Sunday, 25 January 2015
If this is Home Rule...it's rather underwhelming
Writing for Scotland on Sunday, Clegg insisted that "Thursday was a good day for Scotland and our United Kingdom...The Scottish Parliament has grown in authority and stature in its short life and these new and significant powers will enable it to grow even more.
"You will have the flexibility to do things differently in Scotland as Holyrood will now raise the majority of the money it spends. It means if you want to spend more on mental health care, like Liberal Democrats have advocated, then you can do that. Likewise if you want to cut taxes for those on low and middle incomes then that will be possible too. These are two priorities that Liberal Democrats will be making the case for." So far, so good.
Clegg also referred to the Scottish welfare budget of £2.5 billion, which can be used to provide "support for people with disabilities and carers", and to the advent of votes for 16 and 17 year olds.Again, all good liberal ideas, but am I missing something?
"Home rule is part of the Liberal Democrats’ DNA" he said. Indeed it is, which is why I'm wondering how anyone could possibly call the Smith proposals "Home Rule".
"It’s part of our history going back to William Gladstone’s Midlothian campaign in the late 1870s. We have always been 100 per cent behind the transfer of powers away from London and these new powers mark an exciting time in Scottish politics." I am not entirely sure on the 100 per cent claim, but he's correct that our Home Rule credentials go back almost 150 years. There can be no denying this, but the political realities today are very different than in the early days of the Liberal Party. Whether Gladstone would or would not have recognised the Smith recommendations as the embodiment and fulfilment of his aspirations is questionable, but what is more apparent is that as far as modern Liberal Democrats are concerned, these plans fall far short of our own plans for Scottish Home Rule within a federalist UK. So, why is the leader so keen to suggest that the Holy Grail of "Home Rule" has finally been realised?
Clegg makes some valid points about "the fog of negativity", the absurdity of Conservative proposals for English Votes for English Laws (which he calls an attempt to "correct an anomaly in the UK Parliament...by creating another anomaly") and the merits of the Smith proposals. But he is over-egging the pudding more than slightly. What is needed are not ridiculous claims and triumphalism from any party, but an acceptance that a compromise deal has been reached through which certain benefits have been obtained. These changes move us further down the road of devolution; they are welcome; they realise some historical Liberal objectives; they ensure that Scotland will become more autonomous than any other region of the UK.
But these changes do not realise "Home Rule". Neither do they really move us closer towards a federalist settlement - although the constitutional convention Clegg wants to see work on the English question very possibly could. What Smith did was to recommend a number of changes to how devolution works, and in the circumstances it delivered. It delivered a strengthened Scottish Parliament - it did what the rather ambiguous and non-specific "vow" demanded. It might have delivered more, although I'd have been surprised if it had been bolder. I'm not going to join the cynics, but for this believer in "Home Rule" the proposals cannot be the end of the line but only the beginning, and do not represent the triumph of Gladstonian Liberalism over SNP Nationalism.
A great deal of what Nick Clegg had to say was positive. But, if this is Home Rule, then it feels rather underwhelming.
It is quite deflating to see not only Nick Clegg, but also various others including even Margaret Curran, attempting to sell the Smith Commission as the culmination of a century and a half of often fraught political campaigning. I'm sure I'm not the only person to take that view. In fact, to see Labour championing the supposedly newly-gained "Home Rule" as their own cause is quite nauseating.
When we think about "Home Rule", it does not mean a bit of tinkering with devolution. It is something bold and radical. It might even be called extreme, or ultra devolution. It is a worthy aspiration, but to use such loaded terminology to describe something that is (to misuse Nick Clegg's derisory description of an AV referendum) "a miserable little compromise" as the fulfilment of the Liberal dream is going too far and risks offending those of us for whom "Home Rule" is something far more ambitious. That's not to say that the compromise reached isn't progress, but let's not overreach ourselves.
A sense of proportion is necessary. Smith represents some welcome and overdue progress - nothing more, nothing less.
I hope we Lib Dems continue to talk about, and work towards, Home Rule. It is, as Clegg rightly states, in our DNA. But let's not have any of this nonsense that it's already a reality.