Power sharing of the genuine sort is clearly needed to make work the complexity contained in the 44 draft clauses of legislation to grant sweeping new powers to the Scottish Parliament. But not for a while yet, if ever.
David Cameron’s visit to Edinburgh to present the Command Paper was marked by political jostling much more complicated that the heady simplicity of Yes or No in the referendum. It was preceded by the Chancellor yesterday pledging to try to bar Scottish MPs at Westminster from voting on aspects of the UK budget. This move was followed by Nicola Sturgeon winding up the Tories by pledging that SNP MPs would vote on NHS issues like so-called privatisation which on the face of it affects only England.
Private funding in the NHS England stands at only 7% , no greater than under Labour. True, an increase might mean a decrease of UK funding to Scotland as a result, but this is pretty much a straw man target.
The disputes are in fact thin stuff overall, but may be just enough to polarise Scottish and English voters further and enflame English MPs. Will English Tories take the bait and play the victim? Labour as a whole will surely support the right to vote by Scottish MPs and harden their opposition to English votes on English laws.
Next, Sturgeon’s claim that Westminster is trying to exercise a veto on Holyrood, contrary to the Vow to implement the Smith Commission Report . Cameron says he can “absolutely guarantee there is no veto” for UK ministers if the Scottish government proposes changes to the welfare system under the new powers to be devolved to Holyrood.
Sturgeon’s “veto” claim centres on Clause 20, section 4 (b) and use of the word “agreement”. But this claim relates specifically to the payment of universal credit which is reserved to Westminster while its dispersal and other welfare matters are devolved. It’s a key part of the complex arrangements which will require goodwill and some restraint on politicking to work. However a clash is unlikely to be avoided between aspirations extending beyond the SNP to devolve all welfare and Westminster’s determination so far to hold on to key parts of welfare as part of the social compact that binds the UK together.
The draft Scotland Bill also exposes the dilemmas in the “no detriment” principle enunciated in the Smith report, that neither Scotland the rest of the UK should suffer from decisions taken by either government. It leaves plenty of room for political mischief ( Paragraph 95 (3)). For instance, what would happen if Scottish employment polices reduce demand for welfare, which would benefit the UK (which pays the main benefits) but not the Scottish budget? Unfair to Ruk?
There’s no doubt that the politicking is just beginning. The only question to be seen is whether anyone can carve a clear cause out of the arcane disputes over increased powers. We can rely on the SNP to give it their best shot. Expect efforts to increase to separate out the responsibilities of Westminster and Holyrood more cleanly, headed by pressure to devolve all welfare. But would that become a slippery slope to devo max?