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Scottish Devolution - My Submission to the Smith Commission

22/10/2014 11:49 BST | Updated 21/12/2014 10:59 GMT

I'm currently rereading Catch 22 and, in doing so, have come to realise that the Smith Commission on Scottish devolution - which meets on October 22 for the first time - finds itself in a position with certain parallels to that of Captain Yossarian in his efforts to avoid military service.

A significant number of people voted No in the Referendum because it is very difficult to successfully divide responsibilities for key policy areas when they are so deeply entrenched in a political union. But an equally significant number of people only voted No in the Referendum on the basis that responsibilities for key policy areas would then successfully be divided within a continuing political union.

Add this theoretical near-impossibility to the party political, personal, corporate, institutional, philosophical and even popular pressures weighing on the issue and you have what we armchair experts in constitutional politics call a head scratcher (though I believe it's pronounced scratchée). Nonetheless I've decided, having browsed the Labour, SNP, Green and Tory entries to the Smith Commission, to make my own Submission...of sorts.

Already Devolved:

Agriculture

Education

Environment

Health

Local Government

Justice

Reserved matters after Devolution:

Constitution

Both SNP and Green would like to see the existence and competence of the Scottish Government enshrined in a Constitution but this could (as I suspect is the intention of both of these parties, given their continued desire for full independence) destabilise the framework of the remaining union.

Monetary Policy

Given the problems of sharing a currency without sharing monetary policy this one is pretty unanimous.

Some Financial Services eg audit regulation

People I spoke to in that sector have said that the only reason to change financial services regulation, which would be expensive if not too complex, would be to try and gain a market advantage over London (ie deregulate) which is both fruitless and undesirable.

International diplomacy

There's no point in Scotland being principled and not going to war if rUK's just going to send in the drones anyway. Besides this the benefits of collective influence, and necessary alignment of policy within the EU make it better to keep this area reserved. That said there is a case for Scotland having an opt-out of UK Law where it severely diverges from an EU Law the Scottish Government supports (see Immigration below).

The Scottish Government has asked for a consultation on any In/Out EU Referendum: a condition of this (assuming public support) should be that an Out vote will trigger a second Scottish Independence Referendum. I know I would vote Yes faced with the choice between an independent, European Scotland and an isolationist UK.

International development

Again the UK has relatively unified aims, and is better placed to achieve them if this area remains reserved.

Defence

Ditto above, possibly with the exception of Executive Devolution regards the removal of Trident from Scottish waters - it's just so massively unpopular.

Judicial Matters (The judiciary needs to be properly independent of both Holyrood and Westminster, including judges' salaries and anything else that might appear to give politicians a stick to beat it with.)

Newly Devolved:

(CAPS = key issue / brackets = could fall under an already-Devolved/supranational competence)

HOUSING

Particularly housing benefit (see welfare below) but the Scottish government and Local Authorities should have the power to regulate things like how many (or few) social houses builders and associations need to build per private house, or increase the tax benefits of building more social/low cost housing.

Borrowing

I'd honestly never considered this before seeing it in the SNP/Green submissions; if Scotland is to be weaned off the Barnett Formula (see funding model), then issuing its own bonds is a must.

Share of VAT

Again I hadn't considered this at all but there seems to be a cross party consensus that Scotland should collect some of its VAT receipts. In that case there's also a case (within a very limited scope) for VAT-varying powers.

Regulation of some financial services/Business/Trade

I'm with the Greens on Corporation Tax - control should be with Scotland, though the idea of cutting tax to try and gain an unobtainable market advantage over London is both futile and undesirable, so maybe Corporation Tax-raising powers would be more appropriate at this stage. Otherwise this area of devolution would mainly focus on aligning Scottish and EU Legislation in areas where UK (or a newly empowered London) seeks to opt out, but could also give the Scottish government powers to close some tax avoidance loopholes.

Competition Law (EU)

This should also be in line with EU policy irrespective of contradictory UK laws, to ensure market plurality and opportunity for the SMEs Scotland badly needs to attract if in charge of raising its own tax revenues (see funding models below).

some IMMIGRATION

Scotland should control its own policy on asylum, immigration issues relating to people taking up a specific job or course of study that they have been offered in Scotland, and cases where British Immigration Law diverges from EU Law - which I correctly predicted would become more numerous under the current government.

ENERGY

Scotland controlling oil revenues could be a way of easing the Barnett Formula out of existence (see funding model). This area of devolution would also allow the Scottish Government to address concerns over household energy bill prices and the specific appetite and capacity for sustainable energy in Scotland (which could also be funded/developed by oil revenues). It would also open the door for Scotland to lead the way in fulfilling the nationwide desire for renationalisation.

This is important when addressing Labour's submission; Scotland is a pretty small, solid, unified base from which to launch progressive policies on a relatively small scale, that is nonetheless significant enough to demonstrate their benefit to the rest of the country. For this reason Labour MPs should be supporting radically increased devolution instead of worrying about a salary cut under EVEL.

TRANSPORT (except cross-country/international)

Again allows the Scottish Government to address concerns over ticket prices directly through regulation, tax breaks to lower-paid commuters, or bolstered cycling schemes and, in this area too, opens to door to a renationalisation pilot scheme.

SOCIAL SECURITY

This is probably the biggest issue. Contrary to the common perception, there isn't that heavy a demographic asymmetry between Scotland and the rest of the UK: the pensions system could handle it. And if Scotland is to remain part of the Union there can't be any more 'Bedroom Tax', 'Universal Credit' or 'Welfare to Work'. These are the policies fuelling talk of a "Scottish Spring".

Employment

The Scottish Government would like the power to raise the minimum wage, and should also have the power to regulate lengthy unpaid internships and 0-hour contracts.

Civil Service

This would make all of the new areas of policy control (pensions etc) easier to administer from Scotland directly, as well as maybe this renationalisation of energy and transport everyone keeps talking about...

Drugs

This could arguably come under public health in which case it should be devolved anyway. It also opens up the possibility to decriminalisation legislation.

Abortion, Embryology, Xenotransplantation, Welfare Food (health)

These are all "Small Beer" according to a friend with some expertise in Public Health Policy but if Scotland is funding its own health service surely it should be legislating on the entirety of health policy? Particularly political wedge issues like these where Westminster policy might meander to the right.

Human Rights/Equal Opportunities

Also suggested by the good ol' Greens. In terms of practical application this again relates to alignment with ECHR more than anything - assuming the UK Constitution remains mostly unchanged.

Data protection (justice)

This could also come under security in which case it should stay reserved but it might be worth a discussion.

arguably Postal Services

I feel like we keep coming back to this idea of renationalisation? Anyone?

Research Councils (Education)

I have no idea why this isn't devolved already.

arguably Broadcasting

The SNP have demanded this. It's unlikely when, even given the widespread Yes voter disaffection with/possible boycott of the BBC, support for broadcast devolution is still not sky high: is some kind of (cheap/simple) decentralisation a possibility?

Funding Model

If Scotland collects its own income tax (as Scottish Government, Greens and even the effing Tories suggest), corporation tax, borrowing, some VAT, its own civil service revenues and oil revenues, then surely the Barnett Formula could either be reformulated, or the block grant even abolished?

West Lothian Question

Surely with the level of devolution I have outlined, and likely devolution of further powers to London, Wales and other English regions, Scots MPs could no-longer vote on English laws? However, it is worth noting that 'English Laws' are much more easily defined in my (or the Scottish Government of Green's) vision of devolution than that of the Conservatives or Labour, so there's no way Scottish MPs should relinquish their absurd influence in exchange for a measly extension of tax-varying powers.

So there you have it: Devo Max, Independence Lite, That weird new herbal green coke of constitutional politics known as "a modern form of home rule". This is my outline for Scotland's immediate future. It's ambitious and radical and would take almost as big a commitment as full independence to pull off, but unlike full independence, I think we might just be ready for this.