Cameron to support UK constitutional convention – but rules out transfer of key powers


   By a Newsnet reporter

According to the Telegraph newspaper, Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron is to give his backing to a proposed new constitutional convention to be set up by the Conservatives with the support of the Lib Dems. 

The convention was proposed in written evidence to the Commons political and constitutional reform select committee yesterday, submitted by Ruth Davidson, leader of the Conservatives in Scotland.  In her evidence Ms Davidson told MPs that a constitutional convention was required which involved all the four home nations of the UK.

Ms Davidson said that further devolution was impossible as a “bilateral process”, since any additional powers for the Scottish Parliament would have an impact on other parts of the UK.  She cited the example of Corporation Tax, the Scottish Government has repeatedly pressed the UK Government to devolve control of the tax to Scotland.  Ms Davidson said that devolving control of the tax to Scotland “would set one area in competition with others”.

Ms Davidson said:

“I think we’ve got to a point where further devolution of some of the things that have been suggested in Scottish public life would then have an impact on the rest of the UK.

“If you are doing something like that, that cannot be a bilateral process. I think you have to bring in all of the parts of the UK to look at what’s going on.”

Ms Davidson proposed that the convention should examine where the balance of powers lie across Westminster, the three devolved administrations and England, but according to Ms Davidson its “starting point” would be to set out the “essential characteristics (that) define the unitary state”, which were to remain under Westminster control.  It is understood that these include the monarchy, currency, defence, corporation tax, welfare and the BBC.  

The Scottish Tory leader wrote,”That established, discussions should move to areas which can be sensibly devolved without harming national unity or political stability and with due regard to our shared history and institutions.”

The proposal by Ms Davidson is a reversal of her previous policy, when she announced that the Scotland Bill was a “line in the sand”.

Devolved control of welfare spending and broadcasting are demanded in most proposals for greater powers for the Scottish Parliament and are key elements in “devo-max”.  The Scottish Government has made repeated demands for control of Corporation tax to be devolved to Holyrood as it has been to the Northern Irish Assembly.  

It is unclear how much support the new Conservative convention will garner if control of broadcasting, benefits and taxation are ruled out of discussion before the convention even gets to work.  Although the Lib Dems have given the idea their cautious support, Labour have distanced themselves from the proposal.  

In her evidence to the Commons committee, leader of the Labour party in Scotland Johann Lamont said that devolution is not a “human shield against nationalism” and insisted that the further transfer of powers to Scotland must be considered completely separately from Scotland remaining part of the UK.

It is understood that the Conservative convention would be formed before the 2014 referendum, but would not report back until after the referendum had been held.  The Telegraph reported that senior sources within the Conservative party had signalled that Prime Minister David Cameron is supportive of a convention, which he hopes will favour of a restriction of the voting rights of Scottish Westminster MPs.  

Mr Cameron considers the convention a useful “safety valve” in the run up to the Scottish independence referendum, which will allow the Conservatives to claim that the PM is honouring his pledge to the Scottish Conservative conference to “consider” additional powers for the Scottish Parliament.  

Both the Liberal Democrats and Labour have announced their own commissions to examine the devolution settlement, meaning Scottish voters face going into the referendum with three different devolution proposals from the anti-independence camp and no clarity about what a “no” vote will mean in terms of Scotland’s position within the UK.