What will happen if Scotland votes NO to independence in the 2014 referendum?
Those who support independence often assert that the referendum is a choice between “change” and “the status quo”, implying that a NO vote means that there will be no change. Thus, if you don’t like what you’ve got now, your only option is to vote YES. But this is seriously to misrepresent the true position.
The true position is that there is no such thing as the status quo in Scottish politics. There is no such option. No-one is offering it. All the parties who are striving for a NO vote in the referendum are signed up to deliver change. Even the Conservatives’ policy is not to conserve Scotland’s constitutional position of today, but to facilitate its further development and growth.
Not that the Conservatives — or the Labour or Lib Dem parties — have been remotely successful in getting this message across! So let me try to explain.
The SNP first assumed office following the Scottish parliamentary election in 2007. Alex Salmond became First Minister as leader of the largest single party in Holyrood. The SNP did not in those days have the overall majority of seats in Holyrood that they have enjoyed since 2011 but they were, by a solitary seat, the largest single party. They ruled for four years as a minority administration.
Alarmed at the advent of Nationalist rule, the three Unionist parties in the Scottish Parliament established an all-party commission to review Scottish devolution and to make recommendations as to its further development. This review, known as the Calman Commission, reported in 2009. The thrust of its recommendations was accepted by the then Labour Government in Westminster, and when Labour lost power in 2010 their broad acceptance of Calman was not reversed by the incoming Coalition. On the contrary, Calman was embraced by the Coalition as it had been by Labour. The result was fresh legislation in Westminster to augment the powers of the Scottish Government, to enlarge the powers of the Scottish Parliament, and generally to reboot Scottish devolution. That legislation was passed last year and is called the Scotland Act 2012.
Let’s pause here to notice one thing. If you like devolution (and, indeed, if you’d like to see more of it), note who has delivered it. Labour created it in 1997-98 (with the original Scotland Act 1998) and the Tory / Lib Dem Coalition, with Labour’s support, delivered round two in 2012. The Scotland Act 2012 is not the promise of future powers. It has been enacted. It has been passed. It is the law of the land. It has been delivered. The Unionist parties — all three of them — have delivered what they promised. We have grown so used to politicians failing to deliver on their promises that it is just worth noting that this failure has not been repeated in the case of Scottish devolution.
And, now, note this. The SNP opposed both the moves to create devolution in 1997-98 and the moves to enhance it in 2009-12.
So, what does the Scotland Act 2012 do? I’ve said that it augments the powers of the Scottish Government and that it enlarges the powers of the Scottish Parliament. And so it does. Some of the changes are relatively small beer — tidying-up exercises that are important enough in their own right but will hardly set the heather alight. But some of the changes are massive. Huge new borrowing powers are conferred on Scottish Ministers, for example, in order to assist them with the planning and delivery of Scottish public policy. And unprecedented tax powers are conferred on the Scottish Parliament, representing the biggest internal shift of fiscal power away from Westminster since the Acts of Union, no less. Again, it is important to reiterate that these are not idle promises of what might be done in the future (“vote NO and then we’ll see”). All of this has already been delivered (“vote NO to preserve what’s already done”).
The new powers will significantly alter the nature of the powers which MSPs have. Thus far, their fiscal powers have been sharply focused on deciding how to spend public money, and a number of the achievements of Scottish devolution have been decisions to spend public money differently from how it is spent by Ministers in London. But, thanks to the Scotland Act 2012, MSPs will now also have powers to decide how to raise public money: that is to say, decisions over taxation. Decisions about tax are among the most sensitive that politicians have to make. The aim of the Scotland Act 2012 is that, by handing these powers to MSPs in Holyrood, the Scottish people will think ever more carefully about the sorts of folk they want to elect to the Scottish Parliament (“with power comes responsibility” and all that).
Now, the scheme of the 2012 Act is that the handing over of tax powers from MPs in Westminster to MSPs in Holyrood will be staggered. It’s not all going to happen at once in a rash fit of fiscal irresponsibility. To start with, the focus will be on income tax, as well as on one or two more minor duties such as stamp duty and landfill tax.
But — and here is the beauty of the Scotland Act 2012 — the Act provides that new taxes may be devolved to the Scottish Parliament without the need for any fresh Westminster legislation. We know, for example, that Scottish Ministers have said that they wish to be able to set their own rates of corporation tax. A lower rate (such as Ireland’s) might attract additional international investment into the Scottish economy, the SNP have argued. The SNP may or may not be right about that, but let us assume that they are correct. The Scotland Act 2012 contains the trigger that can enable the power to set rates of corporation tax to be devolved from London to Edinburgh without any further parliamentary time having to be taken up. All that needs to happen is for the Scottish Ministers to make a case to the UK Government that this needs to happen in the Scottish national interest and, as long as the UK Government is persuaded, the power can be devolved without further ado.
This is why I say that there is no such thing as the status quo in Scottish politics. Responsibility for income tax in Scotland is set to become shared for the first time between Scotland’s two governments (in Edinburgh and London). Responsibility for new and further taxes can and will be devolved to Scottish Ministers as soon as the Scottish Ministers make the case that this should be done. Devolution has always been a fluid and flexible regime. The Scotland Act 2012 makes it even more fluid and flexible.
The choice that confronts us on referendum day is a choice not between “change” and “no change” but between the SNP’s vision for change and everybody else’s. A NO vote is a vote FOR the ongoing fluidity and flexibility, development and growth of devolution. The only party that opposes this vision is the SNP.