Most people agree that whatever Gordon Brown’s virtues or failings, his memorable contribution to political debate since 2010 was his impassioned plea for the union just before September’s referendum. The Huffington Post described the result as “a personal triumph for the former Labour prime minister, whose thundering eve-of polling day rallying cry was praised as the speech of his life.”
Lost in the hubbub was the fact that he had neither the authority nor the position to make some of the statements he did. Coupled with last-minute pledges for improved devolution from the union from the three big UK parties, the echoes of Alec Douglas Home’s similar promise from 1979 did not prevent significant numbers of switherers taking it at face value and decide to vote ‘no’.
But, unlike 1979, this Damascene conversion by both UK government and opposition did find expression in the Smith Commission which engaged the five Holyrood parties in debate as to what shape that devolution should take. The promise came from Westminster to convert the Commission’s findings (based on over 18,000 submissions from the public and more than 400 from civic groups) into concrete proposals before Burns Day. As Cameron said on September 19th:
“To those in Scotland sceptical of the constitutional promises made, let me say this we have delivered on devolution under this Government, and we will do so again in the next Parliament. The three pro-union parties have made commitments, clear commitments, on further powers for the Scottish Parliament.”
On Thursday 22nd, they delivered. Cameron made his first foray into Scotland for months to make the announcement on the heels of FMQs yesterday. (When Willie Rennie posed his stock opening question of when the First Minister would next meet the Prime Minister, Nicola stood up and, consulting her watch, shot back “In an hour”.)
So the Prime Minister comes to Edinburgh, and announces what he calls a “great day for Scotland, and a great day for the United Kingdom too.” and went on to promise “if I am your Prime Minister after 7 May, you will get in full these measures set out in this document, in a bill in the first Queen’s Speech of a government I lead.” There indeed many substantive measures and an incomplete list includes:
- The Scottish Parliament will have all powers in relation to elections to the Scottish Parliament and local government elections in Scotland
- Scottish budget to benefit in full from policy decisions by the Scottish Government that increase revenues or reduce expenditure, and bear the full costs of policy decisions that reduce revenues or increase expenditure.
- Scottish income tax revenues will be retained by the Scottish Government to be spent in Scotland rather than these taxes being pooled and redistributed by the UK.
- Scotland’s fiscal framework should receive additional borrowing powers to ensure budgetary stability and provide safeguards to smooth Scottish public spending.
- The power to charge tax on air passengers leaving Scottish airports and on the commercial exploitation of aggregate in Scotland will be devolved.
- Scottish Ministers will be given the power to make alternative payment arrangements in relation to Universal Credit.
- Benefits for carers, disabled people and those who are ill: Attendance Allowance, Carer’s Allowance, Disability Living Allowance (DLA), Personal Independence Payment (PIP), Industrial Injuries Disablement Allowance and Severe Disablement Allowance will be devolved.
- Discretionary Housing Payments and benefits which currently comprise the Regulated Social Fund: Cold Weather Payment, Funeral Payment, Sure Start Maternity Grant and Winter Fuel Payment will be devolved.
That may seem a pretty meaty chunk of responsibility and even the SNP agrees that this represents real progress, having been party to the Smith discussions. However, there has been no outbreak of harmony following the announcement. This revolves around a phrase used to which the SNP object and are regarding as a form of veto.
The phrase is “Whitehall ministers would have to be consulted and give his or her agreement” even though it goes on to say “…such agreement not to be reasonably withheld”. Danny Alexander the Treasury Chief Secretary maintains this means: “No ifs, no buts; there is no veto. If they can pay for it, a Scottish government can do what it wants with the new benefit powers it is getting.”
So, is the Scottish Government girning unjustifiably? Certainly the practical effect of all this is for considerable powers to devolve to Holyrood and the SNP at least can be exoected to seize the opportunities this offers to beat a different path for Scotland—as they have done since 2007 but Labour was leery of doing 1999-2007.
But they do have a point. As a last resort, Westminsier could intervene if it chose. There is a “no detriment” rule – which implies no decision made by a devolved government should actually put Scotland at a financial advantage, or vice versa. The interpretation when “agreement may not be reasonably withheld” looks like a bonanza for QCs, should it ever come to that.
But the SNP is being partisan and more than a little disingenuous. The Constitutional Commission has argued that the present setup at Holyrood does not and cannot embody the sovereign rights of the Scottish people as it stands—independence or no. Were all power to be transferred from Westminster to Holyrood, there would be inadequate checks and balances—no second chamber; no presidential office; no separation of justice.
For all its flaws, the American constitution was originally crafted and frequently defended as the arbiter when executive and legislative elements are at loggerheads. In the absence of such checks, it seems sensible to retain such options at Westminster. But that begs the question of the supportiveness (or otherwise) of a given UK Government for whoever happened to be in power in Scotland.
Some seasoned and knowledgeable commentators, such as Joyce McMillan in Friday’s Hootsmon regard the proposals as something of a mess. Others like Tom Peterkin in the same issue see this as merely the first step to resolving the West Lothian Question and implementing Cameron’s quid-pro-quo of EVEL (English votes for English laws).
But what is NOT being talked about is the apparent failure of Westminster in general and Cameron’s government in particular to read the mood of the Scottish people and what it is likely to take to take the steam out of their present lively bolshyness. Conservative Central Office clearly doesn’t ‘get’ Scotland, having just issued this poster:
As he sees it, “it frames the election as a battle between Scotland and England in which the latter is menaced by the former. It pits the two largest parts of the Union against one another.” And here, he puts his finger on the problem Westminster seems to have.
As Joyce McMillan puts it “the British establishment seems unable to get beyond the idea that the Scottish Yes campaign represented some kind of explosion of rash and unthinking patriotic sentiment.” The Queen’s admonishment to “think very carefully” and Jim Murphy’s frantic attempts to belatedly wrap Scottish Labour in a saltire also seem to derive from the same thinking.
After centuries of regarding “England” and “Britain” as interchangeable, the UK establishment sees Scotland as a kind of frostbitten surly Midlands whose occasional strops require some raw constitutional meat to be thrown to them to stay onside.
But here in Caledonia, sterrrn and wild, the whole thing is not about constitutional change. What Scots are fired up about—and this includes significant numbers of those who voted ‘no’—is to protect social justice, to support public services, to secure and develop a more cohesive society against an economic consensus at Westminster that appears alien to most.
So King Cameron can sit with his eyes fixed on the horizon of another term in government while minions scoop up shovelfuls of “An Enduring Settlement” to keep back the waves. But the floodgates are creaking in Scotland, the tide of dissatisfaction not yet at full flood.