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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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.