HUMILIATING climbdown, or the most dramatic transfer of powers from Westminster in the history of the United Kingdom?
The legislative consent given to the Scotland Bill by the Scottish Parliament yesterday could not be described as dramatic. Instead, it was the pragmatic acceptance by the SNP of its folly in spurning the additional powers the Bill provides, despite it not incorporating five of the six demands made by Alex Salmond following his election victory last year.
In setting up the Calman Commission four years ago, the Unionist parties, particularly Labour's then Scottish leader Wendy Alexander, recognised the need to improve the accountability of the Scottish Parliament by making it responsible for raising some of the revenue it spends. The key measure in the new legislation will double the amount of tax raised directly in Scotland to about £9 billion by giving Scottish ministers the power to levy a proportion of income tax. Despite this being a step towards fiscal autonomy, it was initially opposed by the SNP because the concomitant cut in Scotland's block grant from Westminster could result in a reduction of future budgets. Assurances that the new tax-raising powers will not be introduced until both parliaments are satisfied the measures will not be damaging have overcome that hurdle but raise the thorny issue of timing. The tax-raising measures are not expected to come into force until 2015. This means that Scots will have no direct experience of the new income tax levels or how the Scottish Government will use its new powers over stamp duty and landfill tax before voting in the referendum on independence. Yet polls show that the deciding factor is likely to be whether a majority of people think they will be better off in an independent Scotland
While Bruce Crawford, the Strategy Minister, said the Bill has already been "bypassed by history and events" because of the pending independence referendum, the fate of the SNP's additional demands provide a useful lesson in the run-up to the referendum. The call for control over excise duty, for example, had to be dropped because the customs requirements were too complicated. It is precisely that sort of difficulty in disentangling the mechanisms of the UK state that worry people about independence.
Nevertheless, additional borrowing powers for the Scottish Government, control over legislation on air weapons, drink-driving, the ability to set a national speed limit and a new procedure for Scottish criminal cases that go to the UK Supreme Court are all welcome measures to meet Scotland's separate circumstances.
The unanimous support for the Bill at Holyrood provided a figleaf for political division but voters want clarity from all the parties about how far and how fast they want to continue on the devolutionary process.
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