Sunday, 3 May 2009

The Calman ivory bubble

Following the Calman Commission's interim report towards the end of last year I wrote that the process, "had the character of a 'how many angels can dance on the head of a pin'-style of debate, and ex-Scottish Office minister David Cairns was right that further devolution is of interest primarily to the 'McChattering classes'."

This perspective was surely underlined earlier this week when it was reported that economists advising the commission are suggesting giving Scotland control over some of the tax revenue raised here and the discretion to vary taxation rates while at the same time reducing the size of the block grant from Westminster, the aim being to make Holyrood more directly accountable to Scottish voters. For example, with regard to income tax the UK Government would retain control over allowances and bands, and half the current tax rates would be applied by Westminster, while the Scottish Government would have the power to vary the other half of the tax rate up or down, thus the Scottish Parliament would make a decision on revenue raising and, voila, our political class is more accountable to the electorate.

Fantastic, eh? Clearly the epitome of democracy, transparency and accountability. Well, on paper, perhaps, but back in the real world the convoluted and opaque nature of this proposal seems unlikely to endear itself to an already befuddled electorate. A particularly pertinent case in point is the ongoing spat between the SNP and Labour regarding whether or not the UK Government's future plans for Scotland represent significant spending cuts or, alternatively, a little bit of restraint here, the odd efficiency saving there and everything will just chug along as before.

If it's difficult enough to know which party is more plausible on this, the new Calman proposals prima facie seem even more impenetrable to us men (and women) on the Lochee omnibus. Granted, once the new system was implemented the tax/spend dynamic vis-a-vis Holyrood could become more apparent to Scottish voters and thus increase accountability, but setting the thing up would surely entail endless complex debate and bickering. For example, the block grant from Westminster would be reduced commensurately to the imputed size of the taxation revenue which would have been raised prior to implementation (but which could then be varied at the discretion of the Holyrood) and that would thereafter would "probably be based on Scotland's wealth-generating capacity". Don't all rush at once!

And, of course, once implemented would Holyrood actually use the new rate-varying powers? Well the current debate over the Scotland's share of the UK Government purse - which is essentially about the SNP and Labour trying to outdo each other in the public spending machismo stakes - surely indicates that a downward variation in tax rates is about as likely as Guido, Subrosa and Jess the Dog pledging their undying commitment to Gordon Brown and new Labour. And the Scottish Government already has the power to vary the basic rate of tax upwards, but has chosen not to do so, presumably on the basis that this would simply be compared unfavourably by voters with tax rates in the rest of the UK and thus represent electoral suicide.

Therefore this latest Calman suggestion seems a recipe for complication, confusion and conflict rather than anything that will appeal to voters or in fact increase accountability, and it's perhaps hardly surprising that it's emanated from ivory-towered academics reporting to a constitutional fig leaf concocted by the unionist parties to thwart the SNP's gathering momentum towards independence, all of which is taking place in the Holyrood political bubble.

Even as an unconvinced independence-sceptic/agnostic who would prefer the constitutional status quo I would nevertheless instinctively prefer full fiscal autonomy or even independence itself to this concoction - if Calman needs to throw the nationalist dog a bone to gnaw on rather than biting Westminster on the bum then please stick to something simple and straightforward - like jurisdiction over air guns - rather than anything more likely to complicate the constitutional question.

Of course, with the usual more pressing issues such as crime, health and the economy becoming more acute as Calman has proceeded it would have been preferable if this diversionary process had in fact never seen the light of day. Likewise, while the SNP may need a presumably pointless debate on an independence referendum as a distraction from its threadbare legislative programme, from the perspective of the 'people of Scotland' it would surely be for the greater good to get on with running the country rather than being preoccupied with a constitutional shot in the dark.

Indeed, with the Scottish Parliament's tenth aniversary upon us its limited achievements underline scepticism that the whole devolution project represented little more than another tier of government for the indulgence of the self-serving political class.

In this vein an article by Murray Ritchie in this morning's Scotland on Sunday neatly demonstrates the dichotomy between the rose-tinted rhetoric and idealism of devolution and the marginal nature of what Holyrood has achieved - some benefit for pensioners, students and the sick, but not much else to show for 10 years. Mr Ritchie does, however, make the valid point that the proportional representation system engineered for Holyrood by the unionists to keep the SNP from the levers of power has misfired somewhat. However, and notwithstanding what the future may hold, the political paralysis and lame-duck minority government currently resulting from PR seems at odds with his optimistic claim that "Holyrood thrives", which seems only slightly less rose-tinted than claiming that Gordon Brown's position is safe as houses.


sm753 said...

"I would nevertheless instinctively prefer full fiscal autonomy or even independence itself to this concoction"

I wouldn't.

Thing is, the rest of the world - Australia, Canada, Spain, Germany - makes these sorts of concoctions work.

Have a look at some of the Muscatelli group papers on the Calman website.

Wardog said...

An excellent and well researched comment Stuart and dare I say it very fair minded too.

I'd agree, the numerous kites being flown by Calman at the moment all point to a very complex arrangement of assigned revenues and split responsibilities.

None of which any Party has given support for or indeed explained how these powers will eb transferred, i.e. is a referendum required for such a major change to the Scotland act?

Smee's reference's are a red herring and display his contempt for the idea that Scotland is a nation not a region/state like those in Australia, Canada, Spain and Germany.

As a die hard unionist, he'll never understand that distinction.

What is undeniable is that confidence in the idea of a vastly increased home rule settlement is garnering support from across the political spectrum.

The Tories have kept their powder dry awaiting the outcome of Calman but I dare say that may yet produce the biggest shock with support for as full a fiscally independent Scotland as we can get without (in their minds) endangering the union.

Euro Elections 4th June 09'

Local Elections 4th June 09'

Calman Reports say July/Aug '09

Referendum Bill introduced January 2010(?)

UK General Election May 2010

UK Tory Government June 2010

UK Votes 'no' in Lisbon Referendum Nov 2010

UK Government announces £1Billion year on year swingeing Scottish block grant cut April 2010

Scottish Referendum May 2011

Holyrood Elections May 2011

Stuart Winton said...


Yes, I've no doubt that these concoctions can be demonstrated to 'work', but then so could independence, fiscal autonomy and the status quo.

But the proposal smacks of further convoluting matters for the sake of bureaucratic/political advantage rather than for the public good.

This is the kind of aggrandisement and complication that annoys me greatly in other spheres, and thus I instinctively object to such proposals when I see them.

Of course, there are plenty of contrary arguments to be made, but that's my tuppence worth!

Stuart Winton said...

Wardog - "well researched"?

All I did was have a wee lookee at the article in The Times ;0)

Don't know how it'll pan out with the Tories, but you could be right in that the UK's debt overhang in years to come and the consequent ongoing bickering between London and Edinburgh could encourage even die-hard Unionists to get Scotland 'off the books'.

On the other hand the financial crisis could of course cement the Union in the eyes of the voters with the 'safe haven' ethos, so interesting times lie ahead.