Tuesday, 9 September 2014

“More powers” – what can we expect?

Today the Better Together parties have – finally – made an official announcement backing more powers for Holyrood. 

Johann Lamont, Ruth Davidson and Willie Rennie made a statement this morning confirming their commitment to unspecified further powers and backing former Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s timetable for a process to facilitate change in the event of a “No” vote.

Ms Lamont stated that “the importance of this debate to the people of Scotland is to give them certainty that there will be more powers.” This was echoed by Ms Davidson, who reiterated that “this is the way that Scotland can have what it wants most of all, which is full control and full levers of power over huge swathes of what we do in this country.” There is naturally little to disagree with, but it is difficult to be reassured by such generalised blandishments – especially when they are delivered belatedly and so obviously in response to unfavourable polls. 

The Lib Dems’ Willie Rennie, who - for all his claims to the contrary is not a fellow traveller in the Labour-Tory axis of devolutionary tinkering – clearly longs for something more far-reaching. "All three parties are coming together as this is so important” he said, without the slightest hint of irony following Ed Miliband’s ill-timed intervention last week. "We are going to commit to delivering on more taxation and more welfare, that's the commitment that we are standing here to give - certainty to people in Scotland that they know, if they vote 'No' in September, it will lead to more radical change right across Scotland."

It is difficult not to feel some empathy for Rennie, who clearly aspires to being able to facilitate major constitutional changes. But how “radical” can we expect any changes to be? What specific powers can we expect the pro-Union parties to agree to delegate? Much as Johann Lamont is correct, to a point, in believing that Scottish people desire “certainty” and “more powers”, the truth is more complex. Scots aren’t going to be satisfied with “more powers” if they simply result in minor modifications to the current settlement. Rennie is correct in asserting that Scots actually want something more “radical” – the big question, however, is whether they can deliver it. An almost equally important question for voters is whether Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats can be trusted to deliver it. 

The Liberal Democrats have long favoured a federalist structure for the UK, and should not be satisfied with facilitating merely a different kind of devolution. The Home Rule Commission produced a praiseworthy vision in 2012, providing for increasing the Scottish Parliament’s control over financial powers (including inheritance tax, corporation tax, capital gains tax, and income tax). Significantly, it also considered introducing “partnership powers” to require greater collaboration between Holyrood and Westminster, devolution of new borrowing powers, an overdue replacement to the Barnett Formula and a revised role for the Supreme Court in arbitration. It was not quite the “federalist” programme some, like myself, hoped for – but it was a positive contribution and a useful starting point for discussions on determining the precise shape of a post-referendum Scotland. Its main strength was the recognition that the real issue is not simply one of “powers”, but shaping the kind of Scotland the majority of us would like to live in. 

The difficulty is that the Labour and Conservative parties have shown no indication whatsoever of buying into the Lib Dem vision. They recognise the need to accept the case for further devolution, realising that not to do so would be tantamount to asking “No” voters to support the status quo. They understand, purely from the perspective of political expediency, the need to be perceived as pro-change. But they are not co-travellers on the federalist train. Labour’s Devolution Commission focused predominantly on tax-varying powers and, while there are some welcome commitments to further devolution of welfare, the truth is that it is a very bland document. It reads as though the Committee was determined to take the Fabian mantra of “the inevitability of gradualism” to an illogical extreme. The Conservatives, on the other hand, to their credit consider the benefits of reversing the drift towards centralisation of power and focus on devolution within Scotland. The Tories have produced a document that reads well from the perspective of the committed devolutionist, but it is again too focused on the purely fiscal and fails to advocate the kind of “radicalism” that should appeal to either Liberal Democrats or others who desire a more comprehensive programme of reform.

Given the admittedly moderate ambitions of the Labour and Conservative parties, what then does a promise for “more powers” actually mean? What it does not mean is certainty. Even if, in the event of a “No” vote, work will begin on the new legislation as soon as September 19th, the final proposals will be far from certain until publication some months later. 

What the final proposals might actually be cannot be known at this point, which is unlikely to provide any reassurances to undecided voters. What can be said, with some degree of certainty, is that the final recommendations are more likely to look like the Tory and Labour proposals rather than the Liberal Democrat Home Rule recommendations, or Willie Rennie’s vision for “full fiscal federalism”. Federalism is a non-starter. 

What this announcement actually confirms is that the pro-Union parties are truly terrified. Why make the statement now, with just over way week until polling day? Why, if they were so committed to “further powers”, was a timetable not established over a year ago to confirm collective agreement to a process? The vague references to “powers” otherwise provides nothing of substance. This is simply one more mistake committed by Better Together: after refusing the option of a second question on the ballot form, the parties should have been more pro-active in proposing a mechanism for achieving change, rather than simply making vague gestures. If this announcement had been made in different circumstances earlier in the campaign, it may justifiably have been perceived as a genuine exercise in collaborative working to facilitate reform. As it is, Gordon Brown’s Declaration of Loanhead Miners’ Club looks like a calculated and cynical attempt to counter what now appears to be the very real threat of independence with some familiar Labour realpolitik. It inevitably feels like a bribe, even if it isn’t designed to be.

Better Together’s problem stems from the fact that it did not feel the need to either make a case for the union, or to spell out what its plans might be for devolution. Belatedly it is attempting to offer some degree of certainty but, having remained virtually quiet for over two years, why should anyone listen now? In any case, being asked to trust Brown and Darling on delivering a better economy for Scotland is a little like Vladimir Putin asking the world to trust him on human rights issues. It simply isn’t credible.

As a Liberal Democrat, I would naturally prefer a workable federalist settlement for the UK. If Better Together had promised – or even suggested – the possibility for a UK Constitutional Convention I may have been tempted to vote no. But no such commitment to anything so far-reaching has ever been offered and I am not persuaded by today’s statement, committed as it is to non-commitment. 

The difficulty for many voters is that, irrespective of the result of next week’s referendum, the only certainty is more uncertainty. What independence will mean will inevitably be subject to negotiation; what “further powers” means in practice will be determined by discussions between the pro-union parties. It can be said with some regrettable conviction, however, that they will bear almost no resemblance to the Home Rule Commission’s bold vision. 

The most likely outcome is that “further powers” will mean whatever the Conservative and Labour parties want it to mean. If that’s your vision for Scotland’s future, then vote “No”.

For all the criticisms aimed at Alex Salmond and the SNP, it’s now the Better Together parties who are short on answers.  If only Better Together had been discussing "more powers" for the last two years, rather than the final two weeks.

1 comment:

Lee Harley said...

Extremely well written! Whilst I would personally be tempted to vote No - I would understand an academics reasoning for voting yes. However, I believe the past cannot be cured and as such I think any broken promises of the past should not surface in the reerendum.