BBC BLOGS - Blether with Brian
« Previous | Main | Next »

What now for devolution?

Brian Taylor | 13:14 UK time, Thursday, 3 March 2011

It remains the fundamental fault line in Scottish politics: the distinction between those who advocate independence and those who favour the Union.

That fault line was to the fore as the Holyrood committee which has been considering the Scotland Bill presented its conclusions.

There were no histrionics, no raised voices, no red cards, no need to send for the stewards, no angry scenes.

But there was palpable tension nonetheless: that tends to happen when the disagreement is basic, even visceral.

The subject? Proposals by the UK government, derived from the Calman Commission, to enhance the financial powers of the Scottish government, primarily via extra shared responsibility for income tax.

These are UK proposals. They will be enacted via the UK Parliament. But, under established convention, Westminster does not act on such matters without first gaining consent from Holyrood.

Hence the Holyrood committee investigation. Hence today's report.

Hence, subsequently, the prospect of a full vote in the Scottish Parliament in which the majority, presumably, will prevail.

Borrowing powers

That majority representing those who support the Union.

There are several areas of agreement in today's committee report. Those were acknowledged openly by both the convener, Labour's Wendy Alexander, and the deputy convener, Brian Adam of the SNP.

All sides at Holyrood believe that the borrowing powers proposed in the Bill should be extended still further.

There is common ground on several non-financial matters.

But fundamental division remains. Ms Alexander believes that the shared income tax package provides an opportunity to Holyrood to move into a new phase of self-government, with greater financial responsibility and entrenched incentives to create growth and thus higher tax revenues.

In this, she was supported by the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.

Mr Adam believes that the powers are inadequate and might well leave Scotland short in revenue. He and his party advocate full fiscal responsibility as part of independence.

Both sides, all parties, made their views plain today. This contest will form one of the key aspects of the coming election.

Polite opening

It had already been rehearsed in committee hearings - most notably the tetchy exchanges over whether or not devolution of tax responsibility is inherently connected with growth.

From the formal, polite opening, those divisions again steadily appeared today.

Supporters of the Union said that the case for intrinsic growth had been demolished.

Nationalists regretted the treatment given by the committee to academics on this point.

SNP member Tricia Marwick went further: castigating committee advisers whom, she said, had previously worked with the Calman Commission and had been, she implied, inimical to alternative views.

This perspective was disputed later by Ms Alexander who insisted that she and her committee had carefully examined all aspects of the evidence, assisted by expert advisers.

Which leaves us where?

With the knowledge that Unionists and Nationalists disgree.

But also with proposals for further strengthening the devolved package which, I believe, the UK Government will be under considerable pressure to agree.

Core issue

It might, indeed, fit with the perceived choreography between Westminster and Holyrood on this matter for that agreement to be given, admittedly after consideration.

There remains though another basic question at the core of this issue.

The new tax powers substitute for grant which will be withheld. On what basis will that withdrawn grant be calculated?

The committee notes that it has yet to receive a detailed proposal on that point from the UK Government - or indeed the Scottish government.

But, in a lengthy annexe, the committee itself sets out the basis upon which that calculation might be done.

This is, indeed, fundamental to the issue of whether grant for tax will be a good trade. Presumably the UK government will set out their position clearly before an absolutely final decision is taken.


or register to comment.

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.