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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The Liberal Democrats are back - and the Tories should be worried

A Liberal revival could do Theresa May real damage in the south.

There's life in the Liberal Democrats yet. The Conservative majority in Witney has been slashed, with lawyer and nominative determinism case study Robert Courts elected, but with a much reduced majority.

It's down in both absolute terms, from 25,155 to 5,702, but it's never wise to worry too much about raw numbers in by-elections. The percentages tell us a lot more, and there's considerable cause for alarm in the Tory camp as far as they are concerned: the Conservative vote down from 60 per cent to 45 per cent.

(On a side note, I wouldn’t read much of anything into the fact that Labour slipped to third. It has never been a happy hunting ground for them and their vote was squeezed less by the Liberal Democrats than you’d perhaps expect.)

And what about those Liberal Democrats, eh? They've surged from fourth place to second, a 23.5 per cent increase in their vote, a 19.3 swing from Conservative to Liberal, the biggest towards that party in two decades.

One thing is clear: the "Liberal Democrat fightback" is not just a hashtag. The party has been doing particularly well in affluent Conservative areas that voted to stay in the European Union. (It's worth noting that one seat that very much fits that profile is Theresa May's own stomping ground of Maidenhead.)

It means that if, as looks likely, Zac Goldsmith triggers a by-election over Heathrow, the Liberal Democrats will consider themselves favourites if they can find a top-tier candidate with decent local connections. They also start with their by-election machine having done very well indeed out of what you might call its “open beta” in Witney. The county council elections next year, too, should be low hanging fruit for 

As Sam Coates reports in the Times this morning, there are growing calls from MPs and ministers that May should go to the country while the going's good, calls that will only be intensified by the going-over that the PM got in Brussels last night. And now, for marginal Conservatives in the south-west especially, it's just just the pressure points of the Brexit talks that should worry them - it's that with every day between now and the next election, the Liberal Democrats may have another day to get their feet back under the table.

This originally appeared in Morning Call, my daily guide to what's going on in politics and the papers. It's free, and you can subscribe here. 

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