolution as an alternative to independence. All three No parties have brought forward distinct but similar proposals which the people of Scotland will get to vote on at the general election if Scotland decides to stay part of the UK.

The Nationalists have tried to create uncertainty but any Scots who have doubts about devolution should look at our record. We delivered a Scottish Parliament 15 years ago and we did it by working with other parties, including the SNP, and organisations, including the trade unions, faith groups and the third sector.

Each of us entered that debate with a different vision, an open mind and a desire to do what was best for Scotland. The building in Edinburgh is a testament to that ability to reach the consensus. We did it again with the Scotland Act which gave the parliament important borrowing powers and greater tax-raising capacity.

We should also reflect that it’s in our interests to improve devolution and have a parliament which functions better. Scottish Labour will continue to shape and test devolution so that it best serves the people of Scotland. We want to strengthen the Scottish Parliament so we can strengthen Scottish politics.

• Johann Lamont MSP is leader of the Scottish Labour Party.