16 Sep 2014

The devolution offer – what’s it worth?

I’ve been in Clydebank for Gordon Brown’s last big intervention of the campaign. But what is the firmness of the pledge he talked about last night and which had the three pro-union party leaders’ signatures attached to it on the front of today’s Daily Record?

Overnight, the longstanding Tory resistance to the Barnett formula, which many Conservatives argue has been generous to Scotland at the expense of England, appears to have folded. The official position had already shifted over the summer from “this needs looking at” to “no plans to change.” Now, according to the declaration on the Daily Record front page, it is a firm pledge not to change.

Some Scots will take a bit of convincing that pledge will hold good for far beyond Thursday (assuming a no). Better Together is adamant it will. Depending on new tax-raising powers devolved to Scotland, the Barnett formula’s impact diminishes, it is a percentage of a smaller cake.

Some Scots may also wonder whether the Tories are cooking up a way of disqualifying Scots MPs from votes on matters that affect only England as the quid pro quo for more devolution. I mentioned yesterday one source close to David Cameron who says that’s exactly what is being pondered in a flurry of activity in Whitehall this week.

I asked Gordon Brown after his speech whether he wasn’t selling Scots a bit of a pig in a poke? Could he guarantee the percentage of taxation that would be raised in Scotland under devolution? Would it be 30, 40, 50 per cent?

He insisted that was the wrong way to think of it and what mattered was the UK commitment to social justice. I said that after a long campaign with the yes side making a lot of headway, a lot of Scots now see things through the percentage prism. I think he well knows that but insisted again it was the wrong way to look at it all.

Could he guarantee that the new devolution package would keep Scots MPs voting on English matters? Had he tried and failed to get David Cameron to sign a pledge to that effect? Gordon Brown is convinced that the Scots Tories won’t let David Cameron dilute the role of Scottish MPs at Westminster. Others are less convinced and everyone on the no side wants to define the debate narrowly and then move on.

We are again dealing with the consequences of the no camp coming late to the alternative offer they thought they could put off until after the referendum.

That said, you find voters in the undecided category who’ve heard the promises and are glad to have something to help them argue a no vote to themselves.

When Lord Strathclyde’s big offer on devolution was published earlier this year on behalf of the Tories, it carefully side-stepped the entire issue of whether Scots MPs would lose some voting powers in Westminster, focusing instead on the “goodies”. One source closely involved in that document told me they were rather keeping that bit of the plan up their sleeve until after the referendum.

But we may have got a glimpse up the magician’s sleeve yesterday when David Cameron praised the McKay report of March 2013 (in a BBC interview). That report spoke of how Westminster votes with a “separate and distinct effect” on England should “normally” require consent by a majority of English MPs.

Some Tories openly wonder whether such an arrangement would mean they could challenge the legitimacy of a Labour government dependent for its majority on Scottish MPs. Rubbish, say Labour sources, the Tories would be playing with fire having just run out of a burning house.

They need Labour’s endorsement to sort out the next phase of devolution and Labour’s not going near the idea of reducing the status or involvement of Scottish MPs in Westminster.

What this all points to is the haste with which the Daily Record pledge has been put together and the giant in-tray that leaves even if the no camp win on Thursday.

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6 reader comments

  1. Martin Wood says:

    Set the offer in contrast with the Prime ministers questions taken by William Hague as the Three Amigos arrived in Scotland.
    He was challenged directly by an MP who reminded him that the current position of the UK government was “no additional powers” for Scotland.
    The MP continued to ask if the official position of the current government had changed in light of the offer of additional powers from Clegg, Cameron and Miliband.
    William Hague replied that these statements are only comments made in a referendum campaign and do not reflect a change in the governments position.
    Essentially showing that the “New Powers” are no more than a figment of imagination and as trustworthy as Clegg’s commitment to “no student fees”.

  2. CWH says:

    The devolution offer is not worth the paper it is [NOT] written on.

    Many years ago in the run-up to the 1984 (?) election I heard Michael Foot being interviewed on the Jimmy Young Show. At the time Labour’s big idea for winning the election was the Social Contract which was argued would bring an end to industrial unrest. A listener phoned in and asked Mr Foot if he would send her a copy of the Social Contract. Cue SILENCE.

    This is just such a moment.

    1. Andrew Dundas says:

      As I recall, CWH, the big issue at the 1984 election was the sheer number of different promises made in Labour’s voluminous Manifesto. But nothing quite so huge as the 640 page paperback issued by the SNP last November. They’re almost all fairy tales.

  3. Andrew Dundas says:

    The Barnett formula assigns slightly more than average government funding to Scotland for domestic services from education to police. The extra reflects the standard additional sums needed to pay the much higher costs arising from such a vast rural area.
    High wage cost areas such as central London also receive extra funding, as do districts within England & Wales that suffer exceptional deprivation. In short area allocations are meant to reflect local needs.
    A major part of Scotland’s difficulties arises because it is so far distant from the wealthiest areas of Europe, and because its low birth & falling death rates has left us with rapidly growing numbers of pensioners and not enough people of working age.
    None of these strategic issues has informed any referendum campaigns. Mostly because electors complain that they don’t take account of the windfall of ‘Scotland’s oil’.
    It’s yet another example of the well-known Curse of Oil that creates political division wherever that black stuff is discovered.

  4. Philip Edwards says:

    Gary,

    It’s worth as much as the other Cleggy promise to halt the prospect of education charges.

    That is, not at all.

  5. Alastair says:

    We maybe need to bear in mind that they have been sailing very close to the wind in relation to the 28-day purdah period, during which no new announcements likely to influence voters can be made. I suspect that’s why Alistair Carmichael (a lawyer) was so quick to deny that Osborne’s mutterings amounted to anything new, and why they’ve been talking in terms of timetables rather than substance. It may also explain the choreography in which Brown (not in Government or the formal BT) and thus probably outside purdah) has been chosen to launch stuff with which DC, AD, AC and the rest can then indicate sympathy.

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