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Calman's cautious contribution

Brian Taylor | 12:22 UK time, Monday, 17 November 2008

Anyone remember the Constitutional Convention? I certainly do: I covered it for so long they struck a commemorative medal for me. (For the avoidance of doubt, that last bit is hyperbole.)

It was not always the most fascinating of experiences. (Now, that bit demonstrates another figure of speech, namely litotes: that is, pure cheek from me.)

However, in the long - very long - term, the convention produced the devolved parliament we presently love and loathe in comparable measure.

There was a very precise read-through from the scheme drafted and, more specifically, revised by the convention to the Scotland Act, legislated by Her Majesty's Houses of Parliament, there assembled.

Maybe we need to regard the Calman Commission and its attendant debate in the same light. Cautious, steady - yet ultimately productive.

But, boy, is it cautious. Recently, we had the submission from UK Government departments to the commission. And a splendidly Panglossian document it was too. Nothing need change. All, it seemed, was for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

With one exception. If you chaps at Holyrood could see your way to being a bit more understanding over nuclear power, then all would be fine.

Now we are shortly to receive an interim report from the expert panel established by Calman to examine alternatives for funding Scotland. Similarly, I expect it to be quite brilliantly cautious, noting that no alternative to the current set-up meets all the criteria for a funding system: namely, that it should provide equity, accountability, autonomy, stability and efficiency.

For example, you could assign tax revenues to Scotland - say, the product of VAT or income tax. But that might be largely cosmetic, affording no real autonomy.

There would still be the need for equalisation grants from the Treasury to cover other spending needs and the products of other taxation, not least North Sea oil.

And there's the rub. Say there's a new system of assigned revenues.
Say that lessens by volume the block grant from the Treasury as, by definition, it would do. Say that allows politicians south of the border to argue that Scotland is getting less directly from the UK taxpayer, addressing a political concern over cross-border equity.
Say, though, that then prompts a necessary review of need in order to calculate the extent of the top-up that would still be required.

Would that be good news for Scotland - where spending is currently higher per head than in England? Ain't necessarily so - especially if the review is driven by the Treasury.

However, I believe today's report will be a vital contribution to the debate over funding. I believe it will give a hard edge to the fluffy, ill-considered debate which frequently surrounds the Barnett formula. I believe it will set out in substantial detail the alternatives: upside and downside.

Cautious? Yes, but rightly so. This is not an issue to be rushed or forced. Caution is sensible.

However, there is a political dimension too - which leads me to think that the Calman exercise will not, after all, mirror the convention.

The convention was wide-ranging, embracing much of civic Scotland. But, politically, it was driven by Labour and the Liberal Democrats with a common objective of delivering an elected parliament with substantial powers, within the United Kingdom.

I still believe that the competing interests within Calman may ultimately prove divergent. The LibDems want radical reform, including substantial tax powers. Labour is much more cautious and, at the UK Government level, partly preoccupied with the wish to placate English opinion.

The Conservatives are, quite understandably, using Calman as a think tank to prepare for what they might have to confront in government, should they win power at Westminster. This has a long way to go.


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