7th Novemeber 2013
In his recent Constitution Unit seminar, Jim Gallagher walked us through the impact of a win for the “no” side in the Scottish referendum. As the co-author of Scotland’s Choices with Iain McLean and Guy Lodge, Gallagher argues that a “no” vote is not necessarily a vote for the status quo. Instead such a result can represent the desire to stay within the UK, but continue further on the devolution path.
The question of further devolution is at the crux of Gallagher’s argument. He promotes the idea of a territorial constitution which allows for devolved powers to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland but does not create a separate devolved jurisdiction for England. This is one of the significant differences between a territorial and federal constitution; a federal system creates a national government that governs concurrently with sub-national or regional governments, of which there is one for every region, and powers are divided between the different orders of government. In contrast, a territorial constitution is fundamentally asymmetrical and does not require a sub-national government for each region. For the UK, Gallagher envisions a territorial constitution that links the Scots and the rest of the UK (rUK) in three types of union: a political union where the national parliament takes care of foreign affairs and other national level items; an economic union that maintains the common currency and the trade benefits of a single market; and a social union for the national social security programs that are better managed at the national level by the UK government to ensure a standard level of services across the country.
When devolving further powers to Scotland, Gallagher is firm on shifting some taxation powers from the national government to Scotland. This encourages accountability – if there is a more equal relationship between the money raised and spent by the Scottish government then there is a greater degree of budget responsibility. Currently Scotland receives a block grant from the UK government, which is determined by the Barnett formula and is transferred without any strings attached. If Scotland does vote “no,” then the Scotland Act 2012 will come into force in 2016 and bring in many of the Calman Commission’s recommendations that assign the Scottish Parliament more taxation and borrowing powers.
Gallagher’s triple union and territorial constitution negates the large-scale devolution of powers to Scotland that have been recommended under more radical devolution models (such as the devolution “max” and welfare nationalism models discussed in Scotland’s Choices). This is particularly true of the social union which relies on the presence of a strong, unifying social safety net with programs such as NHS, old age pensions, and unemployment insurance. With the UK government retaining control of social programs, it naturally follows that a number of taxation powers will remain in the hands of the national government rather than being devolved to Scotland to ensure proper funding for the social union. But, in order to balace Scottish revenue with expenditure, some tax points could be transferred. An example would be reducing the UK personal income tax rate in Scotland to allow more room for the Scottish Parliament to introduce its own personal income tax.
Gallagher’s presentation was of particular interest to me as a Canadian. Canada has been torn apart by numerous rounds of mega-constitutional politics that have tried to bring Quebec into the Canadian constitutional fold. Quebec nationalism entered the national discussion in the 1960s with the re-imagining of the French Canadian people as the Quebecois and the agenda has been subsequently driven by the Parti Quebecois and its federal counterpart, the Bloc Quebecois. Despite the fact that there have been two referendums on independence, the sovereigntist cause remains very much alive in Quebec and the PQ currently holds a minority government in Quebec.
The Canadian experience clearly shows that even if the Scottish people reject independence next year, the status quo will be over-turned: after the 1980 referendum, in a bid to get Quebec to sign onto the constitution, the federal government entered into a series of constitutional talks with the provinces and negotiated the Constitution Act, 1982. But having been betrayed during the infamous “Night of Long Knives,” Quebec refused to sign and subsequently there were two more unsuccessful rounds of constitutional talks. Despite these failures, bilateral agreements between the federal government and Quebec have created some asymmetry in the Canadian federation: Quebec can opt out of federal programs and receive compensation to run its own version of those programs, such as the provincial pension plan, and has its own tax collection agency. These concessions move Canada towards asymmetrical federalism although the asymmetry has gone nowhere near far enough for the Quebecois and those who support Charles Taylor’s concept of “deep diversity,” which embraces asymmetrical federalism to protect and promote the smaller nation within a larger multi-national state.
In the long-run, the Quebec government, whether headed by the PQ or the anti-separatist but still pro-Quebecois Liberals, has been successful at advancing its cause and regularly opposing the federal government to extract concessions for Quebec. Therefore, there is no reason not to expect that a “no” result in 2014 will eliminate the SNP’s press for independence or at least further concessions in Scotland – especially if more devolution beyond the Scotland Act 2012 fails to occur in response to continued demands. The case of Quebec demonstrates that opposition to the central government can drive the separatist party’s policy agenda for decades after a referendum.
Gallagher’s presentation proves that regardless of the referendum result the status quo cannot be maintained. Since the current outcome looks to be a win for the “no” side, it is important that the UK as a whole considers what the consequences are for the union if Scotland votes to remain. There are many facets of the relationship between Scotland and rUK that must be unpacked to determine how further devolution – i.e. beyond the Scotland Act 2012 – might unfold.
To watch the seminar presentation by Jim Gallagher click here