George Robertson famously said that devolution would “kill nationalism stone dead”. As predictions go, it’s in the “war will be over by Christmas” category that would-be sages uttered 100 years ago.
But when Labour’s shadow secretary of state for Scotland made his pronouncement in 1995, though a touch overstated, it didn’t sound altogether unreasonable. Nor did it seem so to the SNP members who opposed Alex Salmond’s decision to support the “Yes Yes” campaign in the 1997 referendum, fearing the Scottish Parliament would stifle their cause.
Of course, no single reason explains why time has proved George – now Lord – Robertson wrong. It is partly the ebb and flow of party politics. By the 2011 Scottish Parliament election, centre-left floating voters, alienated by a Labour Party looking primarily to its core support and by the Liberal Democrats’ catastrophic strategic mistakes early in the UK coalition, switched to the SNP for want of anywhere else to call their political home.
That they felt able to do so was in part down to the success of Salmond’s government strategy of playing it safe, proving the SNP’s managerial competence and avoiding alienating voters. With that in mind, the SNP has pursued unusually limited legislative programmes, skirting around difficult issues.
But if those are reasons for the SNP’s continuing support, they don’t explain why the cause of independence hasn’t quietly been laid to rest in the corner of some forgotten kirkyard. Quite the opposite in fact: referendum polls show that devolution has given independence renewed life. The reason for that lies in the very architecture of the devolution settlement.
In developing the 1998 Scotland Act, Donald Dewar and Robin Cook, exploiting the legitimacy of the Constitutional Convention and Tony Blair’s desire to bring the Liberal Democrats into his Big Tent, succeeded in ensuring the model of devolution was relatively radical. But there was one key policy area where caution won out, thanks to the combined concerns of Blair and some back-bench Scottish Labour MPs, who feared for their own relevance if the new parliament became too powerful. The tax powers to be devolved were woefully limited; and even then Blair insisted they were the subject of a second referendum question.
So it was that the 1998 Scotland Act gave the parliament power without responsibility. In the early years of devolution, few gave that a second thought. The Scottish coalition was more concerned about how to spend its fabled “consequentials”, the extra funds dispatched by Gordon Brown every Budget day.
It was only after the SNP took office, the global economy crashed and funds got tight that it became apparent that, by reserving to itself almost all taxation powers, the UK government might just as well have erected a giant sign at the Border emblazoned with the words “Kick me”.
It has been an opportunity eagerly seized by Alex Salmond. Successful political campaigns are often based on clear distinctions between the supposed forces for good and bad, something not lost on the SNP. For years it has been busy talking up all the nice things it would be able to do, if only those nasty people at Westminster would give the SNP the money that should be Scotland’s by right. The devolution settlement became Salmond’s personal Petri dish for breeding resentment of Westminster.
Hindsight illuminates the mistakes in the 1998 Scotland Act. The question is whether the UK parties have learned that to curb the SNP’s ability to blame Westminster for Scotland’s ills they must make the Scottish Parliament genuinely fiscally accountable.
So far, so good. More fiscal powers are already on the way: by 2016, the parliament will raise stamp duty and approximately 50 per cent of income tax. Is that enough? None of the pro-UK parties think so, each one offering different proposals for a further transfer of tax powers. Again, though, it is Labour whose limited plans seem to reflect the compromises necessitated by its own byzantine internal politics, rather than a clear-sighted evaluation of the powers required to strengthen Scotland’s position within the UK. In contrast stand more radical suggestions from the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives.
Those differences aside, the UK parties’ promises of more powers worries independence supporters. For years, polls have shown that the electorate would prefer more powers for the parliament within the UK to either independence or the status quo.
Hence the fact the SNP is busy arguing that the UK parties will break their promises, citing inaction 35 years ago after the 1979 referendum. The SNP is, inevitably, overlooking the inconvenient truth of the UK parties’ excellent track record of delivering powers since then, with the establishment of the parliament itself and the extra tax powers enacted in 2012.
The real task for the UK parties is to persuade voters that significant additional powers will swiftly follow a rejection of independence. That is critical, and not just to win the referendum campaign. To ensure the long-term stability of devolution, the parliament must exercise both power and fiscal responsibility.
The joint pledge this week by Johann Lamont, Ruth Davidson and Willie Rennie, reinforced by their Westminster counterparts, was a big step towards that goal. It was also a guarantee of action, for if more powers did not materialise after a No vote, that pledge would surely give the SNP the perfect justification for an early second referendum.