Smith Commission: A way ahead for Scotland?

There may be trouble ahead, but to have secured any kind of agreement on devolution is a remarkable achievement

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The Independent Online

This newspaper was sceptical that it could be done. We doubted that the vow of substantial further devolution to Scotland, made by the leaders of the parties that support the Union, would be kept. We thought that the promise had been made in a panic, to head off the prospect of losing the referendum on independence, and that it would prove difficult to follow through in practice.

However, the Smith Commission may just have secured a workable compromise. The central feature of the deal is over income tax. The Commission proposes that the Scottish Government should set the rates and bands of income tax, but that the tax base – the question of who and what is liable to tax – should remain a matter for the UK Parliament. As with any political agreement, there may be a large cube of fudge at the heart of this deal, but, also as with any political agreement, what matters is that the parties have agreed.

This is a remarkable achievement, and we should pause to praise the skill with which Lord Smith of Kelvin has chaired a committee made up of all five main parties in Scotland. Those parties include, crucially, the Scottish National Party, which today tried to have the deal both ways.

 It had agreed to it but immediately complained that it had not obtained everything it wanted – which, given that it wants independence, was hardly surprising. However, the SNP could have turned its back on the Commission, and should be given some credit for accepting the result of the referendum and working with other parties on the further devolution, which is what a majority of the Scottish people want to see.

The parties also include Labour, which, as we have argued before, has most to lose from more home rule. If responsibility for income tax were fully devolved to Scotland, it would be harder than ever to argue that MPs for Scottish seats should vote in the House of Commons on the central questions of the Budget. The Budget is in turn central to the power of Parliament, which is to control the raising of taxes.

But the Smith Commission deal allows Labour, and indeed the Liberal Democrats, to continue to claim to represent the whole of Great Britain (although the SNP, on current opinion polls, is threatening to remove much of that representation by the direct method of winning those seats at the next election). At the same time, Jim Murphy and Neil Findlay, his main rival for the Scottish Labour leadership, are able to distance themselves from London by setting out separate policies on tax rates.

As for the Conservatives, they too have had to yield. David Cameron’s attempt to extract party advantage by pushing his party’s plan for “English votes on English laws” – which he had previously tried to link directly to the Smith Commission’s recommendations – may yet, despite his renewed enthusiasm, have to be put on hold.

The Prime Minister will put the plan in his manifesto, but its success now depends on the Conservative Party winning a majority at the election. Equally, the desire on the part of the Lib Dems and the Green Party for radical decentralisation is not going to be realised soon.

Despite many caveats and pitfalls, the compromise is, on balance, a good deal. It offers a way forward that reflects the will of the majority of people in Scotland. Now would be a good time to turn some of the attention devoted to the Scottish case to the question of more and better devolution to Wales, Northern Ireland and, perhaps most difficult of all, to the cities, counties and regions of England.

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