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The Disraeli Room

Blog Post

The Future of Scotland: Aye, naw, maybe

13th March 2014

John Downie, Director of Public Affairs at the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, discusses what a ‘No’ vote means for Scotland

The ‘no’ scenario supposes that Scotland votes on the 18th of September and we wake up to a bright new world of ‘potentially’ more devolution, which funnily enough is what the majority of Scots wanted in the first place. We didn’t want this political fix and the simplistic approach of a one-question referendum.

Why? Because most people see devolution as an evolving process so they don’t want the status quo, but are yet to be convinced by full independence. We want more powers. The questions are: will we get them, what will they be and what will we do with them?

The dilemma facing opposition parties in Scotland – the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives and, especially, the Labour Party – is the need to boost, enhance, evolve (take your pick) their devolution ‘offer’.

Next week Sir Menzies Campbell will update the Liberal-Democrat proposals. They want substantial tax powers for Scotland as part of a federal UK and a strange half-way house which passes responsibility for work programmes to Scotland but leaves welfare to Westminster – something that is unlikely to succeed because of the increasing use of conditionality within the welfare system. And quite why the Scottish Government would want to deliver the programmes and policies designed by the UK Government is beyond me.

Over in the Labour camp, Labour’s Devolution Commission will present a report to the party’s conference. Party heavyweights Douglas Alexander and Jim Murphy have urged the Commission to be bold and ambitious. Don’t hold your breath. Labour will very likely offer further devolution of tax powers – beyond the plans already in the pipeline from the Scotland Act 2012 – and they will suggest devolving some aspects of welfare and employment policy.

Devolving welfare would allow the Scottish Parliament much more leeway to align welfare to its other policies, for example in health and care where we will ultimately need to design a new system around who pays for what in terms of elderly care. We can also integrate and improve our employability services, which are currently hopelessly divided and needlessly overlapping between the UK and Scottish governments.

But the killer argument connects welfare devolution to income tax. The inexorable rise of the working poor and the use of tax credits and thresholds to prop up low pay have conjoined the interests of tax and welfare to the extent that devolving one without the other makes little sense. Given the emerging consensus on proper devolution of income tax as opposed to the sham propositions in the Scotland Act which will never see the light of day, it is difficult to imagine Labour not proposing welfare being devolved.

Then in May, the Scottish Tories will receive the outcome of deliberations by Lord Strathclyde and his Commission. Most people expect the Tories to set out further tax powers within a framework of further fiscal devolution and offer, or press a future Scottish Government on, tax cuts.

Whatever all unionist parties propose it will all be about ‘maintaining’ a stable UK constitutional framework and not upsetting the Union. This is a logical and obvious approach for supporters of the Union, but quite how they will strike a balance which doesn’t upset, undermine or disturb those with power at UK-level will be interesting to see. Enhancing devolution within the arm of the UK will be a difficult task.

The problem is wrestling with the question of how much to devolve and how to devise a credible roadmap has been postponed for too long. Will a credible roadmap be brought forward by the unionist parties? I think not. As always politics will get in the way.

Let’s be clear, if Scotland votes no all the UK political parties’ thoughts and energies will turn to the UK general election – more powers for Scotland will not be on or at the top of the agenda. The Tories will say you voted no and quickly forget about more powers. Labour, who are unlikely to win the next election, won’t be in a position to implement their proposals, however sensible they may be. As for the Lib-Dems, they’ll probably be the equivalent of election toast – at both a UK and Scottish level.

In recent speeches I have made a very obvious statement: Scotland and the world are changing and they will continue to do so whatever happens with the referendum vote this September.

The status quo will not continue. Scotland will change regardless of the referendum outcome but it will be related to demographics, to health, to technology, to poverty and inequality, to the environment, to the economy.

But the reality is that for the people of Scotland and the third sector no one can be certain what a No vote in the referendum means.


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