what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Monday, March 31, 2014

The Status Quo is not on offer

The Anthony Frost English Bookshop in Bucharest has quite a few books on the Scottish Independence debate waiting for me – which I hope to pick up later in the week when I make the (very pleasant) 5 hour drive up there. 
In the meantime, I am catching up with the content of the 3 blogs which are dedicated to the constitutional aspects of the debate. 
Notes from North Britain (a blog written by Adam Tomkins, Prof in Public Law at Glasgow University) is proving to contain first-class material – this post from a year ago gives an important bit of the recent history and makes the critical point that a No vote is not a vote for the status quo 
The SNP first assumed office following the Scottish parliamentary election in 2007. Alex Salmond became First Minister as leader of the largest single party in Holyrood. The SNP did not in those days have the overall majority of seats in Holyrood that they have enjoyed since 2011 but they were, by a solitary seat, the largest single party. They ruled for four years as a minority administration. 
Alarmed at the advent of Nationalist rule, the three Unionist parties in the Scottish Parliament established an all-party commission to review Scottish devolution and to make recommendations as to its further development. This review, known as the Calman Commission, reported in 2009. The thrust of its recommendations was accepted by the then Labour Government in Westminster, and when Labour lost power in 2010 their broad acceptance of Calman was not reversed by the incoming Coalition. On the contrary, Calman was embraced by the Coalition as it had been by Labour.
 The result was fresh legislation in Westminster to augment the powers of the Scottish Government, to enlarge the powers of the Scottish Parliament, and generally to reboot Scottish devolution. That legislation was passed last year and is called the Scotland Act 2012. 
Let’s pause here to notice one thing. If you like devolution (and, indeed, if you’d like to see more of it), note who has delivered it. Labour created it in 1997-98 (with the original Scotland Act 1998) and the Tory / Lib Dem Coalition, with Labour’s support, delivered round two in 2012. The Scotland Act 2012 is not the promise of future powers. It has been enacted. It has been passed. It is the law of the land. It has been delivered. The Unionist parties — all three of them — have delivered what they promised. We have grown so used to politicians failing to deliver on their promises that it is just worth noting that this failure has not been repeated in the case of Scottish devolution. 
And, now, note this. The SNP opposed both the moves to create devolution in 1997-98 and the moves to enhance it in 2009-12. So, what does the Scotland Act 2012 do?
- Some of the changes are massive. Huge new borrowing powers are conferred on Scottish Ministers, for example, in order to assist them with the planning and delivery of Scottish public policy.
- And unprecedented tax powers are conferred on the Scottish Parliament, representing the biggest internal shift of fiscal power away from Westminster since the Acts of Union, no less.
Again, it is important to reiterate that these are not idle promises of what might be done in the future (“vote NO and then we’ll see”).All of this has already been delivered (“vote NO to preserve what’s already done”).
The new powers will significantly alter the nature of the powers which MSPs have. Thus far, their fiscal powers have been sharply focused on deciding how to spend public money, and a number of the achievements of Scottish devolution have been decisions to spend public money differently from how it is spent by Ministers in London. But, thanks to the Scotland Act 2012, MSPs will now also have powers to decide how to raise public money: that is to say, decisions over taxation. Decisions about tax are among the most sensitive that politicians have to make.
 The aim of the Scotland Act 2012 is that, by handing these powers to MSPs in Holyrood, the Scottish people will think ever more carefully about the sorts of folk they want to elect to the Scottish Parliament (“with power comes responsibility” and all that). 
Now, the scheme of the 2012 Act is that the handing over of tax powers from MPs in Westminster to MSPs in Holyrood will be staggered.
It’s not all going to happen at once in a rash fit of fiscal irresponsibility. To start with, the focus will be on income tax, as well as on one or two more minor duties such as stamp duty and landfill tax. But — and here is the beauty of the Scotland Act 2012 — the Act provides that new taxes may be devolved to the Scottish Parliament without the need for any fresh Westminster legislation. We know, for example, that Scottish Ministers have said that they wish to be able to set their own rates of corporation tax. A lower rate (such as Ireland’s) might attract additional international investment into the Scottish economy, the SNP have argued. The SNP may or may not be right about that, but let us assume that they are correct.
The Scotland Act 2012 contains the trigger that can enable the power to set rates of corporation tax to be devolved from London to Edinburgh without any further parliamentary time having to be taken up. All that needs to happen is for the Scottish Ministers to make a case to the UK Government that this needs to happen in the Scottish national interest and, as long as the UK Government is persuaded, the power can be devolved without further ado. 
This is why I say that there is no such thing as the status quo in Scottish politics. Responsibility for income tax in Scotland is set to become shared for the first time between Scotland’s two governments (in Edinburgh and London). Responsibility for new and further taxes can and will be devolved to Scottish Ministers as soon as the Scottish Ministers make the case that this should be done. Devolution has always been a fluid and flexible regime. The Scotland Act 2012 makes it even more fluid and flexible. 
The choice that confronts us on referendum day is a choice not between “change” and “no change” but between the SNP’s vision for change and everybody else’s. A NO vote is a vote FOR the ongoing fluidity and flexibility, development and growth of devolution. The only party that opposes this vision is the SNP.


  1. There is more useful material presented or referenced on your recent blogs than anywhere else at the moment. Thank you. There is a sense that we are sleepwalking into the oblivion of uncertainty not least because of the impact of the General Election that follows the referendum in May 2015 and then the Scottish Parliament elections in May 2016. Who is negotiating with whom is a moveable feast.The probability of completing negotiations by March 2016 if there is Yes vote in September is a naive notion in the extreme. Meanwhile public services are being decimated, large businesses are hedging their bets on whether and where to invest and the financial sector is contemplating how to separate in the event of independence. Problem is that whilst the Yes campaign is well organised in a political sense, it is a brouhaha of wishful thinking and on the other side there is an absence of any coherent argument. The days when politicians like Donald Dewar, Robin Cook, Gordon Brown, Menzies Campbell and George Reid stalked the studios brimming with knowledge, sound analysis and engendered public confidence are sadly missing. John Swinney and Alistair Darling have been good and thoughtful advocates for their causes but they lack the charisma to be game changers.

  2. Thank you for opening remark! One of the blog's purposes is to give a wider sense of good material I've come across in my casual surfing....the Adam Tomkins' blog is a case in point. It stands out against the superficiality or one-sidedness of so much that is written about this issue.