Making the Debate on More Scottish Powers Real

Gerry Hassan

Sunday Mail, July 5th 2015

Another week has seen more turbulence and uncertainty across Europe, north Africa and the Middle East. The unprecedented Greek vote on European Union intransigence will, whatever its outcome, have huge continental implications.

In this frenetic period, what have Scottish politics been dominated by, since the May general election? From nearly every corner and political persuasion – from the SNP to Labour, Tories, Lib Dems and Greens – the incessant talk has been of ‘more powers’ and whether the Smith Commission and ‘the Vow’ is being implemented in full, watered down, or even worse, betrayed.

Full Fiscal Autonomy (FFA) is impenetrable to most people. It involves huge and contested sums of monies. It is about projections into the future. In a culture and politics, where most people are confused by the difference between ‘debt’ and ‘deficit’, and are unsure what ‘austerity’ means, that isn’t surprising.

The FFA debate is actually a proxy on both sides – for the SNP as a means to aiding independence, and for the pro-union parties to hurt and embarrass the Nationalists. No one is actually interested in it as an end in itself.

This is the context of the debate on ‘more powers’. It is one which leaves most people completely out in the cold while politicians trade insults. It is a narrow, technocratic discussion of elites talking to themselves.

Scottish public opinion has consistently shown significant majority support for devolving most domestic policy. Yet there is little real sense of substance to these feelings. Instead, what it shows more is an indication of the direction of travel that people prefer.

Once again people have shown more wisdom than the politicians. Devolving most domestic policy to Scotland is clear and clean cut. It has a logic, simplicity and democracy. One of the inherent problems with the endless parade of post-devolution commissions such as Calman, is that no one who wasn’t a member of them can summarise their recommendations.

This leads to the quicksand of the current debates on the Smith Commission – and the practicalities of which welfare powers are being devolved and which aren’t. The SNP claim this leaves Westminster with a ‘veto’; their opponents disagree. What it does do is make a labyrinth-like system of UK welfare even more complex, that no one but a constitutional or legal expert will be able to understand.

The big question for the next few months is how can the ‘more powers’ debate be made more real, relevant and even understandable?

First, it has to address practical areas, such as how Westminster inhibits Scotland doing certain things – and how individuals are directly affected. For example, ensuring a joined-up system of support for those aged 16-24 years in work and training, when young people aged 16 and 17 are the responsibility of the Scottish Government, and from age 18 of Westminster.

Second, these areas have to be illuminated by personal examples and stories. One training agency told me that Westminster policy on post-18 support actively leaves young people financially worse off to the tune of up to £35 per week.

How this works is that 16-17 year olds get £55 compulsory support each week, which is then topped up by £35 per week from the employers. At age 18 people pass from the responsibility of the Scottish Government to the Department of Work and Pensions, and the £35 is either clawed back or isn’t paid.

The situation is different across numerous other training bodies, but here in one example is the sort of direct evidence which shows the Scottish Government being flexible and prioritising resources, and Westminster dogma meaning post-18 support is denied.

This is about a much wider argument. The conventional SNP vision of independence is focused on ‘the full powers’ of the Parliament, and making Scotland ‘a normal country’. This misses the most exciting potential aspect of independence, namely, aiding attitudinal and cultural change – in the hope of making it appear safe, no risk and about continuity.

The debate on ‘more powers’ cannot be conducted in a haze of generalities. If it does, it will be insular and self-indulgent, deliberately disconnecting the public from one of the most important discussions in recent times.

Some of these problems can be traced back to the independence debate. For all the energy of the Yes campaign, it had a number of missing ingredients. One was a credible economic case (think of the conjecture on the currency position), but as important was the missing dimension of practical examples of how Scotland could be changed beyond the obvious (getting rid of the bedroom tax and Trident). Related to this was an absence of human stories about the independent Scotland of the future.

Scotland’s debate is in a sticky place after the ‘Big Bang’ democratic explosion of last year. There is a new equilibrium and the balance of forces have shifted, probably fundamentally.

This moment requires boldness, imagination and detail. It shows the need for practical examples of Westminster blocking action and Scottish innovation which will enrich lives and opportunities. The example of Scotland’s young people aged 16-24 is but one of many by which this debate can become more real and more human.