Murdo Fraser MSP spins like a top in the Scottish Parliament:
There are critics of the Calman process who think that it is another step on the slippery slope to independence, but I do not think that improving devolution undermines the United Kingdom or that giving Scotland better government makes independence more likely. During the devolution debates in the 1990s, members of my party—including me—often argued that setting up a Scottish Parliament would boost support for independence. In the event, that did not happen and I am happy to admit that we got it wrong. Last week, the most recent opinion poll figures showed support for independence to be at an all-time low of 23 per cent. So much for the argument that a Conservative Government in Westminster would stoke the fires of nationalism.
Just as the argument that more devolution will increase support for independence is wrong, the argument that devolution will kill off nationalism, as George Robertson famously said, is wrong. There is no such thing as inevitability in politics or history. In Scotland we will get the constitutional future that we choose. That will ultimately be for the Scottish people to decide, and I have every confidence in their good sense. Their majority view is clear; we should back the proposals in the Scotland Bill, which will bring better government for Scotland.
If Murdo were being truthful I seriously doubt that he'd say that the Calman proposals represent the constitutional future that the Scottish people would choose, particularly when it comes to the Scottish Government's financial powers. And for the record, Murdo, nationalism in Scotland is at it's highest level for three years, and that's most probably because your colleagues are in power at Westminster.
Here's one for the conspiracy theorists amongst you.
It is April 2011. You are a national newspaper editor.
Do you choose to fill your pages with
a) The build-up to the royal wedding;
b) The build-up to the referendum on the alternative vote;
c) The devolved elections in Wales and Scotland?
If you answered b) or c) you probably won't last long in Fleet Street but there are fears that Prince William of Wales and Catherine Middleton's choice of wedding date may disrupt the political process.
In England it's highly unlikely that we will receive much coverage, if any at all, of the Scottish and Welsh elections and the debates on devolution and the Barnett Formula that will accompany them. And by quirk of fate the right royal pasting that the Conservatives and Lib Dems receive in Scotland and Wales will go under-reported due to a frenzy of tabloid Britishness.
The Scottish elections will be a straw poll on the Scotland Bill which starts the process of implementing proposals of the Calman Commission on Scottish devolution, and the Welsh elections are to coincide with a referendum on further devolution to Wales. What England doesn't know cannot hurt it.
However, any suggestion that the Royal Wedding is deliberately timed coincide with St George's Day, English local elections, the Scottish general election, the Welsh general election, the referendum on Welsh devolution and the referendum on the Alternative Vote, is complete swivel-eyed lunacy.
The BBC's online biography of David Cameron informs us that "his biggest mention in the Eton school magazine came when he sprained his ankle dancing to bagpipes on a school trip to Rome".
He's still dancing to a Scottish jig.
Scotland in general – and the SNP in particular – is being love-bombed by a Prime Minister who seems to think he's the romantic lead in a Richard Curtis movie (Coalition, Actually perhaps?). This is not going to let up. It looks like Cameron will agree to free up the £180 million due to Scotland from the fossil fuel levy. I wouldn't be surprised if he also agreed to the Barnett consequentials from East London redevelopment work linked to the 2012 Olympics. A small price to pay to keep Scotland sweet and the SNP off-balance.
And it looks as though he's also going to commit to defering Scotland's share of the UK's £6bn public spending cuts until next year, by which time he will have rushed through the Calman Commission proposals, which are a priority.
Cameron has also been visiting Wales and plans to visit Northern Ireland, but in his clamour to treat the nations of the UK with respect he has unsurprisingly forgotten all about England. England has not been mentioned at all, apart from the commitment to hold a commission on the West Lothian Question, a policy that the Spectator's James Forsyth regards as a watering down of the Tories' previous policy.
The Tory manifesto commits a Conservative government to introducing ‘new rules so that legislation referring specifically to England, or to England and Wales, cannot be enacted without the consent of MPs representing constituencies of those countries.’ The coalition agreement has watered this commitment down significantly. The new government will merely ‘establish a commission to consider the ‘West Lothian question’.
Presumably it was amongst those policies jettisoned to 'bury the right'. We will never know.
UPDATE: From today's press briefing
Asked about the Calman Commission and the West Lothian question, the PMS said that people would have to wait on the precise timings of how these issues would be handled and how and when a commission would be established.
The Tories have cleverly devolved responsibility for Scotland to their Scottish Liberal Democrat colleagues, who can at least claim some sort of mandate to govern Scotland. Danny Alexander is to be the new Secretary of State for Scotland, and curiously the BBC article that informs us of this fact also brings word of a surprising development:
There will also be a commission to discuss the possibility of setting up an Assembly for England and to look at the West Lothian question - whether it is right for Scottish MP's to vote on policies which affect other parts of the UK.
Norman Tebbit said that the English needed a twenty first century King Alfred, how peculiar then that it could be an MP from the Scottish Highlands who steps into the breach.
The Tories promised nothing for England, their only policy on the English democratic deficit was the "English Votes on English Laws", a policy designed to strengthen the Conservative Party's hand at Westminster rather than enhance the democracy or governance of England. The Liberal Democrat manifesto, on the other hand, promised to "address the status of England within a federal Britain, through the Constitutional Convention set up to draft a written constitution for the UK as a whole". This perhaps gives us some insight into where talk of an English assembly comes from.
The Tories had promised to draw up their own white paper on Scottish devolution by May 2011, and I had assumed that they would actually go further than the very limited tax-raising powers recommended by Calman. It is surprising therefore that the Lib Dems seem to have persuaded them to settle for implementation of the Calman proposals in full.
The coalition policy document tells us this.
We have agreed to establish a commission to consider the 'West Lothian question'.
And that is all.
The Lords debated the Barnett Formula yesterday, if you missed it you can watch it here.
The most interesting part of the debate, for me, was Lord Trimble's contribution. For two reasons: He states what I have said for a long time, that due to the Barnett Formula non-English MPs have a constitutional right, or at least a moral obligation, to vote on matters that are described as 'English legislation', and; he suggests strongly that the Barnett Formula is therefore the biggest impediment to solving the West Lothian Question, something that I have also believed for a long time.
The things that are classified as England-only are the ones that trigger consequentials. What is important for the devolved Administrations is whether or not there is a consequential. If it is said to be UK-wide, there is no consequential and no extra money. If it is deemed to be England-only, then there is extra money, so obviously the England-only decisions are matters of huge importance to the devolved Administrations. If anybody runs around with the quaint notion that these England-only decisions should be taken only on English votes, they will find that there are huge uprisings in all the devolved Administrations and a constitutional crisis.
His own party ran around with that notion for years, despite what everybody told them, albeit before Lord Trimble joined the Conservative Party. Why did the Conservative Party not see this for all those years that they advocated English Votes on English Laws?
In conclusion, if we do not have the reforms to Barnett that we are suggesting, and if the Government do not go down the line that we have suggested here, the political pressure to go down other lines will become greater. By other lines, I am thinking partly of Calman. I think that Calman, in concept, is misconceived and is the wrong road to go down-it will be very difficult in practice and very dangerous for the union. I say to the Government that if they want to sustain the union, they should not sit back and do nothing, because then things will drift in the wrong direction.
The Government won't touch Barnett for fear of handing the SNP a Scottish majority at Westminster. It will probably fall to the Tories, already despised in Scotland, to do the dirty work (after a period of reflection).
It is because of the Barnett Formula that the Tories have watered-down their policy of English Votes on English Laws. They cannot prevent non-English MPs from having a decisive say on legislation that will affect the Barnett monies due to their constituents; so under the new Tory plans Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs will continue to vote on English legislation, which would be subject to English Pauses for English Clauses.
A Conservative government would delay implementation of plans to increase the finance powers of the Scottish Parliament until a full analysis had been carried out by the UK Treasury, Public Finance has been told.
It has emerged that it could be up to five years before the Tories would have legislation in place. This timescale is likely to renew controversy over how long it would take the party to act on recommendations by Sir Kenneth Calman’s commission on devolution.
In an interview with PF, shadow Scottish secretary David Mundell said his party intended to have legislation in place in time for the 2015 Holyrood elections.
I wonder if the delay has anything to do with scrapping the Barnett Formula. The Scots won't like the delay, but personally I think a delay - as long as it results in the abolishment of Barnett - is more sensible than immediately implementing Calman's ridiculous 10p tax rate proposal, a proposal designed to mitigate the grievances caused by the Barnett Formula rather than removing them by implementing a fair and transparent funding mechanism.
To be fair, David Cameron did suggest that this might happen at the Scottish Conservative Conference earlier this year:
So yes, we do take seriously the Calman Commission’s recommendations to give more powers to Holyrood. The Commission is right to say devolution is working well but could be better. That’s why I have committed to producing our own White Paper and legislation to deal with the issues raised by Calman. And I don’t want anyone to doubt this.
We have made our choice. Whatever the outcome in Scotland at the next election, a Conservative Government will govern the whole of the United Kingdom, including Scotland, with respect. Whoever is Scotland’s First Minister, I would be a Prime Minister who acts on the voice of the Scottish people and works for consent and consensus. And whenever the precious Union between our two countries is under threat, this Party – the Party of the Union – will rise to the challenge and defend it with all our heart and all our strength.
Although it is sensible to address things in the round and to find a Union-wide solution to the Barnett Formula problem, rather than applying a Calman sticking plaster to the problem of Scotland, I have a feeling that those smiles will be wiped from those faces by this delay.
This article in the Scotsman is illuminating:
In a significant move, the UK government has asked HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) to set up a panel of advisers to help with the "technical and practical implementations" of handing more tax powers to Scotland.
Making the announcement, Scottish Secretary Jim Murphy said giving greater powers to the Scottish Parliament – part of the recommendations from the Calman Commission – would help to grow the economy while protecting jobs and businesses.
His move came just hours before a study, published today, suggested that a "devolution backlash" is growing in England as a result of voters' perception of a democratic and financial deficit within the devolution settlement in the UK.
The Calman Commission recommendations clearly can't wait until after the General Election now that fault-lines have emerged between the Unionist parties.
The Scottish Labour Party are panicky about the findings of IPPR's new report on English attitudes to the Union, and the St David's Day poll that found that 56% say they would vote for a Welsh Assembly with full legislative powers . There is a feeling that the devolution juggernaut is careering down the hill, out of control. I expect that Labour are also extremely conscious of George Osborne's embryonic plan to abolish the Barnett Formula in favour of a needs-based formula:
“My initial look at the formula suggests that Wales might well be missing out under the Barnett arrangements. I think it is in Wales’s interest that we have that needs-based assessment, which is independently done … My view is that you want to move on it pretty quickly, as soon as a new Government is elected.”
Ironically the very last thing that the Labour Party wants is a funding formula based on social need (see Killing Home Rule by Kindness).
Jim Murphy, Secretary of State for Scotland, has announced the Government's plans for the next round of Scottish devolution. His statement to the Commons can be watched here and a transcript can be read here.
The White Paper "Scotland's Future in the United Kingdom" is available for download on the Scotland Office website.
During the debate on Scotland's Future in the United Kingdom, two MPs raised concerns about England's place in the Union.
Philip Davies: The biggest threat to the UK does not come from Scotland, but from England. If the Secretary of State does not do something to stop Scottish MPs voting on legislation that applies only to England whereas English MPs have no decision-making influence on Scotland, or something to make the funding formula fairer to England, the threat to the UK will come from England.
Alan Beith: Is the Secretary of State aware that the Constitutional Affairs Committee's report on devolution 10 years on is in line with the Calman recommendations, but warned that the stability of the Union was threatened by the fact that the governance of England had not been addressed and that it was still governed in a relatively centralised way by what is supposed to be the Government of the United Kingdom?
The Government have no plans to legislate on a new Scotland Bill during this Parliament, so there will be no action on the Calman recommendations until after the next general election. David Cameron has reiterated David Mundell's statement that this Government's plans will not bind an incoming Conservative Government.
We will not be bound by any White Paper produced by the present Government in the short time that remains before the election.
If the Conservatives win the next general election, we will produce our own White Paper and legislation to deal with the issues raised by Calman. - David Cameron (Telegraph, 25 Nov 2009
There would however be a more logical and symmetrical structure if England also had a devolved Parliament which I favour. A unicameral Westminster, achieved by the abolition of the Lords, with an elected English Parliament meeting in the Lords Chamber would solve a number of problems, but is of course, beyond the remit of the Commission.
Funnily enough there is no English equivalent to the Calman Commission in which an English parliament can be considered. Funny that. Beyond the remit of the Calman Commission and beyond the wit of the simpering retards at Westminster.
On Sunday Kenny Farquharson had an article in Scotland on Sunday in which he made a very valid point about the Calman Commission:
And why is Calman trying to wear such a bewildering array of hats? Why is he taking the position of the Englishman who is concerned about the high level of public spending north of the border? Or pondering the dilemma faced by UK Government ministers on how to give different parts of Britain a fair share of public spending? Surely these are matters beyond Calman's competence? Doesn't this risk a very real backlash from south of the border as the English express their resentment at 14 Scots deciding what is best for them?
Yes, there probably will be a backlash. But most probably because Calman has, for the most part, ignored representations from England. If the Scottish Parliament wanted a Commission without input from the English then it should have been funded by Scottish money. But since we English financed it, or at least most of it, the report should have included far far more of the English perspective.
Farquharson's suggestion that the constitutional debate needed to include "voices from the English regions" drew predictable objections along the lines of "England is a country, and no more a collections of so-called 'regions' than is Scotland." Surprisingly, and to his credit, Farquharson responded:
Very interested in the comments about the English regions. Yes, I accept the move towards regional assemblies in England is dead in the water.
I spent some time in Newcastle during the campaign leading up to the referendum that was held in the North-East, and the opposition was overwhelming.
But the posts that insist England has one single tier of government are wrong - it has a dozen or so regions, each run by an unelected civil servant who acts like a US-style Governor.
They are anononymous, but extremely powerful. And each of these Governors has a budget from the Treasury.
Whether or not this tier of government is brought under democratic control, there is still a debate to be had about how each regions' share of UK public spending is allocated.
I imagine this will happen in tandem with deciding a funding mechanism for Scotland.
The Barnett Formula doesn't allocate money to "regions", it allocates money to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as a percentage of what is spent in England. Extending the Barnett Formula to cover English regional spending might suit the centralising instincts of the UK Government, but it's no equitable or transparent way of going about matters.
When asked to deconstruct the suggestion that the Calman Commission threatens to undermine Scottish "values and beliefs" Farquharson came back with this:
Scotland is more collectivist than England, and it has a greater adherence to the idea of the Welfare State.
Those were the values I was talking about.
I don't believe at all that Scotland is morally superior to England.
I believe, for example, that England - in general - is a far more tolerant country than Scotland, with a greater belief in the idea of fairness.
Spot on. Which is why it's ridiculous to bind Scotland to English spending commitments, and why it's also ridiculous for English taxpayers to contribute more to Scottish welfare than they would spend on their own.
Farquharson also believes that devolution-max will weaken the Scottish separatist's case:
"...continue to secure the position of Scotland within the United Kingdom."
Calman is reading this in a curious way.
My interpretation, which I think is the general view, is that Scotland's position within the Union will be secured only when Scotland's small-n nationalist instincts are satisfied.
Diehard Unionists seem to have a view that devolution is a zero-sum game - that every extra power given from Westminster to Holyrood weakens the Union and strengthens the SNP.
In fact the opposite is the case. Only a much stronger form of devolution can save the Union.
I happen to agree. But the problem is that devolution-max for Scotland moves power away from Westminster in a way that damages English voters. The problem becomes not Scotland's place in the union, but England's. Scottish MPs become more pointless than ever, and Westminster looks less like a Union parliament and more like an English parliament each day.
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