Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives have all set out their own plans for more powers at Holyrood, which offer varying degrees of enhanced devolution. A joint statement released this week by all three pledged they will “guarantee to deliver” more powers. But what will how far will these new powers go? There are significant differences between all three and despite an undertaking to look at each other’s proposals, who knows what can be guaranteed.
The Liberal Democrats have reiterated their long-standing commitment to a federalist approach, which would see Scotland have control of 42 per cent of taxes raised north of the Border. Labour has pledged to give MSPs the power to vary 15p worth of income tax – up from 10p under the current Scotland Act, which is in the process of being implemented.
But Johann Lamont’s party has been trumped by the Conservatives, whose Strathclyde Commission has called for Scotland to be given full control over the rate and bands for income tax, after the personal allowance, which would still be set at Westminster. This would make Holyrood accountable for almost 40 per cent of the money it spends with a case for Scotland’s share of VAT receipts being devolved.
So where does all this converge? If the polls continue to tighten, the Better Together parties are likely to feel pushed into setting out some kind of outline deal, at least on tax varying powers. This could prove significant among undecided Scots, with polling evidence to suggest that greater devolution is the most popular option for constitutional change.
But it’s a sensitive area. Ben Thomson, head of the Devo Plus campaign, warned this week that coalescing around a minimum level of new powers would represent a “lowest common denominator” approach and could be counterproductive. Instead the parties should be bold and “pick the best bits” of each other’s plans and show that a No vote means a radical alternative to the status quo.
The big danger is that voters will be left unclear about what’s on offer. Will it simply be that, after a No vote, the victorious party in next year’s UK election will push through its own plans? This essentially boils down to Labour or the Tories. And it suggests a looming headache for Labour strategists. The Tory proposals represent a more radical approach than Labour’s plans, which were heavily watered down from an interim report. Could it be that devolution-hungry Scots may be inclined to vote Tory to secure significant new powers?