By Hazel Lewry
On Budget day there was a news item, buried by the budget news, which was spun by the Unionist press as a capitulation by Alex Salmond: the SNP had agreed not to obstruct the Scotland bill. This is presently only an agreement in principle, but it should be anticipated to progress in good faith.
Should good faith be absent the Scotland bill can be stopped in its tracks at Holyrood.
The only aspect of the bill that is even remotely palatable is that it transfers powers one way only, from Westminster to Holyrood. The bill was described by the SNP leadership as a “missed opportunity”. One that can be appropriately exploited over the run up to 2014.
This transfer of powers from London to Edinburgh is also notable as it was announced while the House of Lords were still tabling amendments. Few if any of the Lords’ amendments have been good for Scotland, most are concerned with repatriation of powers to Westminster, or ensuring a single party could never again get an overall majority at Holyrood.
When the Lords weren’t focused on the majority aspect at Holyrood they appeared to be expending most of their energy in attempts to modify Scotland’s constitution in such a manner that Scots could never again be viewed as worrisome for the ermine clad brigade. The incumbents of the second chamber did not seem to consider such tinkering might actually be beyond their remit.
The agreement in principle between Salmond and Cameron also implies that during the course of at least this Holyrood administration there will be no more attempts at power grabs by Westminster. That such an agreement appears in the course of the Lords’ deliberations declared the irrelevance of the Lords to the process.
The Lords might object, they may cause the bill to fail in a fit of umbrage, but in doing so they will remove the gunpowder from the Unionist press broadside, a broadside that would be guaranteed to be effective if the SNP refused the bill.
If this were chess, it might rightly be considered that the Independence movement just caused the opposition to sacrifice the queen and barely gave up a pawn.
The pawn potentially being sacrificed is the upset that will be caused by the announcement amongst more “hard core” nationalists, those who will react predictably to the initial media reporting without waiting for all the data to arrive.
The current Scottish government has one primary focus, the betterment of Scots and Scotland. Their flagship policy in that respect is independence. It has been since 1931. The government are aware there are some amongst its supporters who may react quickly but the ministers at Holyrood also know those people will vote for the end game, independence, regardless.
In the longer term the SNP is putting everything into the 2014 referendum, not the 2016 elections, and a win in 2014 should see everything forgiven by 2016 anyway. The SNP will, after all, have achieved the only true goal these presently upset “hard core” nationalists care about, they will have delivered independence.
In the short term, the run up to 2014, Alex Salmond’s government loses nothing while gaining much from this agreement in principle. It removes the distraction of the Scotland bill from the debate without sacrificing any of Holyrood’s autonomy. It wins substantial new powers of various degrees of worth, none of which it is forced to use. It gives nothing back to London.
Lords Foulkes, Forsythe and Wallace, who are antagonistic towards Holyrood’s aspirations and continue to debate the issue, look foolish in the extreme. David Cameron just pulled the rug from beneath them so quickly that as of close of business after the announcements they still hadn’t realised they were standing on a trap door.
Not only has Holyrood reduced the Lords to an irrelevance, but Edinburgh and not London, regardless of the news spin, has defined the game. Holyrood has set the rules. Holyrood has the next move. The Westminster queen in this strategic chess game has been sacrificed and after only half a dozen moves the opposition is seriously wondering how to save the game.
Expect the SNP to abstain from passing the Scotland bill when it reaches Holyrood again, which would mean the Unionists forcing it through – as they must or lose all credibility. The Scottish Government can abstain on the premise that the bill is totally inadequate and a missed opportunity to do more for Scotland, even as they take the high ground and allow it pass. There is no downside for the Scottish administration here.
The bill contains many new powers, some will be used and some are unlikely to be used. No one should expect the tax powers to be implemented, there’s simply no advantage to using them and they look to be obsolete by the time of the referendum. What the agreement on tax powers does do is it moves the independence process forward. It forces HMRC to separate Scots accounts and we get a true fiscal picture for the first time. It simplifies the process post referendum.
The SNP will strongly suspect we’re being undersold on our tax credit status to the Union, but have to agree with GERS as a basis. Now GERS will be substantially more accurate.
In the lead up to the big debate, with the polls showing £500 would comprehensively settle the issue no matter the dirty tricks brigade – that alone is a pot of gold just uncovered at the end of the rainbow.
There are borrowing powers included in the bill, of almost three times the original proposal. These borrowing powers are incumbent upon the UK treasury to underwrite, and as a share of the UK debt are insignificant. Debt is rarely a good thing but these borrowing powers do give Holyrood the opportunity to add anywhere up to ten thousand semi permanent jobs to the Scots economy as the nation’s infrastructure is improved.
It really is difficult to see a downside to this agreement in principle. The real game has now begun, the pieces are in play, London is down a queen and it’s Edinburgh’s move.