Devolutionary road: Even the most ardent of independence campaigners must recognise the extent to which Scotland can now self-govern


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The Independent Online

This newspaper welcomed the decision by the Scottish people against independence last year, but it recognised that there was a broad measure of support for changes to the 1998 devolution settlement that fall short of outright separation.

It has often been suggested by opponents of devolution that it would, in time, lead to independence and that, therefore, further devolution would make independence even more certain. Some supporters of the No vote in Scotland argue that further devolution is precisely the wrong response to their victory in the referendum. They say that the “vow” of further devolved powers by the three main unionist party leaders was a desperate attempt at the last minute to buy off the Yes surge, and that continued appeasement of Yes voters, who seem to think they won a moral victory, would only lead the Scottish National Party (SNP) to try again, and to go on trying until it finally secured the independence it seeks.

We disagree. It was right that Scotland gained limited self-government in 1998. And it was right to give Scotland, which elected a majority of SNP members to the Holyrood Parliament, the chance last year to decide its national question. Had devolution not been granted in 1998, who can say whether the pressure for independence would be greater or less now?

It could just as plausibly be argued that the result of the referendum vindicates devolution and that the proposed legislation for further devolution, published today, is the product of the success of the 17-year devolution experiment. The Scottish people like devolution so much that they want more of it. This way, Scotland has the best of both worlds, as the Better Together campaign slogan had it – as much independence as it could ever wish for while the advantages of the Union are retained.

It is only a shame that the SNP, having lost its referendum, is also trying to have the best of both worlds. It was represented on the Smith Commission, which drew up the plans published as a draft Bill today, and it agreed to them. Yet it continues to attack the plans, not just for not going far enough, which must be true by definition to a party committed to independence, but as being “watered down” by those perfidious Westminster politicians.

This kind of victimology and grievance-based politics is the weakest link in the SNP’s otherwise refreshing and optimistic appeal. It is an appeal much better personified by the subtle and open Nicola Sturgeon than by Alex Salmond, her predecessor as First Minister, but she, too, has a tendency to try to have things both ways. This week, she reversed the SNP’s policy of refusing to vote on England-only matters in the Commons. This is sensible insofar as it accepts that SNP MPs are members of the UK Parliament; less so if it is a prelude to using the party’s influence at Westminster to try to reopen the question of independence just four months after it was supposedly settled for a generation.

Today’s draft Bill proposes important new tax-raising powers for Edinburgh that complement the one-sided devolution of spending decisions. They are good for Scotland and for the rest of the UK, which has an increasingly asymmetric pattern of devolution that reflects the differing popular will in its nations, regions and cities. They should be implemented by whichever government is formed after the general election, and they should last for at least another 17 years.