Category Archives: SNP

Devolution, territorial politics and the general election

This post also appears on the Constitution Unit’s blog, here. Constitution-unit.com has a number of other election-related posts which are well worth reading.

It is hard to think of a general election that has ever been so freighted with questions about the UK’s territorial constitution. It is hardly an overstatement to say that the outcome of the 2015 election, and actions of the government that takes office after it, will either reshape the UK significantly or ease the way to its breakup. This post considers what the manifestos tell us about what the various parties propose to do and how they propose to do it, when it comes to the reshaping of devolution arrangements across the UK, and then discusses some of the issues that will loom larger after 7 May.

The pro-UK parties

The 2015 manifestos contain a welter of devolution-related commitments. Those in the three pro-UK parties (Conservative, Liberal Democrats and Labour) are all strikingly similar, though not identical. For Scotland, all commit to implementing the Smith Commission’s recommendations, and to retaining the Barnett formula. (Interestingly, they do not commit to the UK Government’s white paper Scotland in the United Kingdom: An enduring settlement, raising the possibility they could scrape off some of the barnacles that paper puts on the Smith proposals). Labour want to go further in a ‘Home Rule bill’ in unspecified ways, though it appears that wider scope for the Scottish Parliament to legislate on welfare matters is key to it. These commitments rather resemble those made by the same three parties in 2010 about the implementation of the Calman Commission’s recommendations, though with Labour somewhat breaking ranks with the two governing parties.

There is also similarity when it comes to Northern Ireland: endorsement of the peace process and commitments to support it, along with the economic rebalancing package agreed as part of December’s Stormont House Agreement. For Conservatives and Lib Dems, this includes support for sustainable public finances, welfare reform and corporation tax devolution subject to adequate progress being made on financial matters. Labour’s commitments appear to embrace similar policies, but are confusingly worded. They say they will:

engage proactively with the Northern Ireland Executive to support continued political progress, and deliver on it’s (sic) vision of a shared future. We will ensure the economic pact between the UK Government and Northern Ireland Executive is focused on stimulating jobs and growth which contribute to reducing unemployment and poverty in Northern Ireland. (p. 66)

Things get murkier when it comes to Wales and the proposals for further devolution made through the St David’s Day process. The Conservatives simply commit to that; the Liberal Democrats to both St David’s Day and the Silk Commission recommendations, a number of which were dropped through the St David’s Day process. This means that the Lib Dems have committed themselves to devolution of policing, prisons and probation while the Conservatives have not. Labour revisit, yet again, the Silk/St David’s Day recommendations and support a ‘Barnett floor’ for fair funding and devolution of elections, transport and energy, but not policing and offender management. Instead, they propose an all-Wales policing plan (though how this would work is hard to say, as policing plans are a matter for elected Police and Crime Commissioners – are these to be abolished or superseded?). Labour also say nothing about holding a referendum on income tax devolution as required by the Wales Act 2014, though this was recommended by the Silk and Holtham Commissions.

All three parties are in favour of sub-national devolution in different ways but the greatest variation relates to England, and ‘English votes for English laws’ (EVEL). For the Conservatives at least, the ground is now well-trodden and builds on the McKay Commission proposals: votes on measures affecting England at Westminster would be limited to MPs from English constituencies at Committee and Report stages, with a ‘legislative consent motion’ afterward, before 3rd reading. The Lib Dems say they are in favour of EVEL, but only in the context of proportional representation. Both these positions were set out in the December 2014 Command paper on The Implications of Devolution for England. Labour emphasise devolution within England, to include an English regional cabinet committee, and propose a ‘people-led’ constitutional convention to consider EVEL issues (in which the McKay proposals would only be an option) and an elected ‘senate of the nations and regions’ to replace the Lords.

The nationalist parties

The nationalist parties’ manifestos are more clear-cut. While the Scottish National Party endorse the Smith Commission recommendations and call for them to be implemented ‘in full’ (a further dig at the Scotland in the United Kingdom Command paper), they say these are insufficient and call for extensive further devolution. These demands include what they now call ‘full fiscal responsibility’ (itself to be delivered in stages), regulation of pay-day lenders, the minimum wage, and specifically ‘business taxes’ (the term corporation tax is never used).

Plaid Cymru call for funding on the Scottish level – in other words, a ‘Barnett bonus’ like Scotland’s – but also a ‘fair funding settlement’ with a ‘funding floor’. They call for ‘the same tax powers as Scotland’ but also devolution of corporation tax, and a higher (but not devolved) minimum wage. They also say

In principle, we support English Votes for English Laws. However, Welsh MPs must be able to vote upon any issue which affects the people of Wales or the Welsh Government’s finances.

It may be slightly odd to describe the Democratic Unionist Party from Northern Ireland as a nationalist party, but in their focus on a particular part of the UK and its specific interests, they function rather like one. They emphasise various forms of privileged treatment for Northern Ireland including favourable financial treatment, both through the block grant and through arrangements for corporation tax devolution, and a Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. At the same time, they want equal status for Northern Ireland, whether that be through support for inward investment, the renaming of the Olympic ‘Team GB’ or UK departments carrying out operations there.

Considering the manifestos

There is one coherent and consistent theme to be found in all these manifestos: a lack of coherence and consistency. For the SNP, this is chiefly in attempts to have their cake and eat it; to have Smith but demand more, and to have full fiscal responsibility (itself a dubious proposition, since it would involve serious cuts of 15-20 per cent in Scottish public spending or tax increases to cover the higher levels of spending there) but ‘in stages’ and while preserving the Barnett bonus. Plaid Cymru have now abandoned ‘fair funding’, but seem both to want what Scotland has, and more. The three pro-UK parties all demonstrate a similar fault as well; they fail to take an overarching view of the implications of their proposals for each part of the UK on the others. Perhaps the Lib Dems come closest to a coherent view of a decentralised, sort-of federal UK, but it remains an incomplete picture assembled of different proposals for each part of the UK.

Of the pro-UK parties, Labour’s proposals are both the most distinctive but also the most unclear. We know they wish to unpick both the Scotland in the United Kingdom paper and the St David’s Day proposals for Wales, as well as have a different approach for Northern Ireland – but have no clear idea what these policies are or what they would mean if implemented, let alone how high a priority they are. Moreover, we do not know how they will interact with the proposed ‘people-led constitutional convention’. The working of other proposals is doubtful in practical terms, such as the idea of an elected senate of the nations and regions. The Conservatives’ advocacy of English votes for English laws introduces a sequence of practical problems and problems that arise from a disproportionate electoral system that advantages winners (but, ironically, may protect the Lib Dems themselves from as large a loss of seats compared to their loss of votes).

Of course, the manifestos all need to be read against the backdrop of possible coalition-building. The Conservatives in particular are fearful of a Labour-SNP alliance, and given the degree of similarity in their manifestos have reason to be. A cynical view would be that the SNP have carefully framed their manifesto both to appeal to traditionally Labour voters and to create scope for – indeed, put pressure on – Labour to come to some arrangement if the parliamentary arithmetic so dictates. There has been some confusion about the price of such support (further devolution ‘concessions’? No Trident replacement? A reversal of ‘austerity economics’?) Equally, Labour have been under a good deal of pressure from the Conservatives about the supposed illegitimacy as well as instability of such an arrangement. But the SNP have weakened their hand by their adamant refusal to support the Conservatives under any circumstances, meaning they only have one choice of potential governing party to support. Conversely, the Conservatives’ attempt to undermine the legitimacy of the SNP as a player at Westminster sits strangely with both the party’s unionism and indeed much that was said during 2014’s Scottish referendum campaign. If Scots and particularly Scottish nationalists want ‘in’, experience overseas suggests it is prudent to ensure they are.

Plaid’s overall left-of-centre profile would seem to rule out any support for a Conservative-led administration, but the lack of clarity about their requirements and impossibility of their likely demands, as well as the limited clout Plaid are likely to have, may diminish their attractiveness to a Labour-led one too.

By contrast, the DUP have played their cards astutely. By indicating they would do a deal with either Labour or Conservatives and setting out a short list of criteria which would seem to inflict roughly equal pain on each of the parties, they have maximised their scope for influence and for being able to claim to have influenced a government.

Post-election negotiations to form a government are likely to be protracted, even tortuous.  They are also likely to be less heated than much of the campaign rhetoric has been, and that will be no bad thing.  This is a delicate constitutional dance, and cool heads and a willingness to compromise will be at a premium.

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Filed under Conservatives, English questions, Labour, Lib Dems, Northern Ireland, Plaid Cymru, Scotland, SNP, UK elections, Wales, Westminster

SNP, sorry: the referendum result takes Devo Max off the table

The clear and decisive vote in the Scottish independence referendum is a powerful statement in a number of ways. There is clearly a large constitutional and political debate now underway, for the whole of the UK and each of its parts and not just Scotland.

But aspirations that this means ‘devo max’ – the devolution of all functions save defence, foreign affairs, currency and maybe immigration, and including the power to set and collect all taxes in Scotland – are simply wrong.  Devo max in that form is definitely off the cards. It has never been offered or proposed by any of the pro-Union parties. The enhanced-devolution schemes they have, to be brokered now through the process chaired by Lord Smith of Kelvin, are all substantial further devolutions of power, but not ‘devo max’.

In his concession speech, Alex Salmond committed to work with other parties in Scotland, and the rest of the UK, to deliver further powers for the Scottish Parliament. The Scottish Government of course undertook to ‘continue to work together [with the UK Government] constructively in the light of the outcome, whatever it is, in the best interests of the people of Scotland and of the rest of the United Kingdom’, in the much-discussed Article 30 of the Edinburgh Agreement.  For the Scottish Government to be an active participant in that process, it and its supporters need to acknowledge that devo max is also now off the table. The referendum was a clear signal by the people of Scotland that they wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom. Far-reaching further devolution is perfectly compatible with that, more so with the wide-ranging approach to constitutional reform that the Prime Minister has signalled. But – as I made clear in my evidence to Holyrood’s Finance Committee in June – full fiscal autonomy and devo max are not. It has nothing to offer Wales or Northern Ireland, and would be unworkable for them. More seriously, the extensive, de facto withdrawal from most aspects of a shared economy and shared social citizenship that devo max would imply is not workable for other parts of the UK. Those remain key tangible manifestations of remaining part of the UK. By rejecting full-fat independence, Scotland’s voters also opted to decline its skimmed version that is devo max.

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Negotiations after a Scottish referendum Yes vote

In just over a week’s time, Scottish voters will choose whether Scotland should become an independent country outside the United Kingdom, or remain a devolved part of the UK. It’s a big decision, but they should not think that the referendum vote is the end of the matter. In reality, it is only the beginning. The pro-union parties have long made it clear that a No vote will start the process of delivering a form of enhanced devolution; a Yes vote will trigger a process leading to independence, about which there are few other certainties.

Much of the campaign in the last few weeks has been about creating a different sort of politics, and a different approach to social policy, within Scotland. But at least as important for Scotland as an independent state is the nature of its relations with the remaining part of the United Kingdom (rUK) – its much larger southerly neighbour, its main economic and trading partner, with which the Scottish Government aspires to share a currency, ‘social union’ and much more. All those plans are predicated on a close and amicable relationship with rUK, with Scotland able to enjoy the continuing benefit of a number of services that the UK presently offers to all its citizens.  The question is: can that vision actually be delivered? Even if that model t is the interests of an independent Scotland, why is it in the interests of rUK, if Scotland chooses a future outside it? If it is not, why should rUK comply with independent Scottish wishes – why is it in rUK’s interests to do so?  And, given the differences in interest in securing that outcome, how might an independent Scotland make it happen?

If there is a Yes vote, there will be a complex and messy set of negotiations between referendum day and independence day. Before those negotiations can start, and certainly before the Scottish Government can talk to any entity outside the United Kingdom, a paving bill permitting it to do so would need to be passed by Westminster. At the end, following those negotiations, both UK and Scottish Parliaments will need to approve the resulting deal. Not all the issues that need to be resolved between rUK and an independent Scotland (iScotland) will be resolved by independence day. Indeed, if the Czech-Slovak parallels are anything to go by (and that was a much simpler case), they will not be fully resolved for at least two decades. That does not mean Scotland cannot become ‘independent’, but that independence will indeed be a process not an event, with many issues falling to be resolved only months or years later. However, for an independent Scotland to start functioning as an independent state, some key top-order issues have to be resolved. Prominent among these are:

  • the currency the new state will use, and who bears the risks associated with that
  • the borders of the new state – particularly its maritime borders, which will affect oil and gas reserves unless a distinct arrangement is made for these.
  • the arrangements for movement of persons between rUK and the new state, both at the border and more generally
  • whether, when and on what terms the new state will be or become a member of the European Union
  • the division of the UK’s current National Debt
  • the division of other UK assets and liabilities – ranging from defence infrastructure to museum and gallery collections
  • what happens to the existing UK nuclear bases on the Clyde
  • if rUK is to continue to administer welfare and pensions payments in Scotland for some transitional period, the basis on which it will do so
  • the means by which outstanding issues are resolved, and what happens if the parties cannot reach agreement by negotiation.

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The UK Government’s increasingly clear referendum position

The UK Government has now taken to using publicly a clear line about the independence referendum.  A Yes vote, and Scottish independence, will lead to Scotland leaving the United Kingdom (despite semantic objections from the Yes side).  That means an independent Scotland will also cease to be part of UK institutions.  It can’t expect to be able to maintain participation in such bodies as the Bank of England (as emphasised by the row over currency union), the BBC (illustrated by Maria Miller’s comments in Oxford), and others. The European Union is another of these.  Lord Wallace’s impending speech makes the point vividly clear.  Expect to see the research councils added to the list over the coming weeks, as another body where an ‘independent’ Scotland would seek to share arrangements with rUK.  There may be some hard choices to be made about a common travel area and its security implications.  The ground for both of those has already been laid in the Scotland Analysis papers.  And expect arguments about such detailed matters as the organ transplant ‘pool’, which currently operates on a UK-wide basis.

None of this should be a surprise.  It’s been implicit in the UK Government’s position since the beginning of the Scotland Analysis programme.  Remember that that kicked off with an analysis of the international legal issues, concluding that (r)UK would be the successor state in international law and Scotland would be a new state.  The line of argument now emerging is simply the logical fulfilment of that.

This is also perfectly consistent with the strategy of the Unionist side in another respect.  Since the May 2011 Scottish election result, and David Cameron’s prompt acceptance of the need for referendum and stipulation that it be ‘legal, clear and decisive’, the UK Government has pursued an excluded-middle Continue reading

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Nicola Sturgeon at UCL: the positive, England-friendly case for independence, and laying down a challenge on Devo More

Nicola Sturgeon’s lecture for the Constitution Unit on Thursday evening, 13 February, was a rare opportunity for her to speak to a London audience, and for a London audience to see her.  What they heard was a very slick presentation of the SNP’s case for ‘soft independence’, carefully tailored for the audience, and predicated on advancing Scottish self-government rather than breaking up the UK.  Her key arguments were that Scotland could be independent, and was well-prepared for that because of the development of devolution; that Scotland could and should become independent, because Westminster’s politics and policies were at odds with those of Scotland; and that independence would be a firm basis for good relations with all the nations of the British isles.  She emphasised that Scottish independence was ‘emphatically not separatist or insular … [n]or … driven by antipathy towards or resentment of our neighbours in the rest of the UK.’  Indeed, she said she was sure independence could be achieved without any lingering sense of resentment in the rest of the UK. She added that the debate was not about ‘identity’ and that the SNP were not asking people to choose their identity as part of the process which may come as a surprise to some observers).  Rather, it was about the best form of self-government for Scotland.

Much of this was familiar to those who have heard the SNP in recent years, and much could be strongly contested.  The line that Scotland’s politics were different to those of England was undermined by arguing that Scottish independence would not doom the rest of the UK to unending Conservative governments, for example.  Sturgeon made a good deal of how important it was for Scotland to have control of such issues as economic management, defence and foreign affairs from Westminster – even though an independent Scotland’s room for manoeuvre under its white paper blueprint would be limited, and even though there is little sign from polling that these issues are key in voters’ minds. Continue reading

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Scottish independence: does taking a sterling currency union off the table change the game?

The heavy trailing of an announcement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer (and Danny Alexander and Ed Balls) that the UK Government is not prepared to establish a currency union with Scotland for use of the pound in the event of Scottish independence (see also BBC News coverage here) is a serious blow to aspirations of the SNP for a form of ‘independence lite’.  The logic of this was that it would avoid disrupting many key symbolic and economic ties between an independent Scotland (iScotland) and the remainder of the UK (rUK), so comforting swing voters about the limited scale of the risks of independence.  Those risks are real; think of how attractive Scottish investment trusts and insurance companies look if the complexities and exchange-rate risks of using a different currency are introduced into the equation, for example.  But this shift in the ground also emphasises a number of key issues about the implications of a Yes vote, and what would happen after it.

The first problem – which is particularly the case with the idea of a currency union, but applies to many other important issues – is the asymmetry of interest.  A currency union is central to the way the SNP has formulated its model for independence.  (That view can be contested, of course – whether by the likes of Jim Sillars on, essentially, autonomy grounds, or by Angus Armstrong and Monique Ebell on economic ones, relating to the flexibility of economic policy instruments and the implications of a debt burden.)  But it is of marginal interest or benefit to rUK at best, poses a serious risk at worst, and concluding that the risks of it from an rUK point of view exceed the benefits is a reasonable judgement to come to.  This isn’t the only issue where iScotland has a strong interest in something of limited concern to rUK, either.  In bargaining situations, iScotland has got to have something convincing to offer to rUK – and other than staying in the UK, or the Clyde nuclear bases, it’s hard to see what that might be. Continue reading

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After a Scottish independence referendum Yes vote

There has been remarkably little public discussion of what would happen if there were a Yes vote in the Scottish independence referendum.  The widespread assumption seems to be that negotiations would be swift and straightforward, and Scotland would readily become an independent state.  The Scottish Government’s position (previously set out in the February 2013 paper Scotland’s Future: from the Referendum to Independence and a Written Constitution, but repeated in the independence white paper) remains that May 2016 would be when Scotland would become independent.  That is a very simplistic approach; negotiations would be complex, possibly protracted, and gravely complicated by the May 2015 UK general election.  Considerations about timing, and the impact of the referendum vote would affect the strength of the various negotiating positions, as well.

Nick Barber of Oxford University has now written an exceptionally good post about the implications of Yes vote.  I don’t wholly agree with it, but it should be read by anyone thinking seriously about these issues.  It can be found on the UK Constitutional Law Association’s blog, here.

In a separate but related development, the Lords Constitution Committee at Westminster has announced an inquiry into the implications of a Yes vote.  There’s news coverage from the BBC here, and details of the inquiry and its call for evidence here.  The closing date for submissions is 28 February 2014.

UPDATE, 27 January: There’s also a Lords debate on Thursday about ‘The implications for the UK of the forthcoming Scottish independence referendum’.  Details are here.

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Filed under Implications of Scottish independence, Referendums, Scotland, Scottish independence, SNP, UK elections, Westminster, Whitehall