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‘Flying the flag for the greatest possible devolution’ – Scotsman

This article by Malcolm Chisholm appeared in the Scotsman.

WHEN I spoke two weeks ago to a conference on the Scotland Bill it was noticeable that none of the speakers was supportive of it and none of the audience either. That’s hardly a scientific test of public opinion but it perhaps explains why all the devolution parties didn’t bother to mention it during the recent Scottish election. The Scotland Bill, a watered-down version of the already timid Calman Commission proposals, simply can’t and won’t enthuse the people of Scotland. I am glad that some prominent people in my own party are at last beginning to realise that.

Wendy Alexander deserves a great deal of credit for setting up the Calman Commission to address the fundamental weakness of the devolution settlement: the fact the Scottish Parliament is responsible for almost sixty per cent of all public expenditure in Scotland, but is only able to raise about seven per cent of Scottish tax and revenue income. That lack of financial responsibility and accountability works to the advantage of the Scottish Government, since London can always be blamed for lack of resources, but it is contrary to good and responsible government.

The problem with Calman and the Scotland Bill is that they don’t propose revenue raising powers to cover even half of Scottish devolved public expenditure, while the principle mechanism based almost exclusively on income tax is deeply flawed. Ten pence worth of income tax raises widely varying amounts of money at different stages in the economic cycle but there is no clarity yet as to how the grant from London is to be varied to take account of that. Moreover, some people might argue for reducing the income tax rate to boost economic growth, but most of the advantages flowing from that would accrue to the Treasury in London rather than Edinburgh. There has to be a range of taxes devolved rather than the blunt instrument of a ten pence tax rate which, if the experience of the three pence variable rate during the last twelve years is anything to go by, would probably be kept at the same rate for years.

Unfortunately, very few people have as yet have worked up a detailed alternative model of devolution. Independent think-tank Reform Scotland, however, deserves a great deal of credit for its Devolution Plus paper which not only addresses the financial accountability issue but also suggests significant new policy areas for devolution. In summary, the organisation suggests that if the parliament is responsible for sixty per cent of public expenditure in Scotland, then it should also be responsible for sixty per cent of the tax and revenue income. It goes beyond that, however, and suggests that about half of social security spending should also be devolved, particularly those parts, such as disability benefits and housing benefit, which are so closely connected to devolved policy areas, such as health and housing.

The Reform Scotland paper would be a useful starting point for working up the new model of devolution which, according to opinion polls, is what the majority of people want. That is not just the opinion polls of the last few weeks but polls going back for years. It is a ridiculous failure of democracy that none of the parties is presently offering the people what they say they want. There are some voices in all the devolution parties who are articulating this but they need to come together in a right-left coalition on this. It is interesting that Reform Scotland is on the right of the political spectrum in many of its other views, and Murdo Fraser articulated similar ideas during the recent Conservative leadership contest. Many of the trade unions, however, are also supportive of a much stronger devolution model, particularly in the area of economic and financial powers, so this is not fundamentally a right-left issue.

There are also voices in the Liberal Democrat party calling for greater powers and this, no doubt, led to the setting up of a Commission under Sir Menzies Campbell. With all due respect to the Liberal Democrats, however, it is ridiculous for a party that is so weak in Scotland to be doing this on its own. I believe that we need a new civic convention to address this issue, a convention that would include politicians from across the spectrum who support this agenda but which crucially would also include the trade unions, the voluntary sector, the churches, Reform Scotland and others.

This convention would need to start its work soon with a view to putting its proposal to the people in the referendum that is to come in three years or so. I believe the choice in that referendum should be between a “devo plus” or “devo max” option and independence. Devo max has unfortunately become identified in some people’s minds with full fiscal autonomy but, as I argued in a recent article, devo max implies very great devolution rather than the greatest possible. Full fiscal autonomy should be considered but I do not expect that would be the final view of the broad coalition I have described.

Moving forward on this basis would be a great deal easier if the Scotland Bill was ditched. One small step at a time may have seemed the right approach before May but the coming referendum has changed everything. In that sense the Scottish Government’s permanent secretary, Sir Peter Housden, was right to say that the Calman Commission was lost in the mists of time. It was a technocratic fix for a different age and the watered-down version of it in the Scotland Bill should not be the choice people are offered in the referendum. It has to be independence or devo plus which, in view of the ambiguity of devo max, is probably the best way to describe the greatly extended powers for the Scottish Parliament that the majority of people want.I believe that strong devo plus proposals are essential for the forthcoming referendum but we have to go beyond them in making a positive case for the United Kingdom. The starting point is that we are equal nations choosing to come together and that equality means we in Scotland can make demands in a claim of right for the powers and responsibilities that we want.

Beyond that however we need to describe the positive advantages of being part of a new United Kingdom. We can no longer rely on a declining sense of Britishness or a counterproductive insistence that Scotland cannot afford to stand on its own. The various factors that created Britishness have been weakening for decades but that does not mean there are not strong social ties and bonds between people in the various UK nations. These are positive, and for me and countless others, find expression in a desire for a continuing UK partnership. Over and above that are the pragmatic advantages round risk sharing and economic partnership and defence and pointing these out is also part of the positive case.

Scotland is about to make its most historic constitutional decision since 1707. What we need is a proper choice and a proper debate and a positive case for staying in the United Kingdom. I believe my proposals will help to secure each of those objectives, as well as making the rejection of independence more likely.

 

• Malcolm Chisholm is a Labour MSP for Edinburgh North and Leith and former Scottish executive minister