They’re here. Labour’s long awaited proposals for devolution have arrived, splashing into the independence debate like the tsunami created by tossing a pebble into Loch Lomond – a pebble conveniently attached to a length of elastic so Johann can howk it back out again, the Westminster crew insisted on safeguards. Dropping a pebble into the watter might rock Jim Murphy’s boat. It created such a little splash that it only rated 30 seconds on the BBC lunchtime Scottish Och Aye the News, and Brian Taylor still managed to find time to mention David Bowie.
The proposals are an incoherent mess, but to be fair, so is the Labour party in Scotland so what did you really expect? Even Severin Carrell, who on Monday’s Newsnicht expressed the opinion that his Unionist rag’s coverage of the indy debate was fair and unbiased, wasn’t able to put much lipstick on the pig.
The headline news was that Labour wants to allow Holyrood powers over income tax, including the power to vary the top rate by up to 15p in the pound, up from the 10p variation allowed by the Scotland Act due to come into force in 2016. What they’re not saying is whether Westminster would claw back any increase in Scottish revenues by reducing the block grant, which is the case with the unused and useable tax powers granted in 1997. They’re hinting they won’t, but aren’t making a commitment, so we can take that as a “yes they would”.
Labour will allow Holyrood to vary individual tax bands, but not control over any other taxes which effectively makes the income tax powers unusable. The unusability of the tax powers is not a bug, it’s a feature. Labour likes it that way. It stops Ian Davidson giving Johann grief, which is a far more important consideration than any demands for greater self-government from Scotland.
So we’ll get more unusable powers. That’s really going to stop the independence juggernaut in its tracks.
Neither is Labour saying why 15p in the pound is the correct figure to, in the words of Johann, “bolster, defend and energise” devolution, and not 20p, or 35p, or 100p. What criteria did Labour use to arrive at the 15p figure? I suspect it was “what we can get past Ian Davidson and Jim Murphy without causing too much of a strop”, which isn’t exactly the same as “what is in the best interests of Scotland”.
Labour is also prepared to grant Holyrood greater powers over Housing Benefit, but the remainder of the benefits system will remain firmly under control of Westminster, and Holyrood will not get any extra funding to ammeliorate the ill effects of Westminster’s benefit cuts. It couldn’t be that they’re only making this tiny wee concession in a nakedly political attempt to neutralise the outrage over the Bedroom Tax now would it?
Labour will also concede some limited control of the Crown Estates – but not to the Scottish Parliament. They want these powers to go to local authorities. It keeps Gordon Matheson happy. They also want to devolve control of the Work Programme to local authorities, giving Labour cooncillors more ALEO boards they can sit on.
We are told that this devo package represents the maximum devolution Scotland could possibly need or want, but what is far longer than the wee list of wee things that Johann is prepared to concede, hedged about with caveats as they are, is the list of things that Labour refuses to consider devolving to Scotland. Scotland won’t get these powers, not now, not ever. For a devolution journey, we’re on a very short ride.
• Financial and economic matters
• Monetary policy
• Currency regulation
• Debt management
• Employment law
• Foreign affairs
• International development
• The welfare state
• The constitution
• Drugs, drug trafficking and related laws
• Betting, gaming and lotteries
• The civil service
• Abortion and analogous issues
• Air passenger duty
• National insurance contributions
• Corporation tax
• Alcohol, tobacco and fuel duties
• Climate change levy
• Insurance premium tax
• Vehicle excise duty
• Inheritance tax
• Capital gains tax
• Tax on oil & gas
So forget about getting rid of Trident, forget about control of benefits and taxation. You can even forget about control of broadcasting – a power granted to just about ever other autonomous administration under the sun. We can be sure that Scotland’s current affairs will continue to be refracted through the distorting mirror of the BBC, and there will be nothing we can do about it. Labour prefers it that way.
But there is not even a guarantee that Scotland will actually get the highly limited powers proposed by Labour this week. It depends on whether the party adopts the proposals in full in their 2015 Westminster manifesto. It depends on whether the proposals will not be filleted and gutted in the same way that the timid measures of the Calman Commission were deconstructed – and in some respects the new proposals don’t even go as far as Calman, which recommended the control of air passenger duty and corporation tax. It’s odd that these powers no longer form a part of the maximum powers that Scotland could need or want, when Labour itself thought they should be devolved just a few years ago.
And of course it depends on whether Labour will form a majority government after 2015. That’s not looking too likely the way the polls are currently going.
Labour’s just blown its last chance. Too little, too late, a lot of words saying nothing at all. Vote no and get nothing. Vote yes and get all the powers Scotland could ever need – for real.