There are large gaps between the parties in their aspirations for what comes next for Scotland

Just three weeks ago the people of Scotland voted to stay in the UK. This week, as Akash Paun explains, the debate on the next phase of devolution began in earnest as Scotland’s five main political parties (the four you would guess plus the Scottish Greens) submitted their proposals to Lord Smith of Kelvin – the one-man commission charged with finding a consensus on further devolution by the end of November

Credit: clry2, CC BY ND 2.0

The Scottish Parliament building (Credit: clry2, CC BY ND 2.0)

This week’s announcement only goes to emphasise how difficult a task lies in front of Lord Smith. Far from being bowed from defeat, the SNP-led Scottish Government has set out a bold vision for change, calling for extensive additional powers to be transferred from Westminster.

In a foreword, the First Minister-elect Nicola Sturgeon argues that it is “beyond argument that there is a powerful majority for change” and that the outcome of the Smith process “must meet the expectations of the Scottish people…which is for a package of reform that lives up to the rhetoric of ‘Home Rule’, ‘near federalism’ and ‘devo-max’”.

The Scottish Government goes on to argue for “full fiscal responsibility for the Scottish Parliament”, with the complete devolution of all taxes (with the possible exception, due to EU legal constraints, of VAT and excise duties), all elements of the benefits and pensions systems, and various other important policy areas including competition, employment, broadcasting, energy and elements of immigration policy.

For good measure, the SNP wants the Scottish Parliament to control its own electoral system (for instance to lower the voting age to 16), and for Scotland to have the power “to establish its own constitutional framework, including human rights [Chris Grayling, take note], equalities and the place of local government.” And there is a desire for Scotland to be able to “directly represent its interests on devolved matters in the EU and internationally”.

This would leave Westminster controlling only defence, (most aspects of) foreign policy, aid, monetary policy, intelligence, security, the borders and UK-wide constitutional matters.

While the SNP cannot truly believe that the other parties will converge on this devo max vision, the boldness of the proposals is a measure of the confidence of the nationalist party (which has more than tripled its membership since the referendum, and is now the third largest party in the UK). The only party close to the SNP position at present are the Scottish Greens, who campaigned for Yes and continue to favour significant further devolution, while striking a slightly more emollient tone than the SNP (highlighting the potential for a middle ground position).

Ultimately though, finding a consensus position will depend upon the willingness of the SNP and the major Westminster parties to compromise. Analysis by the Institute for Government before the referendum showed that the existing proposals of the three unionist parties all fell far short of a ‘devo max’ proposition. Even the boldest plan for tax devolution – that of the Liberal Democrats – would make the Scottish Parliament responsible for less than a third of taxes raised in Scotland. The Conservatives and Labour offered less than this – though were open to some welfare devolution, for instance of housing benefit, attendance allowance and the work programme.

Lord Smith asked all the parties “to reflect on their proposals in the context of the referendum campaign and outcome”, but so far there is little sign that reflection has led to any significant changes of mind. Today’s submissions of the three unionist parties all consisted of short letters to Lord Smith committing to the process, but otherwise just referring back to their pre-referendum announcements.

The Conservative submission did, however, state that it now regarded its proposals (set out in the Strathclyde Commission in spring 2014) as a “floor rather than a ceiling” for the negotiations – a clear signal that it is willing to move upwards towards the SNP position.

Labour, meanwhile, committed to working towards a Scottish Parliament with “more powers and enhanced accountability within a strengthened union”, but gave no further signal of flexibility in its position as set out in the party’s Devolution Commission, which displayed a very evident ambivalence about extensive tax and welfare devolution.

There is a principled reason for this – the longstanding social democratic view that redistributive functions should be controlled at the UK level. But self-interest is also at stake – significant further devolution to Edinburgh will only strengthen the Conservative arguments to limit the powers of Scottish MPs (currently mostly Labour) at Westminster.

And indeed, today’s Conservative submission to Smith emphasised the prime ministerial line that any new settlement “must accommodate not only the interests and aspirations of Scots, but also the legitimate interests and aspirations of our fellow citizens in England, Wales and Northern Ireland”.

One encouraging sign is that all parties are committed to working within the challenging timetable the unionist parties set themselves. But the areas of disagreement are many, much horse-trading and arm-twisting lies ahead, and there clearly remains a significant possibility that no mutually-acceptable position will be reached by November or perhaps even by next May’s election.

Note: this piece originally appeared on the Institute for Government blog. It represents the views of the author and not those of Democratic Audit or the LSE. Please read our comments policy before posting. 

Akash Paun is a Fellow at the Institute for Government

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