A guest post by Sam Miller
Well we’re sixteen months on from the referendum and on the edge of considering Westminster’s bestest ever settlement on devolution. In fact it’s going to be quite a busy year, what with the Holyrood elections and the possibility of a looming EU referendum.
The outcome of our own referendum (and yes there were outcomes and obligations for both sides of the debate) is now upon us. How do we feel about those outcomes, those consequences? Do we believe that Better Together and HMG have delivered satisfactorily on their pledges and assurances made throughout the campaign, or that the Smith Commission served any real purpose, delivered anything worthwhile? After all, folks were promised safer pensions, more job prospects, current job security in certain sectors, especially defence contracts and finance. We were assured of economic stability, security and risk share bolstered by a united better togetherness, safer and faster devolution with nothing off the table (honest guv). If we feel that the goods delivered do not match the sales pitch, should there be consequences for failure to deliver?
Let’s look at thone devolution settlement, that being BT’s/Westminster’s answer to Mr Broon’s near federalism/home rule pledge and personal guarantee (yeah, I know). According to Westminster’s Viceroy in charge of toast, marmalade and the rowdy north, Mr Mundell, the current Bill (2.0) delivers the ‘Vow’ in full and that ‘all reasonable observers’, which apparently includes himsel’, Mr Broon and a well known daily, are all in full agreement of this. It is strange though, when you consider a recent survey concluded that only some *9% of Scotland’s population consider the vow fulfilled. Of course the wording of the vow and how it was sold in UK wide media at the time are two entirely different things. A thing which could be perceived and therefore expected to promise much, (with enough publicity), but which in reality promised to deliver little or nothing.
So what’s it all about in terms an average bod like you or I would understand? At the moment it still has to navigate ratification and agreement on the fiscal framework for those tax powers (apparently a slight road bump there in terms of no detriment) and even then I think it’ll be around 2017 before oor wee parly would have access to full use of those powers. So bearing that in mind, it means we’ve got a little time to mull things over. One thing legislative bills are not short on is yards of Sir Humphrey wonk speak, so a little time to have a think is a good thing surely? Don’t know about anyone else, but sometimes I think the buggers deliberately use complex lingo to hide very simple truths – more on that later.
It’s been billed (by the usual suspects) as the most significant transfer of powers in the UK’s constitutional history and could supposedly make Scotland one of the most powerful devolved administrations in the world. Unless of course you count those wee regions round the world who have say, control of the levers of their own economy and finances, perhaps even control over broadcasting legislation, that kinda thing. If devolved legislature is your thaaang, then there are many other models out there (including federal models) that may have the odd mix of powers to aspire to I suppose. If however, you consider yourself a nation partner currently participating in a treaty of political union you may be a hair disappointed and/or confused with your current situation. Again, you’d think some brave soul in government office would ask our opinion on whether WE think this bill is what we wanted in terms of devolved powers, but mibbie that’s just me?
For instance, as a nation, why don’t we have our own public service broadcaster or governmental control of broadcasting legislation? Could it be we don’t have any distinctive kulchurr worth documenting or broadcasting? From our daily intake of news broadcasts you’d be forgiven for believing that no news other than murdurr, kittens, fitba and mair kittens (WGD ©) ever happens in north Britain. Perhaps it’s simply for the best that we don’t sit down in front of the goggle box and find out about our place in the world, express and define ourselves on a daily basis or otherwise examine our lot in life. It’s a well known fact that sort of thing can lead to dangerous incidents of people drinking tea out of china cups with their pinkies oot and spontaneously discussing philosophy without the need to visit a terracing with a sausage roll and a bovril in their hands, (One of two instances where discussing philosophy is acceptable in Scottish society, sniff).
Then of course there’s control of Scotland’s economy. Why can’t the Scottish Government just do what we want, when we want/need it done? Why can they do some stuff to make our lot better, but not others and just how much control does the Scottish Government enjoy of the fruits of our labours and the bounty that is Scotland’s resource base? Well if you had to listen to your average establishment party politico, more than enough and with the impending transfer of these near god like powers, way more than is good for us, but let’s have a look at what’s out there right now:
Currently devolved matters include: agriculture, forestry and fisheries, education and training, environment, health and social services, housing, law and order (including the licensing of air weapons), local government, sport and the arts, tourism and economic development, many aspects of transport.
Yep, all very well and good, but ‘show me the money’.
Reserved matters include: benefits and social security, immigration, defence, foreign policy, employment, broadcasting, trade and industry, nuclear energy, oil, coal, gas and electricity, consumer rights, data protection, the Constitution.
Uh huh, the mists begin to clear. Remember now – partnership.
So, what’s the proposed super added extra that would give Scotland the potential to be the fairest nation on earth then? Here are the supposed biggies:
– Apparently the SG will have the power to vary income tax bands, though I believe the base rate remains a reserved issue
– Retain half of all VAT receipts
– The ability to ‘top up’ certain welfare benefits and create legislation and the bureaucracy (at cost) required to carry out same
– Also proposed are control over Aggregates Levy
– Limited borrowing powers
– Air Passenger Duty
– Abortion law and Road Signs.
Oh and belatedly, very belatedly, the permanence of Scotland’s parly written into law. In a nutshell, the SG will be responsible for collecting up to 40% of taxes and approx. 60% of public spending.
“The Barnett Formula – which is used to calculate the main part of the block grant which pays for the public services which have been devolved to Scotland, like health and education – will be retained. (Oh joy)
In policy areas where newly-devolved powers – things like parts of the welfare and benefits system, for example, mean increased costs for the Scottish Government, the block grant will provide additional funding. (Mainly because that’s the point of Barnett – see above) However it will be reduced to take account of the fact that revenue raised in Scotland due to greater tax-raising powers will stay in Scotland. Taken together, these measures will make the Scottish Government more accountable to the voters for its spending and taxation decisions. The ambition is that this will help encourage economic growth.”
Which takes us neatly back to sorting basic truths out of complex legislative wonk speak. Once all of the political sound-bite, the media distraction and the Sir Humphrey lingo is peeled away, what are we left with? Do we, or do we not, have home rule?
Clearly you may draw your own conclusions and even consider for yourself how these new super powers could be used to improve our lot. You may in fact be perfectly happy (cough) with what’s on the table. How and ever, I’d say Scotland STILL has no access to the complete stewardship of its own resources, or control over the entirety of its revenue streams. In fact, it looks to me like we are pretty much still unable to formulate a cohesive and distinctive economic framework suited to our own particular needs and priorities. The last I heard, responsibility for some of your revenue streams, some of your resources, some borrowing, collecting a percentage of your taxes and spending a percentage of your public allocation, isn’t considered you being in charge of your own economy.
Or put it another way – Is our devolved government/settlement supposed to be about using an allocated budget and restricted legislative competence to constantly offset the economic decisions and direction of central government? Oh and that restricted set of powers which you get to use are determined for you by the by. Strangely, I had a different picture in mind from all the hoo hah and grandstanding about Vows, Home Rule, Devo Max and near federalism, but then that’s not what this settlement constitutes… is it?
It seems to me that all of the above is actually the true and unavoidable cost of giving your political sovereignty to another legislature. It is only logical and sadly it was also all too predictable. You voluntarily give up the right to determine your own economic model. You give up the right to be ‘fully’ in control of your resources, your taxation and your spending priorities. You give up the right to represent yourself to other nations, or decide your relationship to the world. Curiously though, I don’t recall Mr Broon, mentioning any of that as he paced and posed for the cameras at the time. Mind you, neither did any of the then party leaders for that matter. Must have slipped their minds I suppose. So when some policy wonk tells us who should be held to account, or who is more accountable for economic hardship, is it the parly with one hand strapped behind its back, or the parly that did the strapping?
If, as many suspect, this settlement is a constitutional and fiscal bear trap for the Scottish Government and electorate, where do we go from here? Should the Scottish Government stick with precedent and accept the offer, even though they are surely aware themselves of the obvious pitfalls? They may feel duty bound to do so, since clearly a small majority voted to retain the union of parliaments and this is after all what that parliament and system considers their best offer. The SG may even, with a bit of hardy negotiating, make something of the offering on the table in settling the fiscal framework (not looking so good at the moment). Or perhaps… Perhaps the Scottish Government may feel the need to ask the Scottish electorate directly for an opinion at the earliest possible convenience. Say for the sake of argument, in May this year?
Bear in mind we haven’t even scratched the surface of Westminster’s introduction of the EVEL debate and its possible fall out, the ramping up of austerity legislation, and don’t get me started on memo-gate and the abuse of high office in an attempt to influence an election vote. It’s also fair to say we could probably spend all day documenting the treatment of our representation and more importantly the populace at the hands of the ever more demented media and the establishment parties throughout the period. Quite simply though, have the pledges and assurances of Better Together and Westminster’s leadership been delivered to YOUR satisfaction and expectation?
You can give your answer on a ballot paper in May of this year and no one, not Cameron, his Viceroy, Broon and certainly not the media, can prevent you from making your voice heard loud and clear.
REMEMBER, on any ballot day an electorate with common cause is more powerful than any politician. You decide if the goods on offer are acceptable. You decide whether you and your representatives have been treated fairly and with due care and respect for your wishes. You decide who you wish to carry forward government under the current devolved powers, or carry forward and act upon concerns if you feel, unlike Mr Mundell, that the current settlement offer isn’t up to scratch.