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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Richmond is a wake-up call for Labour's Brexit strategy

No one made Labour stand in Richmond Park. 

Oh, Labour Party. There was a way through.

No one made you stand in Richmond Park. You could have "struck a blow against the government", you could have shared the Lib Dem success. Instead, you lost both your dignity and your deposit. And to cap it all (Christian Wolmar, take a bow) you self-nominated for a Nobel Prize for Mansplaining.

It’s like the party strategist is locked in the bowels of HQ, endlessly looping in reverse Olivia Newton John’s "Making a Good Thing Better".

And no one can think that today marks the end of the party’s problems on Brexit.

But the thing is: there’s no need to Labour on. You can fix it.

Set the government some tests. Table some amendments: “The government shall negotiate having regard to…”

  • What would be good for our economy (boost investment, trade and jobs).
  • What would enhance fairness (help individuals and communities who have missed out over the last decades).
  • What would deliver sovereignty (magnify our democratic control over our destiny).
  • What would improve finances (what Brexit makes us better off, individually and collectively). 

And say that, if the government does not meet those tests, the Labour party will not support the Article 50 deal. You’ll take some pain today – but no matter, the general election is not for years. And if the tests are well crafted they will be easy to defend.

Then wait for the negotiations to conclude. If in 2019, Boris Johnson returns bearing cake for all, if the tests are achieved, Labour will, and rightly, support the government’s Brexit deal. There will be no second referendum. And MPs in Leave voting constituencies will bear no Brexit penalty at the polls.

But if he returns with thin gruel? If the economy has tanked, if inflation is rising and living standards have slumped, and the deficit has ballooned – what then? The only winners will be door manufacturers. Across the country they will be hard at work replacing those kicked down at constituency offices by voters demanding a fix. Labour will be joined in rejecting the deal from all across the floor: Labour will have shown the way.

Because the party reads the electorate today as wanting Brexit, it concludes it must deliver it. But, even for those who think a politician’s job is to channel the electorate, this thinking discloses an error in logic. The task is not to read the political dynamic of today. It is to position itself for the dynamic when it matters - at the next general election

And by setting some economic tests for a good Brexit, Labour can buy an option on that for free.

An earlier version of this argument appeared on Jolyon Maugham's blog Waiting For Tax.

Jolyon Maugham is a barrister who advised Ed Miliband on tax policy. He blogs at Waiting for Tax, and writes for the NS on tax and legal issues.