A ‘settlement’ it may be, but labelling it as ‘enduring’ is premature

Published: 22 January 2015
Author: Craig McAngus

Some have suggested that the production of the draft legislation resulting from the Smith Commission means that the 'Vow' is delivered and Scotland is now 'sorted'. The reality of the situation, explains Craig McAngus, may prove to be a little more complicated. 

The UK Government has today (22nd January) published draft clauses on further devolution to the Scottish Parliament.  The pro-UK parties set out a very tight timetable in the run-up to the independence referendum as part of the now infamous ‘vow’.  That timetable involved the publication of a command paper, the creation and reporting of the Smith Commission, and the publication of draft clauses by the 25th of January which would inform legislation in the next parliament after the general election in May.  In that respect, everything is running according to schedule.  However, there is a bigger question hanging over the pro-UK parties: are today’s proposals, as the title of the draft clause paper suggests, an ‘enduring settlement’ for Scotland the wider UK?  The following four political pressures would suggest that, although a settlement of sorts looks likely, labelling it as an enduring one is premature.

Firstly, public opinion suggests that the Scottish public wish to go further than what has been outlined.  In a Panelbase survey in December, 64% (once ‘don’t knows’ are removed) agreed that the Scottish Parliament should control all areas of government policy except foreign affairs and defence.  Devo Max, in other words.  Despite this poll being commissioned by the SNP, previous opinion polling has found a consistent majority of the Scottish public in favour of devolution that goes quite substantially beyond what has been outlined today.  More opinion polling and in-depth survey work needs to be carried out in order to explore this issue further, but, in short, the UK Government cannot justifiably claim that what is being offered is the ‘settled will’ of the Scottish people.

Secondly, the SNP continue to ride high in the polls.  An STV poll undertaken by Ipsos Mori yesterday (21st January) found that 52% of the Scottish electorate intend to vote for the SNP.  If this result was to be realised in May, the SNP would take all but 4 of Scotland’s seats in the House of Commons.  Such a dramatic result is unlikely, but reputable election forecasters such as Elections Etc and Election Forecast are consistently forecasting the SNP winning over 30 seats.  The SNP may well end up holding the balance of power come May, and a future government would potentially rely on them to pass a new Scotland Act through parliament.  At this stage, the SNP could demand significant concessions and so we cannot be certain that what is on offer is what will end up being put on the statute book.    

A third is the disappointment of many in civic Scotland that devolution of welfare, equalities and employment law (amongst others) did not go further than what was recommended in the Smith Commission.  At the 11th hour, proposals to devolve welfare powers more extensively were dropped from the final recommendations after a personal intervention by Iain Duncan Smith.  A number of organisations including the Scottish Trades Union Congress, Engender and the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations felt that the proposals are not enough to allow the Scottish Parliament to protect and promote the rights of disabled people, women, the unemployed, and other groups and individuals that are disproportionately affected by welfare reforms and austerity.  Organisations such as these will continue to monitor political developments and seek out opportunities to press for the further devolution they desire.  The SNP holding the balance of power in the House of Commons may well prove to be that opportunity.  

The fourth pressure will come from inside the main UK political parties.  Further devolution to Scotland is problematic for Labour given that the right of their Scottish cohort of MPs to continue to vote on legislation that does not affect their constituents becomes more difficult to defend.  This, of course, assumes that the SNP does not do nearly as well as the polls are predicting.  For many Conservative MPs, further devolution to Scotland is a perfect opportunity to keep pressing for a settlement with regards to ‘English Votes for English Laws’ (EVEL).  The Conservatives know that UKIP is fast becoming a de facto English nationalist party that will quickly exploit any grievance that England is the perpetual victim of a Union that seems to always be dancing to some sort of celtic tune.  The command paper on EVEL released in December provided a range of options but few solutions to an always difficult and increasingly salient question.

These four ‘pressures’ are far from exhaustive, but they give an indication of some of the issues and questions that are related to further devolution to Scotland but have not been dealt with or answered by today’s announcements.  The next major step on this journey is the General Election on May 7th.  A hung parliament is looking very likely, and if the SNP do end up holding the balance of power, we cannot possibly predict what the future holds for Scotland or indeed the UK as a whole.

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