Monday, March 05, 2012

The status quo isn't what it used to be.


 The status quo isn't what it used to be. In the old days, you knew where you stood when you voted No to constitutional change. You would be voting for things as they are - whatever arrangement happens to apply at the time of voting. Not any more. This weekend it is impossible to say what the current state of play is on the constitution because all the unionist parties are proposing radical changes to it.

The status quo is now a process not an event, to paraphrase Donald Dewar. There was David Cameron last month, after his meeting with Alex Salmond, announcing that there could be “more powers” for the Scottish parliament. A week later, Alistair Darling – no enthusiast for fiscal autonomy - caught the bug and announced that to be responsible a parliament “should raise the money it spends”. Last week, leading figures in all three unionist parties got together to promote “devoluton plus” under which Scotland would acquire powers to raise income tax, corporation tax and oil revenue, while leaving VAT and National Insurance with Westminster.

Now, this weekend, the new leader of the Scottish Labour Party, Johann Lamont, has announced that she will lead a new commission on devolution, a kind of Calman plus, to look at new fiscal powers. This parallels the commission already set up by the Scottish Liberal Democrats under their former leader, Sir Menzies Campbell, to look at a federal option. And there is the Future of Scotland initiative – an umbrella of various “civic Scotland” groupings like churches, charities and trades unions, who met last week looking at form devolution max .

Suddenly you can't move for commissions on fiscal devolution. It makes the unionist demands for an early referendum on independence look oddly premature. If there were an early ballot, what on earth would Scots be voting for? Independence is clear – sort of. Alex Salmond at least seems to know what he is talking about. But on the other side there is now a shifting kaleidoscope of constitutional formulas occupying the unionist space.

The unionists' priority of course is come up with a something, anything, to block the march of the SNP, following its election landslide victory in  May. Figures like Douglas Alexander, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, have been urging the Scottish Labour party up to understand the extent and significance of its defeat and start thinking constructively about more powers for Holyrood. But Lamont, who says she will be leading the No campaign with Alistair Darling and Gordon Brown in support, is still grudging about what she calls the “virility” test of more powers. She is even hinting about powers being taken away from the Scottish parliament – not so much devolution plus as devolution minus. Right now, bizarrely, the UK Labour party seems more radical on the constitution than its Scottish counterpart.

So, where does all this leave the state of the union? Do we have any clear idea where the status quo is going? Well, they haven't said it explicitly, but the parties are clearly heading very rapidly towards a consensus on devolution plus, if only because there really is nowhere else to go. The Scottish parliament, to satisfy voter opinion, simply has to have a new funding arrangement more radical than that offered in the current Scotland Bill. The idea of splitting income tax between Holyrood and Westminster, proposed by Calman in 2009, was always a difficult sell and it is now well past it. Devolution max is a bit too like independence, since it involves Scotland raising all taxes and sending a contribution south for common services like defence.

Devolution plus is the only credible unionist destination short of independence. It is the unionist Maginot Line – the line beyond which Alex Salmond shall not past. It is also almost certainly what the Scottish voters would vote for – if the unionist parties would only let them. Perversely, all three unionist leaders are still insisting that there should be no opportunity for Scots to have a say. But how else are the voters to have any confidence that this better devolution will actually happen? Unionists can't simply offer promises of what might be if the Scots are good boys and girls and reject nasty Mr Salmond. Everyone knows that if the referendum returns a No to independence in 2014, then the unionist parties' enthusiasm for more devolution would rapidly evaporate. If they refuse a second question or a second ballot, then the only alternative would be to move a new Scotland bill, replacing the one limping through the House of Lords. But come the referendum, if all the unionists offer is jam tomorrow, I wouldn't put it past the Scottish voters to back independence in order to be sure that they get a better devolution.

6 comments:

douglas clark said...

I would have thought it well nigh impossible for the Unionist parties to coalesce around a single devo policy, given that they all have English constituencies and thereby voters that would see it as beyond the pale. Hence the strategy of asking us to say 'no' and then it'll be the usual fudge and mudge for twenty years. At the end of which the North Sea will be an independent kingdom owing allegience only to the Crown and we'll be able to legislate to our hearts content on air guns.

The only honourable way for them to deal with this is to provide us with it within the next 500 days under Section 30 of the Scotland Act. It is my belief that this will not happen.

Thomas W said...

Indeed. There is plenty of time for the unionist parties to agree on a formula for devo-max and sign it into law with effect from January 1st 2015, so that the independence referendum effectively becomes a choice between devo-max and independence.
The fact that they're refusing to do so can only mean that they don't intend to give Scotland much more than the Calman proposals, but they cannot say so at the moment.

CWH said...

DevoMax, plus, squared or minus even if we voted for it, if it ever is defined, what guarantee would there be that it would be imoplemented? Many commentators love to talk about DevoMax etc. but are shy about talking about its implementation.

Would we believe David 'No Major reform of NHS' Cameron or Nick 'tuition fees' Clegg or the Labour party which is not even in power so is in no position to implement anything.

Even if the UK Government drew up a Bill and presented it to the Westminster parliament would it get through? Given the treatment meted out to the Scotland Bill in the Commons and especially in the Lords any such Bill would be unlikely to get through Parliament.

So what would be the point of voting for Devo anything?

douglas clark said...

CWH,

Exactly right.

We either take control of our own affairs or we admit a form of teenage angst. "But you promised I could stay up late, you promised!"

The idea that by voting 'no' we would get us a better deal is IMHO pie in the sky.

Can I just make a point I have seen stated elsewhere? The people that are most against Scottish independence are Scots who have been absorbed by the Westminster gravy train. It seems that a seat in the houses of C or L are more important to them than any sort of intellectual honesty.

Jim M said...

Is the fundamental question for the anti-independence Parties not: what is "the union" you seek to keep?

Is it not just the continuation of Westminster sovereignty - ultimate power - which is in the hands of political parties at Westminster?

For every time we have a Labour and a Tory politician on TV or radio neither can come to an agreed position of what unites them against independence. Or is it a case that "the union" they want to keep is one that is not appealing to people. A politicians club.

Maybe a question you would like to put to them Iain. Why are you so keen to protect Westminster sovereignty when it comes to Scotland? Why do you want to protect ultimate power for partisan politicians?

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