17 June 2014

24 Carat Poppycock

I coughed. I sputtered. I spat my Earl Gray down the wall. In awed silence, I goggled, caught between astonishment and incredulity. 

Last night on the BBC's Scotland 2014 programme, Alistair Carmichael dumped a clanger.  Around four and a half minutes into the broadcast, the following exchange occurred between the host, Sarah Smith, and the Secretary of State for Scotland.

Smith: "The Lib Dems have been talking for a long time about a federal Britain. But Labour and the Tories only came up with plans for more devolution very, very recently. They could have done this - they've both been in government since the Holyrood parliament was opened. They could've legislated for this easily by now if they wanted to. Do you trust the other leaders, that they'll actually deliver on this if there's a No vote in September?"

Carmichael: "Well, there has never been a time, Sarah, since we started this devolution project, where part of the United Kingdom has asked for powers for a parliament or an assembly where this has been denied. We have twice delivered powers for the Scottish Parliament. The Labour government set it up in 1997, we within the coalition government, then added to these powers, following the Calman Commission - so that was, eh, a project started under the last Labour government, that was completed by the coalition this time around-"

Which is. Er. Demonstrably untrue. To say that you have devolved some additional powers since 1998 - and that's beyond dispute - cannot substantiate Carmichael's much more extravagant claim that no devolved parliament's demands for additional powers has ever been disappointed. The point went unchallenged in the interview, but it's 24 carat poppycock. But don't take my word for it. Ponder the recent record. 

Scrutinising the Scotland Bill in 2011, the majority of the Scottish parliamentary committee urged Westminster to (1) give Holyrood power to vary income tax thresholds and banding (2) to raise excise duty on alcohol (no doubt with one eye to the 1725 malt tax riots) (3) air passenger duty (4) corporation tax (5) regulation of firearms (6) more authority over the Crown Estate - and so on, and so on. Indeed, the Scottish Government, backed by the parliamentary majority, generated this helpful list of their proposed amendments to the Scotland Bill for the Westminster government just a few years ago, in 2011. 

In the starry parallel reality in which Carmichael appears to dwell, every single one of these demands has been met and devolved by the responsive and yielding government in Westminster. Because after all, "there has never been a time, Sarah, since we started this devolution project, where part of the United Kingdom has asked for powers for a parliament or an assembly where this has been denied."  

But gosh darn it - I can't seem to find any of the powers we know the Scottish Government demanded in the final text of the Scotland Act 1998, or in the 2012 Act, or in any other order or statute. Are Her Majesty's ministers discreetly concealing all of the tax powers they've given us in the chancellor's Downing Street water-closet? Are the relevant papers, putting the Crown Estate in Scotland under Holyrood control, bundled in Michael Gove's drinks cabinet? Or does Eric Pickles' tupperwear hold all the secret, promised authority over guns and pills? 

Good things come to those who wait, as some liquor-peddlar once said. I'm sure they'll turn up eventually.  Because the Secretary of State is an honourable man, and he assures us that "there has never been a time, Sarah, since we started this devolution project, where part of the United Kingdom has asked for powers for a parliament or an assembly where this has been denied." 

One or two of the Scottish Government's demands did make it into the final cut: boozing and speeding. But almost all of the tax and monetary powers petitioned for, over and above the Calman proposals, were turned down by Westminster as recently as 2012. The process of extending devolution in Wales has been marked by similar marches and countermarches and demands going unmet.

Still, Carmichael's grand proclamation that everything is up for grabs will no doubt be welcomed by the popping of corks in Northern Ireland, which is still waiting for Whitehall's decision on whether or not to give Stormont authority to vary the tax rates levied on businesses to make the six counties more competitive with their southern neighbours. Presumably, Carmichael's colleagues would have a similar open door policy to Scottish ministers, tripping south to petition for powers to match those which will, in the Secretary of State's fantastical parallel reality, inevitably come Belfast's way.

There's an important point to all of this.  The best reason to be sceptical about the promises from the Tories and Labour on further devolution is not 1979, but 2012. From experience, we know that both parties are capable, with prodding, of devolving some additional powers. The record speaks for itself in that respect. But we also know that as recently as 2012, both political outfits were dead set against introducing the very schemes which they now array juveniles with purple placards across incomplete monuments to "guarantee". 

They had a golden opportunity to introduce this flexibility into the devolution system less than two years ago. They declined to do so. The Liberal Democrats, the Tories, the Labour Party: all. Just two years ago. The question I'd like to hear credibly answered is, what has changed since the spring of 2012, to convince Johann Lamont, Ruth Davidson and their colleagues that the proposals they blocked less than two years ago are now grand ideas, "guaranteed" to the Plain People of Scotland if they have the douce good sense to say "No thanks"? If these ideas are wizard, what was so wrong with them in 2012?
We also know, all three of the Better Together parties having reported, that none of their devolution wheezes remotely approaches a vision of "devo-max", whatever their more breathless proponents might claim. All three plans will continue to reserve a whole tranche of critical decision-making to Westminster, on everything from renewable energy, to taxation -- and critically, social security and welfare. 

We've a snowball's chance in hell of seeing any of these powers accrue to Scotland if the opportunity of independence is forgone in September.  Even if we batter on Mr Carmichael's door, send a flurry of letters to his office, despatch tender scones to woo him to the advantages of devolving these powers - the Labour and Tory reports make clear that the door is firmly shut to all such petitioners, be they bearing scones or sconeless. 

But never fear. Don't let our recent past behaviour or our current policy trouble you, because "there has never been a time, Sarah, since we started this devolution project, where part of the United Kingdom has asked for powers for a parliament or an assembly where this has been denied." 

I coughed. I sputtered. I goggled. 24 carat poppycock.


  1. Oh for a media that can call itself a media in truth.

  2. Incomplete monuments perhaps?

  3. Not only that but Westminster has taken away powers from Holyrood over renewable energy!

    1. northbritain,

      I'm afraid this story is a paper tiger, which has to be seen in the (complex) context of the division of responsibility between Holyrood and Westminster in the area of renewable energy, and the broader reorganisation of how renewables incentives is designed at the UK level. To see it as a general claw back of power is misleading. And renewables are generally reserved matters.

  4. Serves you right for watching the program. I don't & my understanding is that practically no one else does. So,as usual, they are talking in a vacuum.

  5. I think you're over-egging this PW.

    The Scottish Government does not speak for the Scottish people on reserved matters. It's therefore a bit of a stretch to say that "Scotland" was "asking" for corporation tax and the like to be devolved. To say that Scotland was "asking" for more powers requires that those powers be integral to the mandate being sought by those they then elect. You could just about have made a case that Scotland was "asking" for these powers had the SNP put them in their Westminster election manifesto and won the majority of seats. That would have seen the Scottish people give Westminster a mandate, and an instruction, to devolve these powers. That didn't happen. We saw vague commitments to "seek to improve" the Scotland Bill in the Holyrood 2011 manifesto, but we can't take the victory for the SNP in that election as evidence of Scotland "asking" for those powers. It cannot credibly be claimed that the 2011 election was a mandate for full fiscal autonomy; that's not what the Scottish people voted for and it's not the mandate the SNP sought. It is clearly not comparable, for instance, to the specific mandate they actively sought for the referendum.

    As someone who wants full fiscal autonomy for Scotland, I'd also point out that something has changed since 2012 on a number of issues. For one, there has now been Treasury analysis carried out as to the fiscal implications of a full devolution of income tax, something that was not the case in 2011. The Crown Estate hasn't been devolved to Holyrood, sure, but the lion's share of it has been put directly under the control of the local communities to which they relate. Air passenger duty was only not devolved in the Scotland Act 2012 because its future as a tax in the UK was in doubt, something which is no longer the case. On corporation tax, it's worth pointing out that the UK Treasury was prepared to consider devolution if the Scottish Government could demonstrate the fiscal case for it to them. Expecting a paper running into the hundreds of pages demonstrating those fiscal implications, they got a general outline running to something like 10 pages.

    I think that the Tories and Lib Dems at least are sincere about further responsibility for the Scottish Parliament, though clearly it comes well short of what I'd like. Labour are the stumbling block now, with the plan of the three that is least workable and most politically opportunistic. It is fair to say, though, that actually the record on responding to the wishes of the Scottish people, the Welsh and the Northern Irish has been a receptive if at times excessively cumbersome Westminster machine. Carmichael is not wrong as long as we understand him to mean demands by the people, rather than the SNP or the Scottish Government, without an issue specific mandate.

    1. You obviously don't believe in Democracy. Responsibility, to what, in how it divvies up the funding it recieves from Westminster? Try that on your next door neighbour in telling them how to spend their wages.

    2. Graeme: 'demands of the people'

      I dislike such expressions, but given the respective Scottish turnouts for Westminster of 63% and only 50% for Holyrood one could reasonably say that it is Westminster that speaks for Scotland and not Holyrood. And subsequent by-elections don't display any great enthusiasm for Holyrood.

      Of course the opinion polls tell a different story, with many more Scots saying that they trust Holyrood more than Westminster, so what do we know.

      Some things can be said for sure: It's clear since the Westminster election that the LibDems have plunged in popularity (except in Orkney and Shetland), the Tories are stable and not doing much, UKip are the new kids getting up everyone's nose, the SNP are to be congratulated on the solidity of their support, Labour are still a big force, and just abut everybody cordially dislikes everyone else (until someone dies and then that person becomes a much-revered statesperson).

    3. Graeme~

      You say you want fiscal autonomy for Scotland, yet you think it's coming from the Tories and Lib Dems, two of the most incompetent, clueless, and politically tone deaf parties in the UK?

      I would call your faith in them misplaced, and that's putting it mildly?

    4. It wasn't just the SNP, or indeed Scottish parliament "asking" for things like devolution of APD and crown estates (though of course they have been asking). The committee of Westminster MPs and Lords who created Calman also recommended it. That the powers which eventually came were far less then even those kind of people think we need says all you need to know. But if you do need it re-iterated, you can consider they're not even in the vague jam tomorrow promises Labour or Tory now have (Ruth has talked about APD but apparently not managed to convince Cameron).

      Our media is straight out lying even mentioning devo-max and federalism as if they are in any way on the cards.

    5. Well if we're going to be pernickity about it, "Scotland" didn't ask for the Calman Commission at all, never mind any of the powers it suggested. That was just a reaction to the SNP winning the 2007 election.

      If it is a No vote, it might be nice if Scotland DID get a say on which powers get devolved, because so far we've had none. We didn't get a say in which powers got devolved in the first place (the second question in 1997 was simply on a concept, and I bet a great many Yes Yes voters assumed "tax-varying powers" would be far more ambitious than it turned out to be), and we didn't get a say in 2012 either, as it was handed to a commission to decide for us. We won't get a say the next time either, because as sure as night follows day, we'll get another commission set up with a pre-determined mandate ("suggest the bare minimum you can to keep Scots at bay while not putting the union in jeopardy"), which will then be shaped by politicians, and then pushed through as a government bill.

      If we want to know what "Scotland" wants, there's a very simply way to do it: list every reserved power on a ballot and say "tick the powers you think should be devolved to the Scottish Parliament." But that would never happen, because we might demand more than the unionist parties are willing to devolve, and then the truth will be laid bare: if Scotland is to have the powers we wish, we're only going to get it with independence.

    6. Graeme,

      What vexes me is the assumption of the attitude that even to question the commitment of Labour and the Tories to these measures is chortlesome and loopy. I agree with some of what you say. I don't adhere to the view that there will definitely be no more devolution if we vote no, or that Holyrood's powers will be clawed back to Westminster (though aspects of Labour's rhetoric and vision of Britain isn't promising on this score). I can even believe that some Tories - and clearly their leadership - have got behind the tax proposals that they advanced the other day. But I would like - and I think it is reasonable to ask for - an explanation about why they've changed their minds to endorse proposals they've rejected as recently as a couple of years ago. Without a credible account of that, it's all terrifically fishy and liable to be swept away by the shifting priorities of the Westminster scene. Or at least, there are no guarantees that this won't happen. If Yessers are forced to sweat and bleed over every scintilla of doubt, the demand for an unquestioning faith in good intentions, when folk like Carmichael are blatantly distorting the record, doesn't intill confidence.

  6. scottish education looks devalued if NO vote goes thru,can't even beleive Gord said it.
    for first time in my life I understand what unionism means to scotland .

  7. Great article, but the most important question which sticks out for me, is what kind of renegade is drinking tea at quarter to eleven at night?

    1. Should I be on the hard liquor? There's no end to my decadence...

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