Offering more powers to Scotland may cause resentment

Analysis: wavering Scots must be persuaded more devolution will occur if they vote No to independence

Scottish first minister Alex Salmond:  failed to secure ‘devolution max’ option on independence referendum ballot paper. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Scottish first minister Alex Salmond: failed to secure ‘devolution max’ option on independence referendum ballot paper. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images


Some Scots want independence and nothing less. Before the referendum campaign started, however, the majority would have settled for running more of their own affairs.

In the negotiations that led up to the decision to hold next month’s referendum on Scottish independence, Scotland’s first minister Alex Salmond said he wanted such an option – known as “devolution max” – on the ballot paper.

Prime minister David Cameron ruled it out; indeed, Salmond probably knew Cameron would never agree, and that asking for it made him look reasonable in the eyes of middle-ground Scotland.

The irony is that during the campaign, the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats have now all made pledges offering extra powers in a bid to persuade the Scots to vote No to independence.

The offers on the table are not identical, however.

The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats would, they say, let Scotland decide its own tax rates and bands. Labour does not go that far. Instead, tax bands would be decided in London. Scotland could increase tax rates, but not cut them – to block “a race to the bottom”, it says.

Under the rules that set Holyrood up in 1999, Scotland could have varied the basic tax rate up or down by 3p in the pound, but none of the three administrations that have held office in Edinburgh tried.

Control of the purse strings

Legislation already passed by Westminster, that will come into force next April if Scotland votes No, will see a Scottish tax rate – one that will give Holyrood responsibility for up to 10p in the pound of tax.

Such a move would transfer control of over nearly £6 billion of taxes and help to rectify Holyrood’s central flaw: that it sets policies without having the responsibility for raising the money to pay for them.

The offers of extra powers if there is a No vote are being led by Scots in the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and Labour: even if Labour’s pro-devolution Scottish voices are the weakest of the three. The question, however, is what will be the ability of those same Scottish voices to dominate the landscape after a No vote, if that happens, given tempers elsewhere in the UK.

Already, there are signs that the post-referendum landscape will be complicated, even if there is a widespread recognition amongst senior figures in London that promises made would have to be kept.

Happy to soothe the troubled breasts of Conservative hardliners, Boris Johnson – who is burnishing his own leadership ambitions – has already declared that the Scots should get nothing.

Former Conservative Welsh secretary John Redwood points to the Scottish, the Welsh and the Northern Irish having “first ministers and devolved parliaments and assemblies. England has nothing”. Scots, he says, should be barred from being education or health secretary in the British Cabinet because these powers are among those devolved to Edinburgh.

Others argue that Scottish MPs should not vote in the House of Commons – nor Scottish peers in the House of Lords – on legislation that covers only England or Wales. The number of cases where English-only legislation has been influenced by Scottish MPs is tiny, according to a House of Commons review, but this has not stopped demands.

Extra devolution, though, would inevitably see fewer Scottish MPs: in 1997, there were 72. After the return of the Scottish parliament at Holyrood in 1999, that number fell to 59 for the 2005 election. Today, Labour and the Conservatives have promised greater powers to major English cities – but that is power over the spending of money, not the ability to pass legislation.

There is murmuring dissent in England about what others have; but, equally, there is little clarity about what England wants. Ten years ago, the northeast of the country rejected Labour’s offer of a regional assembly.

In often-forgotten Wales, there is resentment at the persistent focus on Scotland, particularly about the share of funds it gets from the treasury.

Unfair to Wales

The treasury share-out, the so-called Barnett formula, discriminates against Wales. If it got an equal share to Scotland, Cardiff would have £1.4 billion extra annually.

Faced with concerns from doubtful Scots, London politicians – with varying degrees of certainty – have pledged that Barnett will not be interfered with to Scotland’s disadvantage.

Such promises institutionalise unfairness, argues Prof Richard Wyn Jones of Cardiff University. “Now it is the Welsh, not the Scots, who are too wee, too poor, too stupid to matter. Nobody has considered that this means that Wales is regarded as collateral damage, or that such promises ride roughshod over legitimate English interests,” he said last week.

The outcome on September 18th is still to be written, but it is already clear that the centre cannot hold if the Scots decide to stay, but only on their terms.

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