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Big choices ahead

Brian Taylor | 06:57 UK time, Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Perhaps it is the season, perhaps it is the Holyrood recess but I find myself inclined to take a slightly longer view in these musings than is customary.

It seems to me that in Scotland in particular we are about to face a series of choices: each substantial, collectively with the potential to transform.

Firstly, the next session of the Scottish Parliament will be the last before the elections which are due in May. Scotland will choose new MSPs on new constituency boundaries.

That choice will determine whether the SNP is returned to power or replaced. MSPs in their sundry parties may also have to determine whether to forge a coalition.

Viewed from this distant standpoint, SNP / LibDem seems feasible, just, provided the SNP has maintained momentum and not lost ground. Another choice would influence that: the issue of an independence referendum.

When one is tabled at Holyrood, it seems presently certain that it will be thwarted. The SNP would be bound to try again. Could they and the LibDems find a way this time to finesse that dividing point? Does the UK coalition approach with regard to a voting reform referendum offer an option? Maybe not.

Labour direction

Again viewed from this standpoint, it seems likely that Labour would seek to govern alone should they be returned as the largest party. Little enamoured of the LibDems, they would probably prefer to attack them for supporting the Tories at a UK level than coalesce with them at Holyrood.

Plus they have the example of the SNP before them. Nationalist Ministers cannot do all they want: on occasion they appear becalmed. But they are in power with decisions to take and money to spend, albeit at lower levels in the future.

Underlying it all, of course, is the more fundamental question which sustains the SNP and challenges their rivals. Should Scotland opt for independence? Whatever critics say, that is and remains a defining question in Scottish politics. It is in many respects the political fault line in Scotland.

Then there is that choice on whether to introduce the Alternative Vote for Westminster elections. Will that referendum go ahead, as presently scheduled, on the same day as the Holyrood elections?

It seems to me that the UK Ministerial replies to those who object to this timing - including the First Minister - are not yet addressing the points raised.

UK Ministers say that Scots are comfortably capable of deciding upon Westminster voting systems and their choice of MSPs at the same time.

Campaign 'confusion'

Mr Salmond, as a wise politician, would never question the sagacity of Scots voters. Rather he makes other points. In particular, he argues that the campaign - not the vote itself but the prelude - may prove confusing: that there may not be sufficient distinct attention paid to the Holyrood elections or the Westminster choice, that the issues may become blurred.

It may be that UK Ministers can provide a substantive reply to that point. At this stage, for this observer, they have failed to do so.

Whenever the referendum is held, there is then, of course, the choice for Scots along with the rest of the UK. Would AV be better than the present system?

Next, there is the choice - or choices - regarding the future powers of the Scottish Parliament.

UK Ministers, notably the LibDems, are set on implementing Calman on a reasonably short timetable, with a Bill due in the Autumn. There may be changes on the basis of further consideration. But this is Calman. Not Calman Plus. Certainly not Calman Minus.

Scottish Ministers object that Calman on tax was always flawed and that those flaws will be exposed when the LibDem proposal to take those earning up to £10k out of income tax is implemented.

Tax questions

Meritorious on its own that move may be, they will argue, but it will cut the tax base available to Scotland while the alternative revenue raising measures, VAT and NI, will not go to St Andrews House.

Simple, say LibDem Ministers. The Treasury can take account of this disparity in determining the notional sums assigned to Scotland from income tax. This was, broadly, the approach suggested by the previous UK Government's White Paper.

But, say critics, does that not undermine the concept of fiscal autonomy - if the sums allotted are calculated by the Treasury rather than being based upon actual revenue? No, say UK Ministers, the Calman approach will give responsibility and decision-making to Holyrood.

There, then, is another choice. Calman or a move towards full fiscal autonomy. Right now, Calman seems decidedly most likely. Longer term, one may find greater support for autonomy.

For example, it would arguably be logical for Scottish Tories to support such a move: within autonomy, they could credibly argue for low spending and lower taxation.

Spending needs

For now, though, the biggest choice remains the level of public spending. The signs are not propitious for a sane, sensible debate about the method of allocating scarcer reserves of cash.

So far, we have had bickering and back-biting. It is perhaps understandable that Labour, out of power in both Holyrood and Westminster, should indulge so vigorously in such tactics.

It is equally understandable that Ministers in both Holyrood and Westminster choose to return the favour by recalling who was in charge of the Treasury for the last decade and more.

However, spending will have to be cut - and there is a real choice confronting the people and their elected politicians. Not a partisan choice but a pragmatic one.

We can squabble endlessly, allowing money to go to those with the loudest voice. Or we can ask fundamental questions of those who spend public cash. Why do you need that spending at all? What is it for? What does it achieve? Why?

Hopefully, the independent review of Scottish spending will contribute substantially to that process. But it is not their choice. It is not Ministers' choice. It is ours.

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