Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Calman does not address separatist culture which impedes relationship between Holyrood and Westminster

‘Power devolved is power retained’. After ten years of regional government for Scotland the integrity of Enoch Powell’s maxim is far from proven. As a unionist, instinctively I recoil from suggestions that further reserved powers should be delegated to Edinburgh, or indeed to the regional assemblies in Cardiff and Belfast. Surely this type of tinkering can only emasculate our national Parliament at Westminster and compound the asymmetries which Labour’s constitutional experiment has inflicted upon the United Kingdom? Is there any plausible argument against the contention that the cords and bonds which hold together the Union are tied looser now than they were before devolution was introduced?

It is with deep ambivalence, therefore, that I consider the report (PDF) of the Calman Commission and its recommendations for constitutional reform which it argues would help the Scottish institutions serve their people better. Although I am innately suspicious of any movement on reserved matters, devolution is now an established element of the British constitution and there is no serious appetite to revisit its basic structures. For the good of people living in devolved areas, and for the greater political benefit of the United Kingdom, the aim must be to make devolution work as well as it possibly can. If, in Scotland, people perceive that the Scottish Parliament has improved the standard of governance which they enjoy, and if a serious, systemic examination concludes that devolution can be further improved, then we are bound to consider that examination closely, albeit with an eye to the continued health of the Union as a whole, and not merely the welfare of Scotland itself.

Although the commission has considered a wide range of possible outcomes, its remit required that it develop suggestions compatible with securing Scotland’s ‘position within the United Kingdom’. That might represent a rather subjective aspiration, particularly considering that the guiding hand was provided by a Labour government with a particularly cavalier approach to the UK constitution. But it was enough to preclude anything other than the most desultory engagement by nationalists with Lord Calman and his commissioners.

The executive summary (PDF) of the final report claims, “In thinking about how devolution should develop further, we have looked very carefully at how it fits into the wider Union that is the United Kingdom.”. And, dovetailing neatly with a theme that David Cameron has developed in his Scottish policies, the recommendations stress the need for different levels of government with responsibility for Scotland; Westminster, Holyrood and down to the local level; to work together. Indeed, it might have noted that an attritional relationship between the Scottish and national governments only serves to bolster the SNP’s campaign for independence. The report offers rather a convincing case for continued Union, as well as a clear exegesis of Scotland’s place within the constitutional fabric of the United Kingdom, but if its practical recommendations would ultimately weaken that Union, then the body has failed to satisfy its remit.

It would be impossible to plausibly maintain, though, that the commission has not, on occasion, cut to the quick of issues surrounding sovereignty and Union. Its first recommendation, for instance, is that there cannot be two interpretations of social rights operating within one political Union. This is an argument which unionists in Northern Ireland have consistently advanced against NI Human Rights Commission proposals that just such a two tier approach to socio-economic entitlements be adopted in this region of the Kingdom. Whatever the vagaries of our rights debate, and there remains a valid view that certain specific additional rights around the area of equality and parity of esteem might be appropriate, the contention that a single set of fundamental rights and a single set of social rights, must operate within the UK parliament’s jurisdiction is established, amongst all but the most fervent proponents of a maximalist Northern Ireland bill.

Conversely the commission was charged specifically with increasing financial responsibility for the Scottish Parliament. There is no acknowledgment in its remit that that aim need not necessarily be compatible with increasing the security of Scotland within the Union, which it also requires. Calman does not suggest disentangling the Scottish Parliament from the current UK tax system, nor indeed dismantling the notion of a ‘block grant’ altogether. The report favours tinkering with the Scottish Variable Rate, applying it to more than the basic bracket of tax, and to more taxes than income tax, as well as obliging the Parliament to raise at least ten per cent of its income tax directly, albeit that no differential with the rest of the UK would be required. Whether this is the same as making a ‘tax decision’ mandatory is a matter of dispute. Certainly it does not facilitate the stiff dose of economic reality which some unionists believe might arrest the impulse to every greater independence, nor does it represent a likely end-point as regards the tax raising aspirations of the Scottish Parliament. Thus far, the Parliament has declined to use the SVR and whether a separatist administration would compromise its ‘blame Westminster’ narrative by using the powers which the commission proposes is highly debatable.

It is certainly an indisputable contention that the report’s recommendations would constitute an extensive revamp of the means by which the Scottish Parliament and its work is financed, including more tax raising and borrowing powers than have been available to that institution to date. Although the block grant burden on Westminster would be eased accordingly, the commission acknowledges that it does not have the ability to recommend that those monies be calculated by a method other than the Barnett Formula. That is the means by which it envisages the block grant being determined for the foreseeable future.

None of which offers prima facie encouragement to unionists and none of which is properly offset by suggestions that different layers of government should operate in more complementary fashion. The language of respect in which these provisions are couched is meaningless whenever the Scottish government defines itself in opposition to its Westminster equivalent. Cooperation does admittedly form an extensive core of the Calman document, which should be welcomed, but whilst it outlines plans for increased oversight of relevant business, by both institutions, structural change is but one aspect of a culture shift which is needed so that devolved institutions work with, rather than against, national government.

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