Peter Jones: This isn’t division - it’s devolution

WE ARE allowed to be different north and south of the Border. That’s what the Scotland Act was all about, writes Peter Jones
Decisions on Trident present difficulties for both Labour and the Conservatives. Picture: ContributedDecisions on Trident present difficulties for both Labour and the Conservatives. Picture: Contributed
Decisions on Trident present difficulties for both Labour and the Conservatives. Picture: Contributed

It has only taken 16 years but, finally, devolution has come of age. To be precise, the Scottish arms of the two major unionist parties at Holyrood and Westminster have come into the devolution age. They have finally recognised that devolution means the right to be different, to have different policies north and south of the Border.

The right to be different – over the renewal of the Trident nuclear deterrent in Labour’s case, and over the cuts to tax credits in the Conservatives’ case – of course presents difficulties in practical implementation for both parties, but the fact is it is a necessary step for both if they are to seriously challenge the SNP’s hegemony at next May’s Holyrood elections.

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The SNP’s instinctive reaction to this development has been to deride the parties as divided and split, therefore not to be trusted. It is a perfectly workable, and indeed usually successful, political tactic. So the two unionist parties have to work out their response.

Personally, I have never really understood why they have struggled with this. The whole point of devolution, I always thought, was to have the political means to pursue policies that would differ north and south of the Border. Indeed, in the 1997 devolution referendum, it was argued that different policies would be A Good Thing, enabling different parts of the UK to tailor measures to suit their own circumstances and for everyone to learn from the stratagems that worked best.

And indeed we have had marked differences – over student tuition fees, the structure and management of the NHS and local government, prescription charges, to name but a few – and the United Kingdom has managed to stay united.

The problem really has been that both Scottish Labour and the Scottish Tories have felt obliged to support their UK counterparts in policy areas reserved to Westminster – tax, defence, welfare, etc. And when those policies are seen to be inimical to Scottish interests, the parties get into difficulties.

At which point, the Nationalists pile in. They, of course, have the luxury of not having to worry about how anything they do or advocate might impact on the rest of Britain. They only have Scottish interests to worry about and thus can constantly present a united front, usually stridently so, while their opponents squirm.

The answer to this has long been obvious – the Scottish parties should be able to set their own policies and if they differ from those of their UK brethren, so be it. That’s not division, it’s devolution, should be their response.

In a lot of policy areas, such devolved difference should present no great difficulty, as it hasn’t with tuition fees. Whether no tuition fees in Scotland is in fact achieving the goal of getting more children from poorer families into higher education is a different subject; the point is that the absence of fees north of the Border is not rupturing the Union.

Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader, seems to have got the point remarkably quickly. She was elected leader on a line-in-the-sand manifesto – no more powers to be devolved beyond those recommended by the Calman Commission. Now she is the champion of what, in Tory eyes at least, must look like devo max.

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That, I presume, is because she now understands many voters construe opposition to more devolved power as being opposed to Scotland. She also understands that, in a parliament which only allocates spending, there is no room for a Tory agenda of saving public money and allowing taxpayers to keep more of what they earn.

She also knows the Scottish electorate disapproves of spending cuts that fall heaviest on the poorest. Thus, she has been letting it know that, while she approves in principle of reducing welfare spending by cutting tax credits, she believes the compensating rises in income that should follow from raising the minimum wage should come at the same time as the welfare cuts, and not later, as Chancellor George Osborne’s initial proposals imply. Whether she gets this change we will know when Mr Osborne presents his revised tax credits plan in the autumn financial statement in three weeks. And if not, her willingness to strike out on a different policy path will be tested thanks to the new tax and welfare powers due to be transferred to the Scottish Parliament in 2017.

Although it isn’t entirely clear from the amendments announced by Scottish Secretary David Mundell yesterday exactly how the enhanced welfare powers might be used to ameliorate any unacceptable tax credit plan, there does seem to be enough scope for an ingenious politician to deal with the problem from other directions.

These are, however, differences of degree rather than differences caused by directly opposing viewpoints and policies. The Scottish Labour conference vote committing the party to cancelling the renewal of Trident is a different beast altogether, more of an irreconcilable division. It directly conflicts with UK Labour policy as it stands now, thus causing, according to lots of commentators, no end of problems.

I disagree. If UK leader Jeremy Corbyn succeeds in changing UK Labour policy, there is no problem. But if he doesn’t, should a Scottish Labour MP vote in the House of Commons according to Scottish or UK party policy? The answer seems pretty clear to me – he or she should vote according to Scottish policy, otherwise there is no point in having a Scottish policy and you might as well, in Johann Lamont’s famous words, just have a branch office. The circumstances in which that MP’s vote – even if there were 40 and not just one of them – would change a UK government’s nuclear weapons policy are hard, if not impossible, to imagine. That might, you may think, play into SNP hands, but actually, the Nationalist MPs, on this issue, are just as impotent.

If there is a gain for Scottish Labour in being able to demonstrate that London Labour, to use an SNP phrase, is no longer its master, there is an unintended potential electoral downside. For any Scot who believes nuclear weapons are essential to national security and welcomes the jobs associated with them, there is now only one voting option – the Tories.