Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Submission to the Smith Commission

Lord Smith of Kelvin has been tasked with overseeing the process of devolving further powers to the Scottish Parliament.  As part of this process, the Smith Commission has launched a public consultation asking for representation from the general public, as well as political parties.  This is my submission.

I am writing to contribute my thoughts to the Smith Commission.  I am writing in a personal capacity, as a long-term resident of Scotland.  Although I was born in another part of the UK, I consider Scotland my home, have made my life here and intend to remain here, probably for the rest of it.

My proposals start from the point that the maximum amount of power and authority should be divested from Westminster to Scotland.  In an ideal world, the UK Government would cede control of everything but border control and defence of the Realm to Holyrood, so that our Parliament would make the decisions for Scotland.  In practice, I accept that this won’t happen, and that only lesser powers will be transferred, but everything below should be seen in the context that I would like to see the Scottish Parliament in control of as much as possible.

Scotland has a strong national identity, its people often identify as Scottish before British.  Having its own Parliament having the powers that affect its people would continue the political engagement that has been evident throughout the Referendum.  Westminster feels distant and unaccountable, whereas Holyrood is much closer and, through the constituency + list election system, is seen as much more representative of the people of Scotland, than the UK Parliament at Westminster.

I strongly feel that social justice powers need to be part of the package as well as financial powers.  If Scotland is able to raise its own taxes, it must be free to spend them as it sees fit.  The status quo, even with additional powers provided in the Scotland Act 2012 is not sufficient.  These provide for some control over tax, but the ability to set income tax bands independently, and possibly create new bands, should be considered.

As I say, social security powers need to be devolved to Scotland, as well as tax powers.  If the Scottish Parliament wishes, for example, to abolish the bedroom tax, it should be within its remit to do so.  There is precedent for different parts of the UK to have wildly differing social policies already, for example abortion is still mostly illegal in Northern Ireland, and equal marriage has proceeded at different paces, with differing details, in different parts of the UK.  Why should welfare and social security be any different?  If more generous welfare encourages more people to move to Scotland, then I consider this to be an advantage, as we’ve had a shrinking or mostly static population for many years.

The advantages to Scotland of the devolution of the maximum amount of power is obvious.  The Holyrood Parliament is closer to the problems of Scotland and can focus more upon them, rather than having to try and spread its focus upon the whole country, with its eye always being drawn back to London and the South East of England.  The advantage to the UK as a whole are perhaps more nebulous, but Holyrood could be a model on how to distribute power to the nations and regions of the UK.  Also, with Scotland raising its own taxes and dealing with its own spending, it may help to deal with some of the resentment that seems to be building, especially amongst the English, of perceived ‘scrounging’.

Disadvantages to devo max would, as far as I can see, mostly fall on the UK Parliament, or the UK as a state, rather than to Scotland.  Firstly, there is the diminution of of the status and power of the Westminster Parliament, and nobody in power wants to give it up.  This is a minor point, but one that may stick in the craws of MPs.

Further, with Scotland controlling its own tax, spending and social powers, some of the ‘social union’ between Scotland and the rest of the UK may be diminished.  Already, I often ignore items in the news because they apply only to England.  As there is more devolution of power, unless it is carefully balanced by the media, some disinterest, or even resentment, may occur.

I feel that this could be best controlled by further devolution in the other nations of the UK and to the English regions.  If England is too big to act as a single unit in a potential federation, as some constitutional experts are suggesting, then smaller units are the obvious solution.  This has the advantage of bringing democracy closer to the people: they may feel, as I do when voting in a Scottish election, that voting in such an election actually causes changes in the way they are governed, as opposed to the current situation where the further you are from London, the less that you feel that you matter.

This has the corollary of suggesting that Westminster will matter less, that it should have less power, and be restricted to debating matters that affect only the Union as a whole.  Correspondingly, it seems logical to suggest that the size of the Westminster Parliament should be reduced proportionally.

I certainly believe that the advantages of devo max for Scotland outweigh the disadvantages, especially if stronger powers are rolled out further, to the other nations and regions of the UK, although I strongly feel that argument over powers for the English regions and the West Lothian Question should not be allowed to hold up the transfer of powers to Scotland.

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