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Scotland in a changing UK: Unionist visions for further devolution after the referendum

Tuesday 1 July 2014, 16:00

At this event, representatives from the three unionist parties discussed their respective proposals for further devolution following a ‘No’ vote in September’s Scottish independence referendum. Peter Riddell opened the event by emphasising that the referendum would not be the end of the debate for the UK or for intergovernmental relations, noting the recently-released joint statement from the three unionist Scottish party leaders.

Anas Sarwar, MP for Glasgow Central and Deputy Leader of Scottish Labour

Mr. Sarwar described himself as part of the ‘devolution generation’ because the Scottish Parliament has been in existence throughout his own political consciousness. He said the Labour Devolution Commission was not a political fix or an attempt to ‘out-nationalise the nationalists’; rather an attempt to look at where power best lies. A key focus, therefore, is to shift power from Holyrood to local government. Recommendations include:

  1. Enshrining the Scottish Parliament and the role of local government in statute
  2. Letting the Scottish Parliament to raise 40% of its own budget, so that ¾ of Basic Rate Income Tax is raised and spent in Scotland
  3. Introducing a Progressive Rate of Income Tax to allow for increases in higher and top rates of tax
  4. Devolving Housing Benefit and Attendance Allowance
  5. Strengthening City Deals and devolving the Work Programme and Skills Development Scotland to local government, so local priorities can be met.

Whatever happens in the referendum, said Mr Sarwar, Scotland needs a constant discussion not about powers but about economic and social change, with both governments working for the common good.

Peter Duncan, communications consultant and former Conservative MP

Mr. Duncan said that the centre-right perspective needs to find its place in the devolution debate, particularly following the Scottish Conservatives’ ‘unspeakable’ electoral decline. In his view, the two fundamental concepts for a ‘small-c conservative’ are localism and accountability. The Strathclyde Commission addresses the ‘blind spots’ in regard to Scotland by recommending the almost complete transfer of income tax powers: rates and bands would both be devolved, meaning it goes further than the Labour proposals on this matter. Mr. Duncan did offer some critique of the proposals, saying there was intellectual incoherence in devolving income tax but not corporation tax. 

Lord Jeremy Purvis, member of the Liberal Democrat Home Rule Commission and former MSP

Lord Purvis argued that whilst Scotland has a professional and competent legislature, how to achieve a fully-functioning government is still being defined. He provided a brief history of the work his party has done on trying to make the devolution settlement stronger and more sustainable, including the principles established by the Steel Commission for the right balance of incentive and accountability for MSPs; the first set of Campbell recommendations which advocated ‘spheres’ not ‘tiers’ of authority between the UK and Scottish Parliaments; and the more recent Campbell II recommendations which provide a roadmap for a ‘refreshed union’. Lord Purvis was pleased to see that there has been cross-party commitment in the form of the joint statement as well as acceptance that what has been agreed for Scotland should be delivered within this parliament. He advocated a ‘conference of the new union’ which could facilitate dialogue on reforming Whitehall and Westminster into federal institutions.

In response to a question from Mr Riddell on historical Labour opposition to devolution on social democratic grounds, Anas Sarwar said that resources could be pooled and shared whilst still being tailored to local needs. The frustration in devolved and city regions is not with nationhood, but with the centralisation of power in Westminster. 

On whether a devolution ‘destination’ is feasible, Lord Purvis said it was the parties’ responsibility to provide an alternative to independence and offer a coherent narrative as to why the various unions exist, whilst Peter Duncan felt that the joint statement came too late in the process to offer confidence to voters.

Questions from the audience included:

  • What needs to be done to convince Scottish voters that there will be further devolution?
  • Isn't it natural to devolve national insurance with income tax?
  • Is federalism possible in a UK where 85% of the population is English?
  • Scotland hasn't used its current tax raising powers, so aren't income tax devolution proposals just an administrative change?
  • Why hasn’t the question been posed on why devolution has been so popular?
  • How would the parties approach nationalism post-‘No’?