Brian Wilson: Holyrood will get more powers, but how will they be used?

There always has to be a grievance and someone always has to be doing us down. Twenty years ago this week, Alex Salmond was desperately insisting that Tony Blair could not be trusted to deliver a referendum on creating a Scottish Parliament.

Tony Blair in Parliament Square, Edinburgh, the morning after the devolution referendum delivered a decisive Yes Yes vote. Picture: Alan Milligan
Tony Blair in Parliament Square, Edinburgh, the morning after the devolution referendum delivered a decisive Yes Yes vote. Picture: Alan Milligan

How wrong could he be? The Bill to hold the referendum was the first piece of legislation passed by the incoming government. In the intervening 20 years, governments of all UK parties – Labour, Tories and Liberal Democrats – have extended the powers and budgets set by the initial Scotland Act.

Much has changed but the background dirge remains the same. Having delivered all this, “Westminster” is – rather oddly, normal people might think – now intent upon a “power grab” under the cover of Brexit. Dark forces are at work in a Whitehall bunker plotting to reverse the devolution process.

Holyrood is called upon by the woman who has spent her adult life fostering division within a small island to build “consensus” against this dire prospect. Like Salmond’s prognostications 20 years ago, it is complete rubbish, though we can be sure it will be played out as breathless drama over many episodes.

Heaven knows, there is enough to be concerned about over the way Brexit negotiations are evolving and implications which might flow from them without creating our own straw man. As powers are repatriated from Brussels, it is inevitable that more will end up with the devolved governments rather than fewer.

That is the true context for negotiation. Whether powers arrive at Holyrood via Westminster or are transferred direct, which is clearly problematic given that the UK is the member state, is a question of process rather than substance. Constant allegations of deceit and betrayal create a climate which is scarcely conducive to achieving optimum outcomes. Apart from that, they’re plain boring.

As ever, the real question is what will be done with the powers? It is again instructive to look back 20 years to the forgotten question on the referendum ballot paper. Should the Scottish Parliament have tax-varying powers? Older readers will recall the cacophony of grievance, betrayal, etc etc when Tony Blair decided this question should be included.

It was an effort to pre-empt the permanent complaint of Holyrood not having enough money. The optimistic theory was that giving it power to raise more would transfer responsibility for that dilemma. Fat chance. The powers have never been used and the alternative demand has never been surrendered: “Send more money”.

Holyrood’s power to vary income tax is back on the agenda with a commitment in the SNP’s Programme for Government to a discussion paper later this year. The working assumption seems to be that everyone but the Tories would support tax increases, certainly at the higher end of the scale and possibly further down.

I advise caution. The assumption that tax rises, preferably for other people, reflect a Scottish consensus should be taken with a large pinch of salt.

Holyrood has a £37 billion budget which will grow by a few more billion with the transfer of social security powers. The potential for spending money better, rather than more of it, should be explored before anyone endorses Scotland-only tax increases.

A Scottish Parliament research paper found this week that if Labour’s tax plans had been incorporated into the Scottish budget, Holyrood would have had a billion extra pounds to spend over the past two years. I’m not sure, however, that is a persuasive argument. That figure is dwarfed by the £13-15bn per year which allows Scottish public expenditure to run at £1,400 a head more than the UK as a whole. Would the extra half billion make a critical difference?

Much smoke and mirrors around the Holyrood budget needs to be cleared away before the cry of “more taxes” becomes credible. Why have the full Barnett consequentials from NHS spending not been committed to the NHS in Scotland? Why has the money for local authorities (including education) been cut so disproportionately to Holyrood’s own budget? Without answers, it is impossible to know what gaps an extra half billion would actually be plugging. Scottish voters might be more impressed by a commitment to an extremely comprehensive spending review.

Again looking back 20 years, the best decision taken before Labour came to power was, initially, to work within the spending limits we inherited. It led to a far more creative approach to government than exists when “more money for everything” becomes the standard refrain.

In his own musings on the events of 20 years ago, Tony Blair recalled how he tried to influence the creation of a British Football League as a way of bringing the whole country together. On grounds that are entirely non-political, most Scottish football supporters would have been grateful if he had succeeded, though that was never likely for reasons beyond even a Prime Minister’s control.

It was instructive, however, to note Sturgeon’s response to Blair’s reminisce. The idea of a British League was proof, she pronounced, of “how little (pause for condescending half-laugh) he understood the Scottish psyche”.

So the Scottish psyche doesn’t want our clubs to fulfill their potential by competing at the highest level? The Scottish psyche would reject the massive economic benefits that club football brings, for example, to the great city of Manchester? The Scottish psyche prefers to live with the historic baggage which attaches itself to Scottish football, rather than marginalize it by being part of something bigger?

I have no pretentions to unique insights into the Scottish psyche but then neither should Sturgeon, who recently cost 21 of her MPs their jobs by misreading it so badly. However, I suspect her reaction owed less to defending “the Scottish psyche” than to a prejudice against anything which carries the word “British” in its title or seeks to unite rather than divide.

The question of football leagues was hypothetical but, for example, breaking up the British Transport Police for “purely political reasons” so that it could become part of the wonderfully successful Police Scotland is very real.

When politicians start confusing their own hang-ups with the psyche of the nation, it’s time for them to be reminded of political mortality.