Home Rule by the Back Door? The Dangers of the Smith Proposals

March 4, 2016

 

 

When a majority of Scots rejected separation on September 18th 2014, many believed that they were voting to preserve the parliamentary union on which the British state is based. Certainly, that is what their answer to the question on the ballot paper indicated. It is hard then to understand why exactly the leadership of the mainstream unionist parties took the decisive No vote as a mandate for ‘home rule’, a form of separation so radical that it falls not far short of the independence sought by the Yes campaign. Many of the 55% who voted No believed that they were voting to maintain more or less the status-quo; almost all would have hoped that a No victory would put an end to the constitutional uncertainty that has plagued Scottish politics.

 

Unfortunately, the unionist leadership were determined to deliver a constitutional revolution which would radically alter the very nature of the UK as a country. This is not what we Scots voted for, but it looks like it is what we are going to get anyway. After David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband joined forces to proclaim the notorious Vow on the eve of the referendum, the Smith Commission was duly announced by Cameron the day after the vote to deliver the promises outlined in the Vow. The promises were radical, and involved a mass transfer of powers to the Scottish Parliament, legislation to decree its permanence, and an all-round constitutional revolution which would begin to transform the UK from a unitary state to a relatively loose grouping of four nations each with ‘home rule’ over their domestic affairs.

 

Home rule for Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland is undoubtedly a radical idea, championed previously in Scotland by the likes of Keir Hardie and the early SNP. More famously, it was championed for Ireland by William Gladstone, whose support for the measure split his party and gave rise to the original Unionist Party in Scotland, its dominant party for large parts of the last century. Home rule is a radical idea with a radical past. Many unionists, unaware of the quiet revolution which has been planned in the committees of parliament since the referendum vote, might find this attribution of ‘home rule’, radicalism and constitutional revolution to establishment and seemingly unionist figures like David Cameron strange. Those who take such claims seriously might even find them shocking.

 

It may be presumed that these things are being unfairly projected onto the Prime Minister. But they are in fact his own words. He has said from the outset that the Smith Commission must deliver home rule to Scotland [1]; he followed this up with a promise for English home rule [2]. Home rule was similarly championed by the then Labour leadership of Ed Miliband [3] and Jim Murphy [4]; the Liberal Democrats have long had a constitutional commitment to the policy [5]. By their own words, they support home rule for the UK’s component nations, each with a parliament that would be largely autonomous on domestic affairs. So much for a unionist establishment.

 

The vehicle for delivering this constitutional revolution has been the Smith Commission, which laid out the proposals which form the basis of the Scotland Bill currently going through parliament. In one of our previous articles, we made the case that the Union has been dying a death of a thousand cuts since 1999, constantly being chipped away at by the devolution process. With Smith, the so-called unionist parties have put away the bacon slicer and taken out a meat cleaver: the Smith report itself heralds what it states is “the biggest transfer of power to the Scottish Parliament since its establishment” [6].

 

The new powers being delivered via Smith are extensive. Once the new powers are introduced, the Scottish Parliament will have total power over income tax rates and bands, half of VAT income and massive new borrowing powers for capital projects. It will be given management of the Crown Estate in Scotland, as well as control over Air Passenger Duty, Disability Living Allowance, Personal Independence Payment, Winter Fuel Allowance, aspects of Universal Credit, employment schemes and many more. Often overlooked is the new power to make discretionary payments in any area of welfare, which essentially gives the Scottish Parliament carte blanche to do whatever it pleases in terms of welfare payments. Now that the Scottish Government will be given power to allow public sector operators to bid for rail franchises, we could end up with a nationalized Scottish Rail. The Scottish Parliament will have free reign to rearrange its composition in terms of MSPs and to order elections and extend or reduce the franchise. This is just a limited selection of the new powers which the Scottish Parliament will gain, in addition to its permanence being enshrined in law, and its already extensive powers over health, education, social spending and so on. From taxation, to welfare, to transport, to energy, to environment, to elections, there is not one area of government in which it is not being given extensive new powers. All, of course, at the expense of the British Parliament, in which Scottish representation on all these issues will be either ended or greatly reduced as a result of English Votes for English Laws. Make no mistake, this is indeed home rule, or at least something very close to it.

 

Rather than attempting to integrate the Scottish Parliament into British politics and fostering co-operation, the Smith proposals instead intend to give Holyrood more scope to go its own way. The Smith Report calls for “a more autonomous parliament”, noting that “The recommendations are explicitly designed to create a coherent set of powers that strengthen the Scottish Parliament’s ability to pursue its own vision, goals and objectives, whatever they might be at any particular time.” The undercurrent in this thinking seems to be that Scottish interests are somehow mutually incompatible with those of the UK whole. This should not be the case, indeed it is not the case. But it is the sort of thinking that seems to inform mainstream unionist thinking on the Union. Alas, there is little unionist about it.

 

In fairness, there are hints about the need for “inter-governmental working” and “devolution from the Scottish Parliament”, this latter quote in reference to the need to shift more powers down to the council level. These are indeed noble intentions and things which would benefit the Union. Unfortunately, while the calls for Holyrood’s autonomy were met with concrete policy proposals, these calls for Holyrood-Westminster cooperation and more powers for local councils were instead only given with feeble suggestions that the First Minister meet with the Prime Minister and local authorities.

 

The devolutionary proposals of greatest concern are those of a direct constitutional nature. One of the more controversial Smith proposals was that “The Scottish Parliament will be made permanent in UK legislation and given powers over how it is elected and run.” This is set to be implemented once the new Scotland Bill comes into effect, and will give the incumbent SNP administration the ability to timetable any future elections to suit itself. It will also be given power to extend the vote to sixteen and seventeen year olds, another opportunity for the SNP to bolster itself with support from a favourable demographic. The Smith Report also proposed that the Scottish Parliament be given power to change the number of MSPs, and the number of constituency and list seats. This would mean that, for example, the SNP could increase the ratio of constituency seats in relation to list seats, allowing them to significantly boost their electoral dominance by increasing the first-past-the-post element of Scottish elections.

 

All in all, the Smith proposals will leave us with a permanent and massively powerful Scottish Parliament which is sufficiently autonomous that Scotland could be said, in the words of Cameron, Clegg and Miliband, to have been given “home rule”. Robbed of a voice at Westminster through EVEL and governed largely by an SNP-run parliament in Edinburgh, pro-Union Scots have been left feeling that the referendum result was something of a Pyrrhic victory. Or at least, those who are aware of these developments will feel that way. The worrying reality is that few Scots are aware of these home rule plans, and the extent to which the mainstream unionist parties have been selling us out.

 

The Tories, Labour and Lib Dems have sold us out in part because of their own selfish, partisan reasons, in part because of their lack of any sort of coherent unionist philosophy. Labour and the Liberal Democrats avoid even describing themselves as “unionists”; although the Conservatives have adopted the title and indulge in the occasional bit of Union Jack flag waving, their actions in government don’t match their rhetoric. For the past twenty years, all mainstream unionist parties have supported the devolution process which is breaking up the UK, and the Smith-based Scotland Bill going through parliament represents the most radical step yet in this process, as home rule is set to be delivered in at least Scotland and England. Cameron may be proud of these ‘achievements’, but real unionists will view them with deep concern, knowing well enough the direction in which we are headed. As an ever-rising SNP prepare for another term of government in a newly-permanent and massively empowered Scottish Parliament, it is clearer than ever that a unionist opposition is needed to challenge this ongoing process of separation. “No more devolution, no more referendums” must be the rallying cry of unionists from now on – and that means opposition both to the independence of the SNP, and the home rule supported by the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats.

 

 

 

 

[1] http://www.express.co.uk/news/politics/509741/David-Cameron-promises-home-rule-for-Scots

[2] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3053167/PM-plans-English-income-tax-rates-allow-England-set-laws-brought-forward-100-days-Conservative-election-victory.html

[3] http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/jan/29/ed-miliband-scotland-jim-murphy-home-rule-devolution-work-programme

[4] http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/politics/jim-murphy-only-way-stop-5013692#hmdbGuRvZSKSbOLA.97

[5] https://www.smith-commission.scot/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Scottish-Liberal-Democrats-Submission-1.pdf

[6] https://www.smith-commission.scot/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/The_Smith_Commission_Report-1.pdf

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