(c) The Guardian
The Smith Commission, the cross-party entity convened by the UK government shortly after the Scottish independence referendum to discuss and recommend what further powers could be devolved from London to the Scottish Parliament, has just delivered its verdict. In the mainstream press there’s been much trumpeting about the new powers being recommended. SCOTLAND TO CONTROL £14 BILLION OF INCOME TAX AND WELFARE BENEFITS IN CROSS-PARTY DEAL squawked a Guardian headline on November 27th. 14 billion pounds? Wow. That’s a lot.
However, back in September, nearly all the mainstream newspapers urged their Scottish readers to vote ‘no’ to independence. And as the commission is widely viewed as a face-saving measure for the majority of Scottish voters (55%) who did just that and voted ‘no’ to independence – okay, they’ve been told, you’ve rejected outright independence for your country but, don’t feel bad, Scotland will still get more independence, within the framework of the UK – I think the newspapers’ grand claims for it can be taken with a wee pinch of salt.
The response to the Smith Commission’s recommendations from independence supporters has, predictably, been less positive. Indeed, the Reverend Stuart Campbell at the website Wings over Scotland took issue with the above-mentioned Guardian story and pointed out that the Scottish Parliament has always had control of 14 billion pounds of income tax and welfare cash, in the form of the block-grant system – the money was collected by HM Revenue and Customs, given to the British Treasury, earmarked for and finally delivered to Scotland. “Post-Smith Commission (assuming the recommendations are implemented in full), it’ll still be collected by HMRC, it’ll still be given to the Treasury, and it’ll still be passed to Scotland as a lump sum. It’ll just have a different badge on it.” I know Wings over Scotland is pretty partisan and Campbell can go over the top with his rhetoric. But he’s forensic in his research and is good at sniffing out the inconsistencies between what politicians and journalists have claimed at one place and time and what they’ve claimed at another.
Meanwhile, Iain MacWhirter, political columnist with the Herald and Sunday Herald, has argued that going with the commission’s recommendations and giving the Scottish Parliament power over income tax but precious little else is “an exercise in control-freak minimalism that will serve to lock Scotland in economic decline. The proposals to hand control of income taxes to Scotland, but not the full range of taxes like national insurance, wealth taxes, oil and gas revenues and so on, is a transparent fiscal trap.”
I’ll limit my comments to three areas here. Firstly, despite the hullabaloo generated in the British media about all of this, I think we can all accept that there are a few things that still won’t be devolved to Scotland. Actually, there are an awful lot of things that won’t be devolved to Scotland. These are the items that’ll remain in the control of Westminster:
The state pension; Universal Credit; bereavement allowance and payment; child benefit; guardian’s allowance; maternity allowance, statutory maternity pay; sick pay; widowed parent’s allowance; the National Minimum Wage; the Equality Act (2010); all benefits related to the Department of Work and Pensions’ Jobcentre Plus; setting the way money is raised to deal with Energy Efficiency and Fuel Poverty; all aspects of Income Tax apart from rates and thresholds; all aspects of VAT apart from “the VAT receipts raised in Scotland by the first ten percentage points of the standard rate of VAT which will be assigned to the Scottish government’s budget”; the licensing of offshore oil and gas extractions; Fuel Duty and Excise Duty; “the power to levy an additional UK-wide tax in the UK national interest”; the health and safety legislative framework; Corporation Tax; Inheritance Tax and Capital Gains Tax; National Insurance Contributions; and the taxation of oil and gas receipts; the Block Grant to Scotland operated through the Barnett Formula; and decisions about xenotransplantation, embryology, surrogacy and genetics.
I suspect more than a few Scots voted ‘no’ in the referendum believing they’d been promised ‘devo-max’ if they stayed in the UK. In other words, they’d get a Scotland where everything relating to domestic matters was dealt with by Scottish politicians in Edinburgh; while politicians in London only took care of the really big things relating to Britain’s interests on the world stage, like defence matters and foreign policy. But don’t worry, Scotland. You’re not getting any say in defence or foreign policy either.
You can read more about these many omissions here, at the website Bella Caledonia:
My second point is that what the commission recommends being devolved to Scottish control is just that at the moment – a set of recommendations. It’ll be fascinating – though very likely depressing – to see what actually gets turned into devolved powers in the long run. I certainly can’t see many of these recommendations being enacted by a Conservative government in Westminster, with a horde of English Conservative backbenchers braying about what they see as the Scots being unfairly favoured at the expense of the English.
Nor do I see the prospect of many of them being enacted by a Labour government, which will have its own back-bench interests to placate. For example, the much-vaunted recommendation that the Scottish parliament has control over air passenger duty, charged on passengers flying from Scottish airports, is likely to be challenged by Labour MPs representing constituencies with or served by airports in northern England. And incidentally, Labour’s coven of backbench Scottish MPs are probably the most fervently anti-devolution lot around. They’re terrified by the thought that, as more power devolves to Edinburgh, they’ll lose the perks and privileges that they enjoy as Scotland’s supposed representatives in London.
Finally, I find it telling that the main proponent of the message to Scottish voters that “you’ll get more power over your own affairs if you actually vote ‘no’ to having more power over your own affairs”, was Gordon Brown — the MP for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath and the not-much-missed Prime Minister of the UK from 2007 to 2010. The other day, Brown announced that, come next May, he’ll be stepping down as an MP.
During the later stages of the referendum campaign – with the mainstream media acting as his cheerleaders – Brown stressed his determination to see Scotland accrue more powers while it continued as a part of the UK. So I assumed that he’d stay active in politics until he was sure that all the things he’d promised Scots would come their way in the event of a ‘no’ vote really were coming their way. But no, Brown got the referendum-result he wanted and he won breathless plaudits from a right-wing media that, when he was PM, had liked to portray him as a turnip-headed nincompoop with tyrannical tendencies and a severe personality disorder.
And now he’s buggering off. What a big tube.