Joyce McMillan: Scotland Bill is challenge for SNP

George Osborne, Harriet Harman and David Cameron at the State Opening of Parliament. Picture: Getty
George Osborne, Harriet Harman and David Cameron at the State Opening of Parliament. Picture: Getty
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THE Smith Commission’s deeply flawed settlement will require some clever political footwork, says Joyce McMillan

THE state opening of Parliament: and with a blast of trumpets, the Queen appears in the House of Lords in sparkling robe and crown, to give her annual blessing to the list of measures her elected government is planning to put before parliament. There is much to be said against this ceremony, of course; the very form of it, with the Lords seated in red velvet ranks to the fore, while the people’s elected representatives from the Commons crowd in at the door like servants allowed upstairs for a brief glimpse of family prayers, is plainly unfit for a democratic age.

If the ceremony is debatable, though, there’s no denying the hard politics of the Queen’s Speech itself; and this one, brought to us by the election-winning team of David Cameron and George Osborne, is interesting – if also depressing – in at least three ways. In the first place, it clearly presages further hard times for Britain’s “submerged fifth”, the 12-13 million who are struggling to make ends meet on low wages, and in persistent underemployment. The planned benefit cuts for 18-21 year olds, the further cuts to come in the Chancellor’s emergency budget, and other measures such as the planned sell-off of housing asssociation homes, will only serve to increase the disadvantage of those in poverty, and to make affordable housing ever harder to find.

Then secondly, the Queen’s Speech speaks volumes, between the lines, about the sheer difficulty of trying to shape policy to deal with the largely fictional world of threats and hate-figures which seemed, in the run-up to the election, to underpin the growing popularity of Ukip, and to require a policy response. It’s notable, for example, that the government has already had to kick into the long grass its plans to repeal the Human Rights Act and re-legalise fox-hunting; and that the European Union referendum is already shaping up as an overwhelmingly one-sided battle, in which all parties at Westminster except Ukip will line up on the 
“yes” side.

Thirdly, though, this Queen’s Speech lays the ground for the immediate implementation of the agreed Smith Commission proposals for further devolution, published yesterday in the form of a new Scotland Bill. What this means, in effect, is that the UK’s simple but relatively robust devolution settlement of 1998, which has endured for 17 years with very few adjustments, is about to be radically destabilised by a series of proposals which purport to offer the Scottish Parliament and government major new powers, but in fact load them with further responsibilities, while offering just one significant new financial power – the right to vary rates and bands of tax on earned income, excluding income on savings and investments.

Theories vary as to why the Smith proposals for these new financial arrangements, and their consequences, are quite as confusing and labyrinthine as they are. Some take the view that the whole post-referendum process was an over-hasty botched job. Others detect a deliberate neo-liberal bias in the effort to load all Scottish aspirations for better public services onto the segment of income tax that hammers ordinary earners, thereby driving Scottish politics to the right, and forcing voters to conclude that the social-democratic future they seek is beyond their reach.

What’s undeniable, though, is that, last November, all five of Scotland’s main parties signed up to this deeply flawed settlement; and it’s therefore to be hoped – not for the party’s sake, but for Scotland’s – that the SNP, which now completely dominates our representation in Scotland and at Westminster, is thinking hard and fast about how to escape from the financial and political trap contained in the Smith proposals. Their first option would be to put our money where their mouth is, and use the powers to raise Scottish taxes, and somehow find a way of retaining public support by demonstrating clear positive outcomes from the additional spending; although given the SNP’s weak record in achieving measurable detailed improvements in services such as health and education, that must be by far the most risky choice.

The second option would be simply to refuse to use the new financial powers, on the grounds that they are too skewed and too limited to be practicable. That line would reflect the truth of the matter; but it would also leave the SNP open to accusations of having the power to “do something” to offset the worst effects of austerity, and yet not using it.

And then thirdly and most radically, the SNP could side-step the debate by declaring that the structural imbalances in the British economy are now so great that the shuffling around of powers among levels of government – that is, further devolution – is increasingly irrelevant. The SNP’s attack on austerity, after all, is not a Scotland-only policy; and the party must now be increasingly aware that if austerity is not reversed at UK level, then Scotland’s room for manoeuvre – as a devolved region of a country whose tax-base is ever more heavily skewed towards the super-rich of the south-east – will be increasingly negligible. For 36 years now, after all, Scotland has been in a state of quiet rebellion against a rightward shift in Britain’s economy and society which a majority of us always opposed, to which we never consented, and from which we increasingly sought to protect ourselves through constitutional reform.

What, though, if the limits of that process have been reached? What if the difference of opinion about the kind of society we want is becoming unresolvable? What if the very character of Britain’s 21st-century economy increasingly makes devolution unworkable, as a way of pursuing social-democratic alternatives?

There’s much about the new Scotland Bill, in all its complexity, that suggests we may be approaching that kind of tipping-point. Whether we tip towards independence, though, and a last chance to pursue those long-cherished goals – or whether we knuckle under and accept our right-wing UK fate – will depend heavily on the party that, for now, speaks for almost all of us at Westminster; and on whether it can muster the political and intellectual firepower to keep the dream of a different kind of future alive, under all the pressure the British state can bring to bear, at its grandest, its most charming, and its most ruthless.