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Scottish Independence Debate / Radical change impossible under Smith proposals

Political activist Jen Stout.

How, asks Shetland-born political activist Jen Stout, can a “settlement” in which 75 per cent taxation powers and 85 per cent welfare powers remain reserved to Westminster be described as ‘Home Rule’?

And yet that is the label that the Liberal Democrats have given to last week’s draft legislation for devolution of powers. David Cameron also pronounced it a “great day for Scotland” – but described the proposals as “the end of the road” for Scottish devolution. Yup, that’s it. Nothing more coming. And bear in mind these are only proposals, not legislation, so the breathless announcements of “vow delivered” are very misleading.

Many groups, from political parties to charities and NGOs, pointed out not only the weakness of these proposals but also that they don’t even measure up to November’s Smith Agreement paper, let alone the sweeping “vow” that was issued, rather desperately, just before the referendum.  

Of course one of groups criticising the proposals are the SNP – which is quite within its rights to give its assessment of the powers on offer in the draft legislation.  But Carmichael immediately painted their response as petty grievance-seeking. This is strange. Are the NGOs and academic experts making the same points also just stirring up resentments that belong in the pre-indyref past?  

They are not.  What happened on Thursday 22 January, when the draft legislation was published, was a hugely significant day in political history – for the UK as well as for Scotland. But it is hard to see it as a “great day” for Scotland.  

“Home Rule” or “Devo Max” is usually defined as the devolution of all powers except defence and foreign policy. A survey from October 2014 found that 66 per cent wanted the Smith Commission to deliver just this – real Devo Max. It is ludicrous to suggest that this is what is on offer.  

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The proposals do not even begin to cover the economic powers needed to end austerity and tackle soaring poverty and inequality. Taxation powers on offer are the ability to set income tax rates and thresholds (but not personal allowance), and to receive the first 10 per cent of VAT. Corporation tax, national Insurance, North Sea revenue – not included.

Welfare powers in the command paper are similarly meagre. Instead of the universal credit system and job centres, a package of sticking-plaster benefits is on offer, amounting to a very small percentage of overall welfare spending (apparently due to a last-minute Conservative intervention). Minimum wage? Reserved. State pension? Reserved. JSA, incapacity allowance, tax credits? You get the gist.

Though the Crown Estate devolution and rail franchising powers are welcome news, it is hard to see how the package of powers on offer can be described as anything other than disappointing. The progressive and radical change so desperately needed in Scotland is not possible under these proposals. As Iain Macwhirter points out, the proposals actually put the Scottish Government in an impossible position – without the power to change economic policy, or bring in new workers with immigration policy, all they can do is accept the cuts and watch the working-age population – and with it, the tax base – continue to decrease.

Organisations such as the SCVO are quite right to describe the proposals as “piecemeal”, and also to point out the top-down and non-participatory approach that characterised the consultation and negotiation process.  After the questioning, democratising, and inspiring two years of referendum debate, the fact that it all culminated in this meagre handout will no doubt only make the case for independence more pressing for many of us. And this is not petty grievance-seeking – but a sombre analysis of what we can realistically achieve whilst remaining within this restrictive, right wing and politically broken United Kingdom. 

  • Jen Stout is an activist with the Radical Independence Campaign and the Scottish Land Action Movement. She is writing here in a personal capacity.

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