The pro-Union wheels are starting to turn in Scotland. But they could still come off the bus

Not before time, the wheels may be turning at last in the creaking pro-union machine  to craft an effective reply to the SNP’s delivery vehicle for Scottish independence.  The leader of the Scottish Conservatives Ruth Davidson has done a U-turn  (£) to explore the idea of more and greater taxation powers for Holyrood.  I wonder if  The Herald’s editorial  is right, that this is as much a problem as an opportunity for Ms Davidson?

The problem for the Tory leader is that the position she now espouses so passionately is diametrically opposed to that on which she stood for the leadership.

At least it sounds a new constructive note in the mainly negative opposition to independence so far. The Scotsman’s write-up  is more positive. A Tory working group is being set up under Lord Strathclyde an undoubted Scot but also one of the shrewdest Westminster operators around, as a former long serving Tory leader in the House of Lords in government and opposition.  This amounts to discreet London involvement by a Scottish back door.

The move has the blessing of the Prime Minister, Ms Davidson revealed in Edinburgh today. Former Scotland Office minister Lord Strathclyde will head up the new working group which will also include former Scottish Tory leader Annabel Goldie and ex-Holyrood Presiding Officer Alex Fergusson.

The prospect of more tax raising powers – which Ms Davidson backs – will be on the agenda, but it will also cover other areas such as welfare reform.

And the creation of a Scottish National Convention, which could provide a platform for all the pro-union parties to formulate their plans for more devolution, was also backed by Ms Davidson. The body is the brainchild of Labour MP Douglas Alexander and Ms Davidson said the the Tories “must have a voice” after boycotting the last constitutional convention which led to the creation of the Scottish Parliament in the 1990s.

I would guess that Ms Davidson’s U turn will do her little harm. The Conservatives have precious little support as it is. Her initiative has the virtue of  facing up to the fact that “ devo more “ is the current Scottish preference over independence- if only it can be given shape and substance. I see that Alan Trench will be advising the Conservative working group as he has advised other parties impartially – a good move there.

The Strathclyde  group should seize the chance to  try to say something definitive on whether Scots would be better off with independence, or “devo more” powers at the cost of a reduced bloc grant from Westminster, over and above the Calman proposals which are due to be implemented in 2015, assuming a No vote on independence.

Alan Cochrane, the ultra- unionist Telegraph correspondent is cool on the idea but can hardly afford to denounce it outright.

The problem with (Strathclyde’s) approach, at least as far as many of her Tory opponents are concerned, is that it will be seen as offering a handsome consolation prize to Alex Salmond in advance of what Unionists hope is his defeat in the referendum especially, as seems likely, the other Unionist parties also offer up some “Danegeld” to the SNP.

Greater taxation powers for Scotland could ease pressure on David Cameron in England over the West Lothian question. And it seizes an initiative from Labour whose “Scottish National Convention” is to operate only after the independence referendum. Surely the political logic requires bringing it on as soon as possible to try to arrive at a common unionist alternative to independence?

The McKay Commission has just returned an answer to the West Lothian Question for England, which so far has attracted almost zilch coverage so far.

The McKay commission suggests the answer to the question should mean that laws affecting England alone are no longer passed in the Commons without the consent of a majority of English MPs.

That consent could be gauged during early stages of the legislative process; non-English MPs would still be allowed to take part in final votes on laws affecting England after a majority of English MPs had given their consent.

This formula could pose bigger problems for Labour than the Conservatives if they won a small majority, relying on Scottish and Welsh seats to form a government but unable to vote on key English measures. The alternative is to let the hare sit, as  it’s often difficult to unpick what are exclusively English measures and it is English measures which often crucially affect the shape of and expenditure on measures in Scotland,  Wales and Northern Ireland.


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  • grandimarkey

    It all seems a bit last minute, doesn’t it? Surely London should have started planning this as soon as the SNP won their landslide majority, that is when the pro-union wheels should have started to turn and hit 60mph in 3 months? From a Unionist’s point of view, it must be pretty annoying…

  • Barnshee

    “Greater taxation powers for Scotland could ease pressure on David Cameron in England over the West Lothian question”

    Its easy to silence these buffoons simply ask
    1 Which taxes will you cut ?
    2 Which taxes will you raise ?
    3 How will you fund any deficit arising ?

    This is the “killer app”

    “The McKay commission suggests the answer to the question should mean that laws affecting England alone are no longer passed in the Commons without the consent of a majority of English MPs. ”

    The rise of English nationalism will consign “the union” to the dustbin of history The reasons for the union are no more
    The jocks and the paddies can piss of and go back to running around barearsed for all the English care.

  • Doubtless the Lallands Peat Worrier will clarify all issues in his next exciting podcast.

    That said, the tone of the last one — which seemed more interested in Johann Lamont and rehashing Iraq than the referendum proper — was a disappointment.

    However, at the end of that podcast, the old Worrier has it aright:

    … we came back to the undecided middle which will in all probability decide the referendum one way or the other. Although no poll as yet has shown a majority of independence, other research suggests that a majority wish to have all decisions about tax, spending and welfare made in Scotland. How to explain – and bridge – that gap?

    The other question is straightforward. The “yes” faction are well behind in the polling — perhaps 19%. Can a patriotic surge (as the Caledonian Mercury puts it) be generated on the back of Bannockburn, the Commonwealth Games and the Ryder Cup?

  • Red Lion

    Not really grandmalarkey, theres a long and boring 18 months to go.

    Malcolm, yup the timing of the referendum around those events shows the SNP are banking a sizeable chunk of their hopes on gimmicky identity politics. They were never going to espouse a referendum the week after the London Olympics.

  • DougtheDug

    The common theme linking the Lib-Dem, Tory and Labour proposals on devolution is that none of them have been done or are being done by the national party. All of these commissions or working parties are being done by their respective Scottish regions because the party centers are simply not that interested.

    If the parties actually had any real interest in more devolution for Scotland they would have set up genuine party commissions to look at the proposals.

    The problem for all three of the unionist parties is that Scottish devolution has already reached devo-max. None of the proposals done so far, one by the Lib-Dems, one by the Devo-More group and one by the Devo-plus group have gone beyond the concept of the original devolution act which funded public services in Scotland at the Barnett formula level and gave the Scottish parliament power to increase or decrease income tax.

    These proposals chunter on about a mix of controlled taxes and assigned taxes and top up grants but the final total for public services in all three cases is always the Barnett formuia leve and the main revenue raising method is an increase in personal taxation. Just as it is now.

    There’s nothing radical because devo-max is the maximum amount of power that Westminster is willing to give Scotland and Scotland is already at that limit.

  • DougtheDug (@ 10:50 pm:

    The common theme linking the Lib-Dem, Tory and Labour proposals on devolution is that none of them have been done or are being done by the national party. All of these commissions or working parties are being done by their respective Scottish regions because the party centers are simply not that interested.

    Is that fair, in the case of any of the three parties? The LibDems have always been the most “devolved”. Labour and the Tories have learned the hard way that they need to devolve — why else have the word “Scottish” in their titles locally? In point of fact, when the Tories went the opposite route with that UCUNF nonsense, they received a bloody nose for their pains.

    What’s happening is implicit in the notion of “devolution”.

    The Barnett formula is on its way out: even its originator argued for that. The only questions remaining are when and how.

  • DougtheDug

    @Malcolm Redfellow at 3:07 pm

    The Lib-Dems’ Scottish region does have a limited degree of autonomy, the Conservatives’ Scottish region has very little and the Labour party’s Scottish region has the least of all.

    However all are simply regions within their respective parties. If each party was serious about more devolved powers for Scotland they wouldn’t have hived off the discussions to a regional commission in each case as any significant powers for Scotland would involve changes across the UK.

    All three use the word “Scottish” simply as a brand name as separate Scottish Labour, Conservative and Lib-Dem parties don’t exist.

    The Barnett formula is on the way out as a mechanism to give money to the various devolved assemblies and parliaments but the principle that no region of the UK should be able to significantly deviate from public spending in the UK remains. If the Barnett formula goes then Wales will gain funding but Northern Ireland and Scotland will lose.

  • Ah well, I tried.

    Numbers here are slippery in the extreme: for one example, Wee Eck has a joyous time “proving” that a 4% increase in funds amounts to only a derisory 3% “after inflation”. Hmmm …

    Then Barnett does not account for all expenditures — what gets included shifts from year to year, and interpretation to subjective interpretation. Still, the harsh truth is that Scotland raises just 35% of the revenue it apparently spends (see this week’s Economist). The reformed Barnett formula should, repeat should, reduce the Scottish ‘bunce’ to about +4% over the UK average — and that still wouldn’t please, either side of the Border.

    As I understand it (and, I admit, I’m doing a bit of subjective back-of-the-envelope stuff here, based on old numbers), Scottish GDP per capita is about 96% of the UK average. Bundle in the hypothetical Scottish oil-and-gas, and Scottish GDP rises to 117-120% of the GDP average — so, they ought to be heavy net contributors to any on-going post-independence joint fundings, of which there have to be many, pensions and social welfare probably the biggest. (who pays the pension of the public servant who worked his or her life in London, perhaps in the Scottish Office, and retires to a nice stone cottage in the Borders?)

    Anyway, the wheels are creaking elsewhere. Note today’s Guardian second leader:

    The most important reason for the rest of the UK to engage with the implications of what is happening in Scotland is the need to be thinking beyond September 2014 even if Scotland votes not to break away.


  • Angus McLellan

    There’s an interesting discussion between the BBC’s Derek Bateman, Angus Macleod of the Times and Scotland’s only living psephologist Professor John Curtice on Good Morning Scotland today. (Link: discussion begins at 54′ 20″) Northern Ireland Corporation Tax gets a mention, as do Tory ambitions for tax cutting.

    The bit that caught my attention was Curtice asking:

    “… if you look at what Ming Campbell came up with for the Liberal Democrats, given that he is not proposing to devolve welfare benefits, he is not proposing to devolve corporation tax, what is there going to be for Johann Lamont to disagree with next month when she comes up with her [inaudible] proposals? [Bateman talks over him] What is there for the Conservatives to disagree about? Now in an interview this week Ruth Davidson said ‘We won’t necessarily come to agreement this side of the referendum and we may still end up with three different proposals’. Well the truth is I think we are going to struggle to find the differences between these three parties. In which case why won’t they talk to each other this side of the referendum rather than after, which is what Ruth Davidson seemed to be thinking about this week?”

    Sounds like Professor Curtice thinks there is a long way to go with fitting those wheels.

  • DougtheDug

    @Angus McLellan 30 March 2013

    All the schemes proposed so far are exactly the same in principle as the original Scotland Act 1998. That includes the Calman inspired Scotland Act 2012, the Lib-Dems report “Federalism: the best future for Scotland”, the Devo-More report and the Devo-Plus report.

    Add together the mix of controlled taxes, assigned taxes and block grant in any of them and it turns out that Scotland will be funded to the Barnett formula level just the same as the original devolution act. If Scotland wishes to raise money above and beyond that level the only way to do it is to increase personal taxation, just the same as the original devolution act. This is because Scotland has already reached the limits of permissible devolution from the Westminster Parliament.

    I can’t see the Labour or the Tory reports being any different.

    The only reason that they haven’t combined their efforts is that if they form a united front then they will be expected to actually promise something definite which approaches the mythical devo-max solution and that goes against the fuzzy, non-committal, “we’ll have a commission about it in the future”, strategy of jam-tomorrow that the unionists hope will attract support away from the independence option in the referendum.

    If they put wheels on the bus they’ll have to specify the destination and promise any new devolution act will travel through Westminster to get there.

  • DougtheDug @12:06 pm:

    So where does the logic of that take you? Westminster (despite that, in 2010, 77+% voted for Unionist parties, and all but six seats went Unionist) should abrogate any responsibilities for Scottish taxation?

    Now, I’m wondering how much welcome the Mirlees proposals gets in the hillsides.Two words sum it up: unbridled capitalism. VAT — at an unspecified level — on all goods (including food) — it improves “spending choices,”, ducky. Urban property taxes unlimited — and you murmured about the mansion tax: suddenly mansions are in every terrace. Taxing road use and urban driving — really, really good for distribution services. Yeah: that might just be ahead in the rural communities, but it will also exacerbate the differential of energy prices (take out the tax element, and see how the price-gaps across the country increase!). Whole package might not sell so well in the cities and the Lowlands — though we might expect an influx of Russian billionaires relishing the prospect of no tax on savings (shades of Cyprus!).