If Scotland rejects independence, further devolution will be needed to preserve the United Kingdom, writes John Lindberg
The 18th of September will be a historic day, regardless of the outcome in the referendum on Scottish independence. One thing has become clear: If Scots reject the utopia promised by Alex Salmond and the Yes-campaign, change will be required. The status quo has become untenable, and if the unionist side wishes to secure Scotland’s long-term membership of the United Kingdom, further devolution is a necessary step.
There is a historic precedence for this to be found on the other side of the Atlantic. For many years the predominately French-speaking part of Canada, Quebec, expressed wishes for independence. This eventually led to a referendum on the issue in 1980, a referendum that was won by the political parties that were in favour of Quebec remaining a part of Canada. The final result was 60% to 40% in favour of staying. Further devolution to Quebec was promised.
However, this turned out to be an empty promise and no further powers were delivered to the National Assembly in Quebec City. Fifteen years later, in 1995, a second referendum was held. Whilst the outcome was still in favour of remaining a part of Canada, the gap had shrunk from roughly 20% to 1.16%. This was a very close call for the pro-Canadian side of the argument and further devolution was promptly delivered subsequently. Ever since, independence has disappeared from mainstream politics in Quebec.
If we want to avert a similar development in Scotland, it is essential that further devolution is delivered as promised. All of the unionist parties in Westminster have agreed upon the need for further devolution following a ‘no’ vote on September 18. However, if any further devolution settlement is not negotiated very carefully, then two wholly undesirable consequences will inevitably lurk in the background.
The first of these is independence by the back door; the second is Scotland ending up with significantly higher tax rates than the rest of the United Kingdom.
It is, however, particularly hard for Alastair Darling to set out a detailed devolution programme when grilled on the issue by the First Minister. The Better Together campaign was never intended to function as an all-party group charged with bringing about further devolution in Scotland. Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour politicians are bound to have different ideas on what the best way forward would be.
In recent weeks, prominent politicians (not least the Mayor of London Boris Johnson), have stated their opposition to any further transfer of powers to Holyrood from Westminster. For Westminster simply to refuse to recognise the desire of Scots for further devolution would be politically unwise, especially if we use the Quebecois case study. The vast majority of Scottish Social Attitude surveys and opinion polls have consistently shown that a majority (57% in relation to welfare, 59% in relation to taxation) of Scots questioned support and desire greater powers for the Scottish Parliament.
Many prominent politicians, such as former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, have expressed a desire for welfare policies to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament, as this would allow it to mitigate the effects of unwanted Westminster policies, such as the imposition of the so-called ‘bedroom tax’ (spare room subsidy).
In order to fund these newly gained powers, the Scottish Government would have two options: either to increase tax or to reduce funding elsewhere. It is essential that the UK Government, through the new devolution legislation, ensures that the Scottish Parliament becomes accountable for the money it spends. This would ensure that the current system, which is wholly untenable and which allows the Scottish Government to overspend and to run up a deficit with impunity, would be dismantled.
However, if further powers in areas such as welfare were devolved, in addition to the tax-raising powers which would necessarily accompany them, dark clouds would soon amass on the horizon. In particular, if welfare was to be fully devolved to the Scottish Parliament and MSPs kept their promise to revoke all welfare cuts, taxes would inevitably have to rise further in order to fund this extensive welfare programme.
It is likely to assume that, in such an event, a significant tax gap between Scotland and the rest of the UK would emerge. What would then stop people from leaving Scotland and relocating to, for instance, Carlisle and commuting to work in Glasgow for tax purposes?
This could well threaten the very existence of our United Kingdom, as these forces are likely to create rifts between Scotland and the other parts of the UK, thus threatening the very successful monetary union that the UK represents. For these reasons it become even more important to act with great care when the main parties in Holyrood and Westminster sit down to discuss the new settlement for Scotland.
One way to avoid creating these rifts would be to partially devolve welfare with accompanying tax-rising powers. The UK Government would set a minimum level of entitlement that would apply throughout the UK. The Scottish Government would subsequently have the powers to ‘top-up’, thus increasing the levels of entitlement.
Bringing back tax on the political agenda in Scotland is also likely to further detoxify the Scottish Conservative Party when the Scottish Parliament must pay for the policies it is enacting. As current policies, such as free higher education and free subscriptions, are expensive, taxes are likely to increase to fully fund them. It is then up to the Scottish people to decide whether they want to continue having these very generous policies, or continue to pay a tax that compared with European standards is low.
In short and in light of recent polls showing a closing of the gap between Yes and No, the years to come in Scotland will be marked of charge, regardless of the outcome. If independence is rejected, further devolution will have to be delivered to the Scottish Parliament, for the sake of the survival of the United Kingdom. If not, we will be the witnesses of the slow death of the most successful of Unions throughout the history of mankind.
All views expressed in this article are John’s own, and were contributed in a personal capacity.