Sunday, 21 September 2014

The Vow & further powers - what next?

1.     With respect to new powers, there is a  trust problem for the three main devolution parties.  STUC itself was highly critical of the timing and presentation of the devolution proposals and the Vow. This mistrust of government is not confined to the 45% yes voters in the referendum.

2.      It is unclear whether ‘the Vow’ swung the independence vote or not.  But that is irrelevant, you don’t get to say ‘I made a promise which I thought I needed to make but as it turns out I didn’t need to make it after all.’

3.      The apparent attempt to include wider Westminster Reform (reducing Scottish MP voting rights) as part of a further powers package is a prima facie breach of trust and cannot be accepted.  Remember ‘the best of both worlds’ slogan?

4.      Even if it weren’t a breach of trust, the creation of a UK Westminster Parliament with MPs having different voting rights is not ‘English Devolution’.  That would be a) the creation of English Parliament exercising certain powers devolved from Westminster (Hence completing the devolution of the nations within the UK)  b) Devolution to the English regions of the English Parliament as a separate process and  not as an alternative to a).  David Cameron and his colleagues can aspire to be the Prime Minister of Britain or the First Minster of England – but not both.

5.      Whilst quick and decisive first steps are vital, it would be a mistake to judge the success of the ‘Vow’ by how quickly it is implemented, if that means that what is implemented is sub-optimal and not the subject of proper consultation.

6.      It is highly possible that any future constitutional settlement for the UK will be asymmetrical.  The very fact that one of the four nations involved in the union is six times bigger than the rest put together (with all the disproportionate direct and indirect influence this entails) may require a constitutional arrangement which appears less than perfect on paper but which is practically the fairest.

7.      The asymmetrical voting system at Westminster also reflects the fact that the union has always been/has come to be (delete as appropriate) a contract between nations and parliaments.  It reflects national interests as well as distributional equity.  This is also why Scotland’s per capita grant reflects its greater revenue contribution and not an assessment of its needs.

8.      Devo Max is not on the table.  It has only been broadly defined in the Scottish context. Even accepting that Devo Max is not clearly defined, the proposals of the Westminster parties comprise a mixture of options for possible further devolution of some, but not the majority of taxes and very few aspects of welfare.  This is not Devo Max.

9.      The aforementioned position is not the general understanding of Scottish voters who probably think there is more on the table than is actually being offered. The pro-devolution parties might argue that this is not their fault (they did after all publish their individual proposals).  But this would put them on very, very thin ice, given that they have had two and a half years to get this right and waited until just a few days before the referendum to make the Vow.

10.   Therefore, even if the promised timescale is adhered to, and even if the additional devolution powers are towards the maximum end of the spectrum of possibilities within the three parties’ proposals, a significant number of people - all of the 45% of yes voters and a chunk of the 55% of the no voters – are likely to be unhappy.

11.   It not necessarily easy or necessarily advisable to adopt a Devo Max model such as full fiscal autonomy. This is something which of course can be investigated, but brings a range of potential difficulties which will be explored in future blogs.

12.   Devolving a lot of tax, but not including some proportion of North Sea Oil revenues makes it difficult to increase powers without  reducing revenues.  This needs to be investigated further.

13.   It is also hard to devolve parts of the welfare system but not others.  There are a number of possible mechanisms which might be explored but it’s difficult to imagine significant changes without reform of the UK Welfare system, which has of course just been reformed through the creation of Universal Credit, Personal Independence Payments etc.

14.   Such was the number of supporters of both Yes and No whose key aim was to promote social justice that other powers including employment law, equalities legislation and to empower communities should be considered.

For most of the above reasons, the current proposed process for delivering powers is insufficient in terms of participation and scope. The UK Government/devolution parties need to fully engage the democratically elected Scottish Government (which is particularly representative of the 45% on this matter).  This should be augmented by a citizen–led process for discussing and refining the devolution plan, a process which includes not just the established civil society organisations, but - through citizens juries or similar mechanisms -  the voices of those (both yes and no) which turned the referendum process into a democratic phenomenon.

 Dave Moxham




  1. An excellent summary of the situation. As far as point 9 is concerned, I would like to add something. When newspapers proclaimed on their front pages that a No vote would be followed by Devo Max, they were lying, as they knew that the additional powers which had been proposed came nowhere near what most people would understand by the term Devo Max. Unionist leaders took no steps to counter that lie, and therefore they are complicit in it.

    Also, there were supposed to be no new government policies which might influence the referendum announced, on either side, during the 'purdah' period. A policy announced by the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister looks very like a government policy, and will have been taken by such by many of the voters. If Alex Salmond, just a couple of days before the referendum, announced that pensions would be increased once Scotland became independent, would he have got away with claiming that he was speaking not as the First Minister but just as SNP leader, announcing an SNP policy?

  2. If the Barnett formula is based on the costs of providing local government, NHS, police etc in England, then when the financing of these matters is discusssed, there is a Scottish interest

    1. That's correct Deirdre. If there was a separate English Parliament then the big budget decisions would be agreed by all MPs but on matter on health service delivery in England (same for local government etc) the English assembly might take such decisions. That is a much clearer division of power than perpetually having to argue whether a decision made by the UK Parliament (without Scottish MPs) had a direct or indirect impact on Scottish affiars.

  3. Les, I agree with the point about the way in which Devo Max became a shorthand and was thus adopted without question by some strands of the media in the last few days. As I implied in an earlier point in the blog, I don't necessarily believe that it was the difference in the final vote, but no-one knows that for sure.

  4. The three Unionist parties' promises were published well in advance of the referendum. When the three leaders signed the Vow promising "extensive new powers", I don't think it was unreasonable to interpret that as more than had already been offered (I've tried to tabulate in my blog:

    The Tories had already promised tax powers amounting to 47% of expenditure. If you add their promises to the Lib Dems, that amounts to 61%. It could easily be increased further (eg National Insurance), but as you say creates hazard by effectively abolishing Barnett, without the counterbalance of oil.

    As you say, the spending pledges are less impressive, and takes spending from about 59% to 63%. Pensions would be the obvious thing to add.

    If you want to transfer powers to promote social justice, these need to be balanced by powers to promote growth (eg corporation tax).

    But what about Broadcasting and the civil service?

  5. Thanks Matt, I tend to agree with most (if not all of this). I'll check out your blog forthwith. For me the most constricting element of the current devo proposals will be the reservation Child Tax credit and unemployment benefit (JSA etc). With these both being reserved there are some in built negative incentives for the Scottish Government to use its existing spend to undertake more active job creation and implement more ambitious childcare policies. I am personally less concerned about pensions devolution (and I think there is at least an argument that this one area in which Scottish voters were not particularly convinced of the need to make a change).

    I am also not convinced on Corporation Tax. We have blogged on this site about our doubts as to whether this represents a genuine business building option, so I'll just leave that hanging rather than reiterating those points.