The Tories have changed their stance on devolution dramatically over the last couple years. Having recently been firmly opposed to any further concessions to Holyrood, the Strathclyde Commission report released this week and backed by the Prime Minister commits the Tories to granting income taxation powers to Scotland, suggesting growing unease amongst the ‘No’ camp with the direction the referendum polls are headed. But is this commitment credible? James Mitchell reviews the report, writing that Strathclyde is not a serious study of devolved government but the facilitation of a major Tory U-turn.
In her campaign for the leadership of the Scottish Tories in 2011, Ruth Davidson promised to draw a ‘line in the sand’ on devolution. No more powers would be conceded to Holyrood. She set out to appeal to hard core unionists in her party. Within two years, she has completed a U-turn as remarkable as Ted Heath’s ‘Declaration of Perth’, when the late Tory leader committed his party to devolution in 1968.
The Scottish Daily Mail described this U-turn as the ‘most significant intervention in the referendum debate to date’. If the Tories were to deliver on this commitment, then the SNP would have achieved more than many imagined likely in the event of a NO vote and succeeded in overcoming the opposition they encountered when they had advocated a third option on the referendum ballot paper.
The U-turn reflects the growing unease amongst opponents of independence and was brought about by the well established mechanism of an enquiry headed by party grandee Lord Strathclyde. Strathclyde performed the same role following the loss of all Scottish Tory seats in 1997. On that occasion, his task was to examine party organization and resulted in changes in the election of leader and the selection of candidates for the Scottish Parliament. This latest Strathclyde Commission has taken fifteen months to report after a number of delays that appear to have owed more to getting a sense of where Scottish public opinion was heading than deep engagement with issues involved in reforming devolution.
The report is a very thin document but what it lacks in evidence, it more than makes up for in its core message. The Strathclyde Report offers a fairly crude and superficial analysis of existing government arrangements, especially compared with the Steel and Campbell Reports produced by the Liberal Democrats. It may not be an evidence based document but it is politically the most salient but its significance lies in what is proposed and by whom.
Much of the report is party political padding. Comments on the Holyrood committee system are ill-thought through. It dismisses in one sentence, without any explanation, the idea of having more Members of the Scottish Parliament but at least does not return to the Tory policy of reducing the size of Holyrood. This subject deserves more than the cursory assertions and anecdote offered in one page though this is at least better than the offering in the single paragraph on the civil service.
The three paragraphs on Inter-Parliamentary relations and recommendation of some Joint Liaison Committee of Holyrood and Westminster Parliaments is neither explained nor justified. The precise purpose of such meetings is something that Strathclyde and fellow Commission members have decided to keep to themselves.
The section on local government reminds us that the Scottish Tories have been marginalized at local level north of the border. There was a day when the Scottish Tories would never have set up a Commission such as this without inviting the participation of some well experienced local councillors. The understanding of local government here is superficial at best. They contrast elected police and fire commissioners in England with centralized policing accountable ‘directly to Alex Salmond’, refer to the Big Society, the Coalition’s City Deals but seem utterly unaware of the array of initiatives and debates taking place on localism across Scotland. They even manage to fail to make any reference to Our Islands Our Futures, one of the most significant developments during this referendum, or the work of the Commission on Local Democracy.
Where the report quotes from other documents it does so highly selectively. The Scottish Social Attitudes survey is called into defend opposition to devolving pensions but ignored when it does not suit the Strathclyde case. It becomes quite confused in its understanding of what it refers to as the ‘social union’, a very different use here of a term well established in Scottish political discourse since the 1970s. The Strathclyde understanding of a social union is really a welfare union and even then it is contradictory: the balance of uniformity and diversity is not really explained explained.
Perhaps most extraordinary is the absence of reference to the EU other than to suggest that VAT should be devolved but this is illegal under EU rules. That other referendum is entirely ignored yet the implications of UK withdrawal from the EU is arguably far more significant than the withdrawal of Scotland from the UK. Strathclyde is unclear as to whether VAT will be devolved in the event of the UK leaving the EU and offers no clue as to how devolved government would be affected by withdrawal from the EU.
The brief concluding comment that there is need to consider the constitution as a whole is good advice ignored in the report other than the brief homily critical of constitutional silos, reference to the West Lothian Question and the call for a committee of all Parliaments and Assemblies (without a purpose). This document is a classic example of the constitutional silo mentality that intrigues those from outside the UK. Is there no relationship between devolved government and the reform of the Upper House, between devolution and prospective changes in human rights occasionally raised by senior Tories to name but two issues?
The document’s significance lies elsewhere. In essence, Strathclyde is not a serious study of devolved government but the facilitation of a major Tory U-turn. Its essence is to be found in one sentence – the rest of the document is padding. But that one sentence is potentially very significant: ‘the Scottish Parliament should be responsible for setting the rates and bands of personal income tax in Scotland.’ There is much assertion in the three short pages on taxation and much is poorly argued. But this document will ultimately not be measured in terms of the sophistication of its arguments or the evidence it produces to back these (it would hardly merit comment if it was) but the fact that it contains a significant U-turn.
The real question – indeed the only question – is whether this commitment is credible. Ted Heath’s ‘Declaration of Perth’ was his response to the SNP’s victory in the Hamilton by-election the previous year. Strathclyde is the response to the SNP’s election victory in 2011, the referendum and evidence of growing support for independence. When Heath became Prime Minister three years after his Declaration and the SNP threat appeared to have waned, Heath simply dropped the commitment. The only significant question that follows from the publication of the Strathclyde Commission report is whether a Tory Prime Minister will repeat Heath’s double U-turn or not.
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James Mitchell is Professor of Public Policy at the School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh