Time to scrap the Scotland Bill

Flawed and unloved, the Calman Commission's proposals don't meet the aspirations of Scots for greate

When Wendy Alexander, former leader of the Labour Party in Scotland and sister of shadow foreign secretary Douglas, announced the creation of the Calman Commission in 2008, the hope among Unionists was that it would help wrestle back control of the constitutional agenda from the insurgent SNP. Led by Sir Kenneth Calman, a retired Chief Medical Officer, the Commission was charged with the task of reviewing the powers of the Scottish Parliament and developing proposals to improve its funding system. Specifically, it was asked to look at ways to replace to the current method -- an annual block grant -- with a structure designed to encourage greater "fiscal responsibility" by Holyrood. The Calman report was published in 2009 and the bulk of its recommendations were adopted by the Brown government, which placed them into the Scotland Bill.

However, as a number of leading Scottish economists have repeatedly warned, those recommendations -- and thus the Scotland Bill itself -- are fundamentally defective. For instance, were Holyrood to use the income tax powers the Bill grants to cut rates with the aim of stimulating growth, the UK -- as opposed to the Scottish -- government would enjoy the greater benefit of any consequent increase in economic activity. This is because the UK Exchequer would continue to collect tax at the full rate while the Scottish government would only collect it at its reduced rate.

Another problem is that the Scottish budget would be determined by a UK Treasury forecast of how much revenue any given rate of income tax would generate in one year. This forecast could well be inaccurate, yet the only way any shortfall could be covered would be for the Scottish Parliament to have borrowing powers which far outstrip those that the Bill provides.

But it isn't just that the legislation is littered with technical failings. Due in part to the SNP's landslide victory in May, public opinion in Scotland -- followed closely by previously sceptical sections of the Scottish political class -- has migrated onto more radical constitutional territory.

Almost every poll conducted over the last six months suggests a majority of Scots back much greater fiscal autonomy than Westminster is currently offering. According to surveys by the BBC and TNS-BMRB, most Scots want to see Holyrood raise the revenues it spends and send a portion back to London to cover Scotland's share of UK central services including, notably, defence and foreign affairs. This would require a massive re-balancing of powers between London and Edinburgh, dwarfing Calman's timid reforms.

With the exception of the Tories, Scotland's main opposition parties also seem to have moved on. Over the last few weeks a slew of senior Scottish Labour figures -- including the influential backbench MSP Malcolm Chisholm, former First Minister Henry McLeish and Lord George Foulkes -- have all expressed support for one variation of devolution max or another. Even Douglas Alexander, who directed Labour's hugely effective anti-independence campaign during the first devolved Scottish elections in 1999, has said he is "open-minded" about enhanced powers for Holyrood.

Meanwhile, Willie Rennie, the new leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, has established a Home Rule Commission under the chairmanship of Menzies Campbell to flesh out a more distinctive constitutional position for his party. Given the Lib Dems' traditional commitment to a federal United Kingdom, it is hard to imagine it will recommend anything short of a wholesale reworking of the present devolution settlement.

In retrospect, the Calman Commission was really nothing more than a Unionist spasm -- a defensive, knee-jerk response to the SNP's 2007 electoral victory. With the independence referendum just a few short years away, those who hope to preserve the Union will have to think more carefully about how they might better meet the aspirations of Scots for greater self-government. The momentum of the nationalists is clearly not going to be slowed by empty, ill-judged legislative gestures.

James Maxwell is a Scottish political journalist. He is based between Scotland and London.

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Vince Cable will need something snappier than a graduate tax to escape tuition fees

Perhaps he's placing his hopes in the “Anti Brexit People’s Liberation Front.” 

“We took power, and we got crushed,” Tim Farron said in what would turn out to be his final Autumn conference as Liberal Democrat leader, before hastening on to talk about Brexit and the need for a strong opposition.

A year and a snap election later, Vince Cable, the Lib Dem warhorse-turned-leader and the former Coalition business secretary, had plenty of cracks about Brexit.

He called for a second referendum – or what he dubbed a “first referendum on the facts” – and joked that he was “half prepared for a spell in a cell with Supreme Court judges, Gina Miller, Ken Clarke, and the governors of the BBC” for suggesting it".

Lib Dems, he suggested, were the “political adults” in the room, while Labour sat on the fence. Unlike Farron, however, he did not rule out the idea of working with Jeremy Corbyn, and urged "grown ups" in other parties to put aside their differences. “Jeremy – join us in the Anti Brexit People’s Liberation Front,” he said. The Lib Dems had been right on Iraq, and would be proved right on Brexit, he added. 

But unlike Farron, Cable revisited his party’s time in power.

“In government, we did a lot of good and we stopped a lot of bad,” he told conference. “Don’t let the Tories tell you that they lifted millions of low-earners out of income tax. We did… But we have paid a very high political price.”

Cable paid the price himself, when he lost his Twickenham seat in 2015, and saw his former Coalition colleague Nick Clegg turfed out of student-heavy Sheffield Hallam. However much the Lib Dems might wish it away, the tuition fees debate is here to stay, aided by some canny Labour manoeuvring, and no amount of opposition to Brexit will hide it.

“There is an elephant in the room,” the newly re-established MP for Twickenham said in his speech. “Debt – specifically student debt.” He defended the policy (he chose to vote for it in 2010, rather than abstain) for making sure universities were properly funded, but added: “Just because the system operates like a tax, we cannot escape the fact it isn’t seen as one.” He is reviewing options for the future, including a graduate tax. But students are unlikely to be cheering for a graduate tax when Labour is pledging to scrap tuition fees altogether.

There lies Cable’s challenge. Farron may have stepped down a week after the election declaring himself “torn” between religion and party, but if he had stayed, he would have had to face the fact that voters were happier to nibble Labour’s Brexit fudge (with lashings of free tuition fees), than choose a party on pure Remain principles alone.

“We are not a single-issue party…we’re not Ukip in reverse,” Cable said. “I see our future as a party of government.” In which case, the onus is on him to come up with something more inspiring than a graduate tax.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.