There’s a rather curious piece in today’s Sunday Times by the UK’s only known living psephologist, the estimable Prof. John Curtice of Strathclyde University. In it he rather blows his cover of impartiality by framing his comments as an anti-SNP warning, but nevertheless raises an interesting point, while adding to the enormous pressure on the unfortunate Smith Commission.
It’s worth taking a moment to ponder the impossibility of its task.
It’s extremely difficult to imagine what possible satisfactory conclusion Lord Smith of Kelvin and his chums could arrive at during the few short weeks they have to ponder the conundrum of Scottish devolution. The government they ultimately answer to has set its heart on complete devolving of income tax, a position strenuously opposed by Scottish Labour for reasons we detailed before the referendum.
But Gordon Brown, the public face of “The Vow” and the only Labour politician even remotely trusted (for reasons which continue to bewilder us) by Scots in the context of more powers, couldn’t have come out much more strongly against that proposition, in so far as it can be said that the former PM has any sort of remotely coherent idea of what the new settlement should be. (Which is to say, not far at all.)
And the Commission’s conclusion will be delivered in the context of an imminent UK general election which could render its findings completely meaningless. If the Commission says “devolve 100% of income tax” and Labour wins the election, the chances of that decision being implemented are surely somewhere between microscopic to nil, given that it flies in the face of both Brown’s stated position and that of the party itself in its laughable “devo nano” document, which was supposedly Labour’s final, definitive settled will on the subject just six months ago.
If David Cameron retains the keys to 10 Downing Street, on the other hand, what sane person could believe that he’d choose to implement only partial devolution of the tax, given how desperately his party wants to shift it all north in order to reduce the voting power of Scottish MPs – especially in what would be very likely to be an extremely fragile coalition/minority administration?
Immediately, then, the Commission is – at best – a hostage to English electoral whims. More realistically, it’s simply a complete waste of time. Whoever wins in 2015 will do whatever they like with regard to Scottish devolution, and Lord Smith’s report will be consigned to the dustbin as swiftly as Lord Jenkins’ one on electoral reform was when Labour won in 1997, having solemnly promised to deliver on its findings.
The prospective devolution settlement, then, faces a massive problem of legitimacy. And attentive readers will of course already know that all three of the Westminster parties’ plans amount to a fiscal disaster for the Scottish Parliament, which would be forced into massive extra cuts or tax rises to fill the multi-billion pound black hole that would result from them.
The only solution to a lack of democratic legitimacy is the voice of the people. Professor Curtice’s suggestion is not only a political answer but Scotland’s only hope of averting economic catastrophe. To impose a damaging devolution settlement without the explicit approval of Scots would be a risky move which would only inflame nationalist sentiment, with a Holyrood election looming the following year.
(And indeed, it’d be interesting to see what appeared in the parties’ 2015 manifestos, since their desires seem to be fundamentally irreconcilable even before considering whether Lord Smith and his colleagues feel obliged to offer some sort of tokenistic concession to the SNP’s good-faith participation.)
And that second referendum campaign, with the 2014 Yes parties very likely to be campaigning for a No vote and the possibility of Labour having to join them, would be a pretty mess to watch unfold indeed.