Social union in a new era of devolution

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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 hereMatthew 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.

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The Scotland Bill so far: Major constitutional legislation proceeding at the speed of an express train

Jim-Gallagher

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.

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The Conservative government’s Scotland bill

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.

This article is taken from the latest edition of the Constitution Unit Monitor, published yesterday.

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).

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The future of the union: It’s about politics, stupid!

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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.

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Scotland has voted for the union and for distinctiveness. Delivering both could present acute challenges

Jim-Gallagher

After a dramatic referendum and UK general election, the Scottish remain divided on both independence and on whether to increase tax and public spending, while the English are becoming increasingly vocal in the devolution debate. Jim Gallagher considers the possibilities of a constitutional relationship that will satisfy Scottish aspirations and also be acceptable to the UK as a whole.

This is the second in a series of posts based on the Unit’s latest report, Devolution and the Future of the Union, published here.

Within the last year the Scottish people have said two apparently contradictory things. They want to stay in the United Kingdom, and they want to be represented by the SNP. In Holyrood, the SNP exercise dominant control over both Parliament and government. In Westminster, they will be the overwhelming Scottish voice, but will control nothing.

The partisan politics of the general election have been extraordinary. The Labour vote collapsed, and the SNP showed remarkable skill in building a coalition of voters, some for independence, others perhaps against austerity. But this tells us less about overall Scottish attitudes on either question than meets the eye. Scotland remains divided on both independence and on whether to increase tax and public spending, and not on the lines you might expect. Many independence supporters are anything but high spending socialists.

Constitutional challenges

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Better intergovernmental relations for better devolution

Alan Trench calls for a more systematic approach to intergovernmental relations between the devolved and UK governments. He argues that leaving matters to be handled in ad hoc, reactive, unstructured way is no longer an option.

Intergovernmental relations are key to making devolution work effectively. The Scottish Parliament, National Assembly for Wales and Northern Ireland Assembly all operate in a wider context of governance across the UK, and how their functions overlap with those of the UK government (and each other) is vital for all four governments and all UK citizens. The Smith Commission’s recent report pays a good deal of attention to the need to ‘beef up’ intergovernmental co-ordination as part of the package of further devolution.

The UK government is not very interested in managing intergovernmental relations, however. It put in place an attenuated under-institutionalised set of mechanisms in 1999, and has allowed these to weaken or fall further into disuse since then. The key institution is the Joint Ministerial Committee (JMC). Plenary meetings of this body ceased altogether between 2002 and 2008; they have been more or less annual since then, but are characterised by grandstanding rather than productive work. The JMC’s ‘Domestic’ format has nearly ceased to function, as so few policy issues concern more than one devolved government. The only established format of the JMC which does meet regularly, and does more or less what it was expected to, is the EU format which helps formulate the UK ‘line’ for major EU Council meetings, though there are problems even there. In reality, most intergovernmental issues are bilateral, and with few exceptions they are dealt with in an ad hoc, casual way, out of sight of public or legislatures. As a result many important issues slip through the net.

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Smith is a major constitutional milestone – but on a road to where?

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Akash Paun considers the potentially transformational constitutional implications of the Smith Commission Report.

The Smith Commission report on further devolution to Scotland sets out a package of further powers that the unionist and nationalist parties have agreed should be transferred to the Scottish Parliament. Inevitably this goes too far for some and not far enough for others. The detail of the package – which includes further tax, welfare and other powers – is being pored over across the media. Less commented upon are the constitutional implications of the proposals in the report, some of which are potentially transformational.

Beyond parliamentary sovereignty?

First is a commitment to make the Scottish Parliament and Government ‘permanent institutions’. At present the devolved bodies are ‘creatures of statute’ that could – according to the convention of parliamentary sovereignty – be abolished by a simple majority at Westminster, as Margaret Thatcher’s government did when it scrapped the Greater London Council in 1986.

So the implication is that the devolved bodies will somehow be protected from normal majoritarian rules. Quite how this will be done is another matter. Simply stating on the face of a bill that something is permanent cannot prevent a future Parliament from repealing or amending the legislation. One option is to include clauses requiring a super-majority in the Commons (and/or Lords) in order to amend the legislation in future. This would be unusual and contentious – though these are unusual times. But in any case, such a clause could itself be removed by a later piece of legislation passed with a simple majority.

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