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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