It was devolution wot done it

The brief quiet that descended over British politics ends in a heated spat over Alex Salmond's plans

Three weeks into the August lull of political activity, and the UK blogosphere finally has something to get excited/agitated about. Scotland’s first minister, Alex Salmond, produced a white paper proposing full-scale devolution. An electronic debate ensued.

If the suggestion seemed a kick in the teeth to Gordon Brown, Elliot Joseph was none too sympathetic: "Over its 300 years a number of enemy powers have countenanced the overthrow of the United Kingdom. Until Tony Blair and Gordon Brown took power in 1997, however, it looked most unlikely that anyone would accomplish it.

"As he steers the country masterfully from one crisis to the next, it will be amusing to watch Brown try to forestall the consequences of his own disastrous policy."

What rattled Scottish Labour activist Kezia Dugdale's cage was the way the SNP went about the debate. And rattle it, it did. Her advice to Salmond: "Do the right thing, take a policy to parliament, debate it, seek the cross-party support that you need to do something about it and pursue it.

"Do not create a website devoted to a National Conversation where you set the boundaries of the conversation you’re prepared to take part - whilst also allowing the CyberNATs to inflict their ignorant, narrow-minded venom on the rest of us."

What seemed to anger unionists most was not the fact but the way the subject had been broached. The Thunder Dragon wrote: "I am a Unionist, but the debate over Scottish independence seems that it needs to be had - and sooner is better than later. Opinion polls are showing that the majority of Scottish voters do not favour independence from the United Kingdom.

"They should have this referendum, held with a caveat that this decision would be final if the vote came out against independence."

The issue of Scottish independence is a thorny one for Labour, and especially for Gordon Brown. Mike Smithson at Political Betting highlights how Brown should learn from his predecessors: "There’s also a general election dimension here. Would Gord go to the country just at the time when this is developing as an issue? The last thing he wants, surely, is for a campaign to be dominated by EVEL [English Votes for English Laws]?

"People often forgot that it was the Scottish devolution issue, not the so called ‘winter of discontent’, that brought Jim Callaghan’s Labour government down in 1979. Gord knows he has to tread carefully.”

Owen Walker is a journalist for a number of titles within Financial Times Business, primarily focussing on pensions. He recently graduated from Cardiff University’s newspaper journalism post-graduate course and is cursed by a passion for Crystal Palace FC.
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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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