It is grimly ironic that whilst Gordon Brown becomes ever more vociferous declaiming the benefits of Union, simultaneously he continues to disassemble the very machinery which holds the United Kingdom together. The Labour government have made plain their intention to abolish separate government offices for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales and, in a speech to the Scottish CBI last night, Brown denounced the SNP’s ‘bleak separatist obsession’ and in the same breath promised to devolve greater tax raising powers to the Scottish Parliament.
Gordon Brown seems unable to accept, that from the moment plans were hatched to devolve power asymmetrically to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, rather than diminishing ‘bleak separatist obsessions’, his government has provided them with succour each time it has indulged nationalist demands. In some respects the Prime Minister’s thinking on fiscal autonomy is understandable. Scotland’s government has power but not responsibility. It can spend its block grant without the constraint of being required to recoup that money from the Scottish economy.
Brown’s attitude appears to have become, ‘give them enough rope’. If the Scottish government is to indulge in constantly haranguing Westminster, claiming its superiority over that Parliament whilst funding its success by spending money Westminster has raised, and if this strategy seems to garner ever more favour with the electorate, let the Scottish government assume responsibility for financing their own ventures. The logic is almost seductive, if it weren’t for the reality that once severed the pecuniary link between London and Edinburgh cannot be so easily repaired. Westminster’s sovereignty would suffer a further reverse and another of the cords which bind the Union would be loosened.
Already Alex Salmond is threatening to employ Holyrood’s ability to vary income tax by 3%, purportedly to enable abolition of Council Tax. Scottish Unionist yesterday yoked up his coach to his horses and drove them at great speed through the figures, whilst Simon Jenkins has a piece in today’s Comment is Free likening Alex Salmond to Margaret Thatcher. Jenkins points out the glaring contradiction inherent in a party which demands ever increasing devolution within the UK, wishing to push a centralising agenda for financing local government in Scotland. With the SNP proposing tax measures which have the capacity to see Alex Salmond fall flat on his face and which, at best, will deliver a £750m shortfall in the public purse, why would Gordon Brown choose this moment to devolve more tax raising powers to Edinburgh?
Although Labour have shown little inclination towards consistency or coherency as regards their ad hoc devolution project, any tinkering with the financial arrangements for Scotland would necessarily have repercussions in Northern Ireland and in Wales. Furnishing the DUP / Sinn Féin carve-up at Stormont with tax raising powers is a prospect so bleak that contemplating it in detail would destroy my readers’ weekend. Brown’s latest statements illustrate the continued propensity of Labour to entertain constitutional change, without thoughtful deliberation of where that change takes the United Kingdom.