Mr. Smith Comes to Town
Sunday Mail, November 30th 2014
The Smith Commission arose out of last minute panic by the pro-union parties in the independence referendum as the polls swung against them in the last few days.
This produced ‘the Vow’, Gordon Brown’s whirlwind tour, and the three Westminster party leaders rushing north. Such ill-concealed panic rarely produces good politics, and so it has proven with the Smith report.
It isn’t all black and white. Smith represents simultaneously the best and worst of Scottish traditions. On the plus there is the no nonsense getting down to serious work, establishing consensus, and Smith himself: practical and good on detail, who has impressed as a university and Commonwealth Games head. On the minus this was a totally elite shaped exercise, and one conducted as if the democratic upsurge of September 18th could just be put back in the box.
What of the Smith proposals? On the surface, they are impressive: income tax, a part of VAT, some welfare powers and Air Passenger Duty. But the problem is in the detail and then there’s more.
Income tax is in decline in the UK as a portion of tax, and the proposals leave up to 70% of taxation powers in the hands of Westminster. As serious, a pattern has begun to emerge: the 1998 Scotland Act powers for a’ tartan tax’ of 3 pence up or down were problematic to use, while the Calman tax plans were some of the most complex ever devised. Three sets of ill-thought out tax powers is a definite pattern, and one day if we are not careful we will pay the price for this!
Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling warned against devolving income tax, but as damning is the half-baked set of welfare proposals, leaving everything substantial in the hands of Westminster. It hasn’t exactly crowded itself in glory on welfare from paying a parsimonious £72 per week Job Seeker’s Allowance to embarking on a punitive system of sanctions punishment, directly related to the rise of food banks.
The politics of this are as important. Labour are in an extremely unhappy place and have been reluctantly dragged this far, only making a U-turn on income tax this week. Meanwhile the STUC have called the report’s plans ‘underwhelming’, while the business organisations, traditionally sceptical of devolution, have been more sympathetic.
The British politics are even more complicated. David Cameron proposed on the morning of September 19th English Votes for English Laws and has now promised that he will bring forward proposals at breakneck speed.
Such a move would have fundamental and potentially irreversible consequences for the UK. It would produce a nascent English Parliament in the House of Commons, with the prospect of conflict between the two, if there are different majorities between England and the UK in the same institution.
This isn’t just about the rights and wrongs of Scottish MPs voting on ‘English’ measures, but Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs who represent 117 constituencies out of 650 seats in the Commons. The clue is in the name, English votes, and it would make second-class representatives of all three nations’ MPs.
There is another deep-seated problem in Smith, and it was there from its very inception. This is that in an unbalanced, unreformed union in which the centre still on paper thinks it exercises untrammeled power, there is a limit to how often it is possible or advisable for one part of it, such as Scotland, to unilaterally take powers.
This is the pattern Scotland embarked upon in 1998 with the first Scotland Act which set up the Scottish Parliament. It happened again in 2012 with legislation on Calman. Now part of Scotland has returned for a third time in just a decade and a half. This cannot go on.
Constitutional reform to Scotland effects other parts of the union: England, Wales and Northern Ireland. What was excusable in 1998 is no longer so. The union has reached a point of crisis where these things need to be considered in the round.
The Smith Commission’s proposals are not all bad, and in part have some merit, but they were born of blind panic in the last days of the referendum campaign. It is revealing that not one party really supports the case they have made. Even the Scottish Conservatives who have embraced more fully than anyone else what they call ‘new unionism’ were dragged to this out of weakness, after Ruth Davidson tried to draw a line in the sand.
One side has endorsed Smith out of expediency and an air of desperation. The other, the SNP and Greens, have done so as part of a journey to the road of independence.
Really Scotland and Britain can do better than this in politics, process and proposals. Britain does not really work for the vast majority of working people across the four nations, and doesn’t any more pool and share resources very effectively. It is that deep democratic deficit which any imaginative constitutional change now has to address north and south of the border.