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Constitutional caution

Brian Taylor | 15:09 UK time, Monday, 10 November 2008

We should not, I think, be all that surprised that the UK Government's collective submission to the Calman Commission is cautious and defensive in tone.

It was, after all, the UK Government which drafted and implemented the Scotland Act. We could scarcely expect them to say: "OK, it's mince, let's tear it up and start again."

Further, this is an institutional response rather than a purely political one. It bears the stamp of the constitutional caution which, for good or ill, is intrinsic to the British state.

Further still, this is not the final word. It is a submission to Calman, albeit one from a rather influential source. There is more, much more, to come.

All of which said, there are voices raised against today's document. The SNP - which is not in membership of Calman - excoriates the publication.

The Liberal Democrats - who are members - condemn its over-cautious approach.

Perhaps more significantly, there are one or two well-placed folk on the Labour side who wonder whether the UK (Labour) Government might not have evinced a little more daring, having accepted the notion of the Calman review in the first place.

I draw three broad lessons. Firstly, look at the submission from the Department of Energy and Climate Change.

They raise, again, the issue of potential tension between energy strategy (reserved) and planning law (devolved).

This, they say, may "provide challenges to the implementation of reserved policy objectives".

Translated, that means they want a new generation of nuclear power stations across the UK - and that perfect pest Alex Salmond won't allow them to build one in Scotland.

To be fair, the submission merely notes the existence of a potential problem - and advances "the need for close co-operation".

And remember that the previous First Minister, Jack McConnell, was comparably pesky on the subject. His position, broadly, was to reject new nuclear in Scotland - while offering a substantial (and potentially controversial) increase in renewable generation as Scotland's contribution. Wind farms anyone?

Don't see this objection going anywhere, frankly. The Department of Energy may find it exasperating - but there is no point whatsoever to devolution if planning isn't included.

How, pray, are you going to implement UK nuclear strategy in Scotland if the Scots object through their devolved government? Send in the Army to build a new power station?

Secondly, that caution. I think it is understandable that the UK Government would tread softly. From their perspective, the devolved settlement is just that: a settlement, carefully negotiated and legislated.

They remain to be convinced of the need for substantive, legislative change.
However, read more closely.

The document also cites examples where executive devolution has gone further than the original Scotland Act: for instance, transferring day to day control of railways to Scotland.

In essence, I think the underlying mood of this submission is: there can be more executive devolution - but we don't intend to open up the Scotland Act for fear of stirring unwanted consequences.

Thirdly, the caution on transferring further powers shifts the focus of Calman back to the real issue: money.

The submission from the Treasury is largely historical: setting out in detail the nature of devolved funding including Barnett and the principle of equalisation. That is, explicitly, what was promised by the Treasury when the commission was first mooted.

Essentially, the Treasury is trying to provide a factual basis for further discussion. It is, at this stage, offering no view on how to proceed - although, separately, the document notes the desirability of providing financial responsibility to Holyrood.

So don't be surprised at the caution here. It's what Whitehall does. Consider instead where the debate goes next.

Look out for the publication next week of Anton Muscatelli's first report on the financing of devolution. He was tasked with this by Calman.

Look then for the interim report from Calman by the end of the year. Look, further ahead, for the final Calman report by next summer.

Today is not the final word by any means.


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