There are four important points to make about the constitutional, political and administrative implications of the UK Government’s white paper on Scotland’s Place in the United Kingdom. These don’t concern so much its contents as the way it was put together, and what it represents in the overall, disjointed, debate about Scotland’s constitutional relations with the rest of the UK.
First, the process of engaging with Whitehall about how to implement it has not, on the whole, been helpful for the wider project of working out how a devolved Scotland fits into the wider UK. The reason for that appears largely to lie at the doors of the Treasury, and Treasury departments like HM Revenue & Customs. It’s long been evident that the Treasury has difficulties understanding both the principle and the practice of tax decentralisation, although this is ubiquitous in other decentralised or federal states. It can see the virtues of the present arrangements, particularly on the administrative side – as was particularly evident when they gave evidence to the Lords Barnett Formula Committee. The wider view, of sacrificing some immediate control of taxation to assure broader, longer-term priorities, is not something it seems to grasp, however. The failure to deliver a clear programme or timetable for implementing even pretty modest reforms like those recommended by the Calman Commission (when seen in a comparative context) is a clear reflection of that. However, this looks very like a case where, constitutionally speaking, the Treasury has been penny wise and pound foolish.
Second, the way this process has worked doesn’t do much for the principle that Scotland’s constitutional arrangements should be decided first and foremost in Scotland. For all its flaws, the Calman Commission was exclusively Scottish (something I criticised when it was set up; how could a commission looking at the wider union just focus on one relationship within it?). The process of translating the Commission report into a white paper has undermined that. We’ve seen a thorough review of the Calman recommendations by Whitehall, and a degree of cherry-picking as a result. It can scarcely be argued that this review accorded with the interests of other parts of the UK, let alone the sort of intergovernmental negotiation that would be usual in most other similar countries. Rather, it was an examination based on what did and didn’t suit the central parts of the state apparatus. On a practical level, it’s hard to see how it could be otherwise; that is simply how the British state works. But as a way of dealing with important constitutional issues, it leaves much to be desired, including the damage it does to the principle of constitutional autochthony.
Third, this was Labour’s final chance to adopt a distinctively Labour constitutional strategy for managing devolution. That sort of strategy could have involved an attempt to find a common narrative thread of policy and interests that unites the UK, and that all parts of it could have in common. Instead, what has happened is that Labour has pursued a sequence of ad hoc, bilateral deals. While it’s inevitable that the UK is going to operate in this way to a certain extent, the question is how much. Labour could have sought to change that, and the rules of the game, but hasn’t so far and has ducked its last chance. By a bitter irony, the strategy it has followed is a much more typically Conservative one. It’s an open question whether such ad hoc arrangements will suffice to hold the Union together given the challenges it is going to face in the next decade, particularly as a result of the constrained public spending environment.
Fourth, this missed opportunity means that Scottish ‘soft nationalism’ – which is where the bulk of public opinion seems to be – will find it hard to believe that it can count on the unionist parties to deliver its aspirations. The centre of Scottish politics, in constitutional terms, is missing. And that strategy, as the Herald has pointed out, will only play into the hands of the SNP.
These are seriously missed opportunities for the developing Scottish constitution, for the Labour Party, and for broadly unionist views in Scotland. The next question is how much the unionist parties will come to rue the chances they have just missed. We might get a clearer sense of that from the reception that the Scottish Government’s white paper on independence receives over the next few days.