The public is ready for proper solutions, but the politicians want to keep the real power at Westminster, writes Lesley Riddoch
Why won’t Yes supporters hit the reset button, to borrow Gordon Brown’s phrase? On one level, the former Labour leader is right to suggest Scots want an end to constitutional wrangling. Folk are indeed getting weary of vows, pledges, horse-trading and a greater emphasis on potential powers beyond Holyrood than workable ones within it. But there’s no evidence voters blame the SNP for stubbornly stoking the fire. Au contraire. Sixty-six per cent of Scots want all tax and spend and all welfare powers located in Scotland, not just some – according to an Ipsos Mori poll which replicates another held just days after the referendum. That’s starting to look like a settled will.
In light of that weekend poll, the question must be widened. Why won’t two-thirds of all Scottish voters believe the Smith Commission fulfils “the Vow” and constitutes a Home Rule settlement?
The first reason is fairly simple – because it doesn’t.
Home Rule is widely understood to mean everything but defence, foreign affairs and macro-economic policy. Unfortunately for the unionist parties, that’s a cleaner, more easily grasped idea than the hard-to-remember, lucky-bag list delivered by Lord Smith. Of course, a few of the proposed powers are considerable. But put together they are not memorable – at least not in a positive way.
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Several commentators hit the alarm rather than the reset button this weekend, describing plans to devolve income tax but not national insurance, wealth taxes or oil and gas revenues as “a transparent fiscal trap”, with “more caveats than the dowry agreement of a Tuscan princess” and “a political poisoned chalice – an invitation to Scotland’s political class to increase their spending by hammering ordinary middle and lower earners, while once again letting the seriously wealthy, and large corporations, off the taxation hook”. Matched against Gordon Brown’s “near-federalism” and Danny Alexander’s “Home Rule”, Lord Smith’s compromise just doesn’t cut it.
Calculations of the tax likely to be controlled in Scotland vary from 30 to 75 per cent of the total and the air is thick with uncertainty about the size, scope and workability of the new powers. The devolution of Air Passenger Duty and the Aggregates Levy was recommended five years ago by the Calman Commission and still remains undelivered. The decision to devolve Crown Estates Commission cash and powers – first requested by the SNP as part of David Cameron’s “respect” agenda in 2011 – is simply overdue. Leaked reports of an earlier draft report suggest more powers were nearly granted. According to an anonymous source, quoted by Kevin McKenna: “Seeing all welfare powers taken away at the last minute and seeing Labour argue against the devolution of the minimum wage are things I don’t think I’ll ever forget. In the last hours of the Smith deliberations, the Tories were getting direct input from Westminster government departments and cutting deals with Labour to avoid anything that might affect English votes for English laws.”
In the old days, such claims would be dismissed as SNP scaremongering. Unfortunately for Lord Smith, such last minute horse-trading along lines of naked party political advantage sounds pretty plausible now. Scots haven’t gone through two years of soul-searching to come up with a clutch of reheated offers, a dangerously limited range of tax powers and a hard-to-entrench promise that Westminster cannot abolish Holyrood. Voters want a meaningful and memorable deal.
The second reason the reset button won’t be hit any time soon is that British “democracy” responds only to threat, gripe and agitation. Westminster elections occur only every five years – and even then hardly act as democratic validation for any particular policy or electorate. In the Midlands and south-east of England, the general election may hinge on immigration policy and Europe. In the north of England, 2015 may become a protest vote on continuing austerity. In Wales, parity with Scotland may be the main issue, whilst in Northern Ireland, it could be demands for corporation tax-raising powers. Little wonder that the election in Scotland looks set to become a de facto referendum on Home Rule. Voters understand what politicians cannot. In a deeply divided “United Kingdom”, with no fair voting system and no fair, statutory way to manage difference, each national population must sing one note long, hard and shrill to make any impact.
Thirdly, the constitutional fire beyond Scotland is only starting to catch alight. Politicians searching for a Scottish solution have triggered demands for equal treatment by parliaments in Belfast and Cardiff and by English councils. Devolving powers to English cities would seriously disadvantage suburbia, towns and rural areas. Yet the English electorate appears to have no appetite for the regional devolution that would “right-size” governance south of the Border and allow symmetrical federalism across the UK. Clearly, though, the business of extracting powers from Westminster’s grasp has only just begun. Why on earth would the main protagonist in that battle lay down its cudgels prematurely?
Lord Smith’s proposed powers may not even be deliverable in a hostile Commons – and may not prove workable as the UK welfare system struggles to cope with a chaotic shift to Universal Credit as well as an asymetric bit of devolution. With the election campaign a few short weeks away, why ease the pressure now when a better deal is set to become the central plank of SNP and Green manifestos?
Finally, Scotland doesn’t stand where she did even two short months back. That’s not to deny the referendum result – it is to argue about its overall impact. One recent poll put support for the SNP at 52 per cent – a projected win of 54 out of 59 Westminster seats, on paper at least. Of course the polls will swing back. But the staggering change in the SNP’s political fortunes cannot be explained by a simple consolidation of the Yes vote. Scots appear to be feeling frisky – hopeful that “stuck” issues like damaging austerity, unaffordable childcare and land reform can soon be resolved.
The public mood in Scotland is to find proper solutions – not half measures. The political mood in London is to cut deals that keep MPs in jobs and real power at Westminster. If Gordon Brown wants to reset that as a pre-retirement Christmas present – I for one would shout hallelujah.
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