Sunday, 7 December 2014

The Smith Commission and referendum romanticism

It is time to get over the passion and rhetoric about the Smith Commission and get down to looking at what each power – and all the powers collectively – will bring in the way of control and, critically, responsibilities.

That needs to start by asking what we need the power for. Do we want to control corporation tax just to cut it? Do we want to control income tax so that we can leave it alone just as we have since 1999? Do we want fairer local government funding that boosts local democracy or centralised control to avoid the vexed question of the council tax? Do we just want the powers - and the risks that also go with them - without a progressive vision of what to do with them?

The Smith Commission was always going to be a compromise. With a country split 45/55 in the referendum that was always going to be the case. Unlike the consensus that came out of the constitutional convention that led to the parliament in the first place, there is no ‘settled will of the Scottish people’. Despite all the referendum romanticism, there was no consensus and too much polarisation in the campaign for that.

Smith has not delivered all that UNISON would like. It has delivered more than some would like and less than others would like. But that is the nature of Scotland now. People who think there is a consensus are probably only speaking to people who agree with them. All the campaigns must realise they do not have a monopoly on speaking for the people of Scotland.

And as for the pyro-nationalists burning the Smith Report, it displays the supreme arrogance of believing everyone thinks like you. With a 45/55 split, what possessed them to think they wouldn’t have pissed off at least half of the electorate as well as a good number in their own ranks?

Accusing Brown (wrongly by the way) of being a liar, saying Yes voters were duped by the NHS fib (though it was an issue for 54% of Yes voters but the biggest issue was disaffection with Westminster) or No voters were tricked by Westminster (81% had made up their mind a month before and two-thirds of voters who decided in the final days actually opted for independence) takes the debate forward not a jot. The fact is the majority of polls hardly changed at all from 9-18 September and the ‘vow’ was made on 15 September. The vote on both sides was far more embedded than at first appeared and that must not be ignored in the discussions on future powers.

I would have liked more from Smith but not much more. In these situations we always need to be wary of the unintended consequences of any of the powers. There is no point in powers that give all the risks and disadvantages with none of the advantages of economy of scale of still being in the UK.

Of course if I get what I want, it means someone else who doesn’t agree is going to be well grumped. That doesn’t matter much when there is a plurality because we can work things out. But when there is the level of polarisation we have, that can end up being a bit dodgy.

Home rule and devo-max have become widely used terms but it is hard to find many people who agree or even know what each of them means. So the debate gets even more complex.

The fact is that Scotland is not an independent country. Trying to achieve quasi-independence through the back-door by winning lots of powers for power’s sake would show a wee bit disrespect for the result of the widely-hailed democratic outpouring on 18 September. The way you hear things portrayed, you would be forgiven for thinking only the minority side of the vote was part of the democratic outpouring.

The Smith proposals have been negotiated with political parties representing the various branches of political opinion in the country. But they are just political parties. If there really has been a democratic outpouring, then these proposals must be subject to wider debate outwith that bubble. Whether that wider debate can now happen as things go through the Westminister process is unclear to say the least.

If a wider debate can take place, it will need to cast aside the polarised positions that have developed and move more towards consensus. The trade union role needs to focus sharply on what we want the powers for and how we would like to see them used in practice. It also needs to really challenge others to say what they would use the powers to do.

As always, the task is to get things focussed back on challenging austerity and creating social justice. With one of the pyro-nationalists opposing using income tax powers, an official SNP position of cutting corporation tax, the well known Con Dem drive for more austerity and Labour yet to throw off the UK party’s austerity-lite vision, there is much more to be done there than the referendum romanticists would have you think.

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