On 7 December Angus Robertson MP, the leader of the Scottish National Party group at Westminster, came to The Constitution Unit to set out his vision of social union between the nations of the UK. The full text of his talk can be accessed here. Matthew Rice reports.
The Scottish National Party’s use of the term ‘social union’ is nothing new. Indeed, as a ‘Yes’ campaign organiser stated on the website Open Democracy prior to last year’s independence referendum, ‘the independence movement is in a strong position if it can argue that the social union will be preserved and even strengthened after independence’. Maintaining that Britain’s social union would be preserved was seen as a way of bringing into the fold those who were concerned about the potential loss of the strong economic, institutional, historical and cultural ties between Scotland and the rest of the UK. Angus Robertson developed this line of reasoning in his talk, suggesting that ‘the SNP argument [during the independence referendum] was to break the political union but not the social union’. But how can the term ‘social union’ be conceptualised?
Helpful in this regard is Alex Salmond’s Hugo Young Lecture from January 2012, in which he outlined Britain’s shared economic, cultural and familial ties. Interestingly, both Salmond in 2012 and Robertson in his Constitution Unit talk cited the deployment of Scottish police officers to England at the height of the UK-wide riots in the summer of 2011 as an example of the social union in action. Robertson also alluded to the deployment of RAF Typhoon jet fighters from the RAF base in Lossiemouth against Daesh in Syria as a further example of the different nations of the UK working together – although he questions the legitimacy of such action, given that all but two of Scotland’s MPs voted against military action.
Jim Gallagher reflects on what the Scotland Bill tells us about the Scotland-UK relationship and devolution more broadly. He argues that the Bill presents a challenge to the unwritten constitution, and that now is the time to clarify and codify the territorial aspects to make a statement about how and why the Union hangs together.
The Scotland Bill calls to mind, irresistibly, the aphorism of Lampedusa: if things are to stay the same, they’ve got to change. If it is to sustain itself as a Union, the UK must become a new and different one. The Scotland Bill should be the catalyst for change, but this isn’t only about Scotland. It is about how the UK understands itself as a territorial state. Like Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland understand the UK as a voluntary association bound together by common interests and shared experience, in many ways like a federal country. But too many at the centre of the UK see a unitary state with some untidy territorial edges. In essence this understanding is based on a half-baked notion of parliamentary sovereignty. If the UK wants to stay together, this has to change.
The Scotland Bill makes the nature of Scotland-UK relationship more explicit, and implies similar things about Wales and Northern Ireland too. The UK is a multinational state, an association whose membership is voluntary, and that is now very explicit for both Northern Ireland and Scotland. Scotland has always had its own institutions, separate from the UK’s. For first three centuries after the union, these were Scottish, but undemocratic. For the last 15 years, Scottish institutions have been accountable through the Scottish Parliament. The Scotland Bill puts it beyond doubt that this is irreversible. Devolution is permanent, and the Scottish Parliament is master in its own house: its power is paramount in devolved matters, and it controls its own composition. That is the point of the constitutional provisions of the Bill: statements of the obvious if you like, but that will be true of many constitutions–if you know how the institutions work in practice, you will find the constitutional legislation almost banal.
Plans for expanding the powers of the Scottish Parliament have developed rapidly since the Scottish referendum. Jim Gallagher takes advantage of the pause afforded by Parliament’s summer recess to take stock of the Scotland Bill’s progress, and consider the stability of increased decentralisation in the longer term.
Parliament’s summer recess is a good time to catch breath and reflect on the breakneck process of the Scotland Bill. This is constitutional legislation, but proceeding at the speed of an express train.
Express delivery of new powers for the Scottish Parliament was promised during the referendum campaign. The pro-union parties promised – in what was to become the Smith commission – to agree plans in very short order; then they made ‘The Vow’ about what those plans would contain (in, of all places, the Daily Record). The timetable demanded draft legislation before the general election, and a bill introduced immediately thereafter. All of this has duly happened.
The Scotland Bill is very similar to the pre-election draft, with changes to address points of criticism. It is faithful to the Smith recommendations: Virtually complete devolution of income tax – Check. Assignment of half of VAT – Check. Declaration of constitutional permanence for the Scottish Parliament, and legislative basis for (what we must still call) the Sewel Convention – Check. Devolving £2.5 billion of benefits – Check. So from any perspective this is major stuff.
The Scotland Bill has been introduced early, facilitated by the fact the coalition government published draft clauses in January. Alan Trench writes that implements the proposals of the Smith Commission, and although it appears to be a done deal, it is likely to be challenged by the SNP.
The new Conservative government got its busy legislative programme off to a quick start by publishing its Scotland bill on 28 May, the day after the Queen’s speech. This bill is a substantial extension of Scottish devolution, following ‘The Vow’ made toward the end of the Scottish referendum campaign last September and the work of the Smith Commission whose recommendations it implements.
Contents of the bill
The bill builds on the ‘draft legislative clauses’ published in January. It shows a significant re-think of some details; it now consists of 64 clauses and two schedules, compared to 44 clauses from the January paper, though the key provisions about welfare and tax devolution are substantively unchanged. On the tax side these provide for devolving the power to set income tax thresholds, rates and bands on earned income, and to assign half of VAT receipts (10 points of normally-rated items and 2.5 points of items rated at 5 per cent).
On Friday 5 June, the Constitution Unit and the Wales Governance Centre jointly sponsored a conference of politicians and academics on ‘Devolution and the Future of The Union’ at the British Academy. It followed up a series of separate reports by them and by the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law and the Institute for Government, urging an end to the UK’s government’s piecemeal approach to devolution. But the Scotland Bill’s second reading in the House of Commons on Tuesday made it clear that the political parties are not rushing to heed the academic advice.Brian Walker reflects on the differences between the two agendas.
The two rival victors in the general election have made opening moves over the future of the United Kingdom. After the second reading debate, government sources let it be known that the Scotland Bill based on the Smith Commission report was all Scotland was going to get this session, while the SNP played down full fiscal autonomy as one of its early aims. But this still leaves plenty to dispute. SNP demands for ’Smith plus’ – in the shape of further powers on job creation, taxation, welfare and wages – were left hanging. No clue was offered as to how the balance would be negotiated between pooling and sharing at UK level, and the extensive new fiscal powers being awarded to Holyrood. While the Barnett formula which disproportionally benefits Scotland remains in place, the government’s position contains the implicit challenge: if you want to take public service provision further, pay for it yourselves.
Fiscal devolution: Barnett and other issues
At the conference, it was the English local government expert Tony Travers who put his finger on the issue likely to feature more prominently than purely constitutional matters. ‘The Conservative aim of shrinking of the state to 36% of GDP raises big questions of how to sustain public services’. It is hardly shock news that there will be no increase in subvention levels from Westminster for further devolution under the Chancellor’s latest programme of fiscal consolidation. In his much-vaunted ‘Northern powerhouse’ plan, budgets will be concentrated for maximum effect, not increased. Fiscal tightening has already aggravated the stand-off between Westminster and Cardiff Bay over the ‘unfairness’ of Wales’ Barnett deal, and it has produced an anti-austerity rebellion at Stormont which could threatened the survival of the power sharing institutions. From the start of the parliament, political tensions over devolution seem set to rise, with unpredictable results for the future of the UK.