Scotland Bill fulfils The Vow but not promises of home rule

Substantial new powers are coming to Scotland. This fact no Nationalist demagogue can inveigh away.

The Scotland Bill, approved by the Commons on Monday night, means Holyrood’s permanence will be enshrined in the constitution and MSPs will get the power to set income tax rates and bands, as well as significant welfare powers and control over abortion.

I was a Vow sceptic but I concede that the Bill makes good on the cautiously-worded pledge that appeared on the Daily Record’s front page two days before the referendum.

These are not powers Westminster politicians wanted to part with. They were dragged kicking and screaming by the Record and its editor Murray Foote. That is in the very best tradition of campaigning tabloid journalism but it doesn’t speak well of our leaders’ ambition for a modern, evolving constitution.

The Nationalists have since reified The Vow, as though Runnymede offered up a second charter seven centuries later, but it is merely a tactic to stoke anger. The SNP are ninth-dan black belts in grievance. If Westminster found a cure for the common cold, they would complain it was putting hard-working Scottish pharmacists out of business.

At the time, the Nats said The Vow was worthless; now they complain it’s not being kept. Nationalism means never having to be consistent.

Nevertheless, this wide-ranging slate of new powers takes on the blanch of anaemia when compared to the grandiloquent oratory of Gordon Brown. The Labour elder statesman, heralded as the saviour of the UK time and time and time again, was the guarantor of the No campaign’s compact with the voters.

I was there. I remember the panicked final weeks as the polls narrowed and narrowed. I recall, of course, the frustrated grumbles about Brown’s maverick behaviour but they were drowned in sighs of relief every time he “broke his silence”.

Gordon speaks to Labour voters.

Brown is a big beast; they’ll listen to him.

Thank God for Gordon.

And it wasn’t just Labour people who trumpeted the son of the manse.

Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson lustily applauded the former Labour prime minister when he quoted Karl Marx in his eve of referendum speech. “From each according to his ability to contribute,” he told pro-Union activists, “to each according to his needs.”

The Daily Mail waxed lyrical about the same address, praising the rallying call for progressive politics and wealth redistribution as “extraordinary”, “passionate, heart-felt” and “the speech of the referendum campaign”.

Brown deserved many of these tributes. His interventions were powerful and eloquent, coming (late) to the defence of Britain’s historic achievements and the virtues of cross-border solidarity. But loose cannons still fire and Brown, Better Together’s semi-official negotiator with undecided voters, make a series of undertakings about the devolution settlement in the event of a No vote.

A Scotland which rejected separatism would enjoy “nothing less than a modern form of Scottish Home Rule”, something “quite close to something near to federalism” (a bit auntie’s-granny’s-sister’s-budgerigar but you knew what he was getting at).

“The United Kingdom,” he confidently announced, “will move as close to federalism as we can go in a country where one nation accounts for 80% of the population.”

Perhaps he wasn’t licensed to enter into such commitments but enter into them he did and the Unionist parties, which profited from his gravitas and special connection with the Scottish people, had a duty to follow through.

This they have failed to do. I suspect they never intended to. The Vow has been delivered but a deeper, more heartfelt oath has not.

And so while new powers are to be welcomed, we must take note of those that remain reserved. Scotland will have to go along with the Trade Union Bill because industrial relations law will stay at Westminster. So too will broadcasting, the minimum wage, equal opportunities legislation, the rail network, and full oversight of the Crown Estate.

Holyrood can be trusted to mitigate Tory tax credit cuts but not to administer tax credits in the first place. (Labour, which has spent the past week demanding the Scottish Government top up slashed incomes, voted against devolving tax credits. This is because they believe in “pooling and sharing resources” but the strategic nuances will pass many voters by.)

Yes, the SNP’s only real purpose is the break-up of the United Kingdom.

Yes, they stir resentment and animus to achieve this.

Yes, the Scottish Government should start using the powers it has and the powers coming to it or make way for an administration that will.

But when the Nationalists charge that the Scotland Bill falls short of assurances made, they are not just spinning a line — they have a point.

Tommy Sheppard, with a touch of the Bond villain, warned the Commons: “This isn’t over; we will be coming back again and again to argue for more powers for Scotland.”

Who will say they are wrong to do so?

Federalism — real home rule — represented the only long-term future for the United Kingdom. All that is left to the Unionist cause now are economics and another tug on the heartstrings of ’45 and Blitz Spirit. That might be enough to scrape through another vote — I suspect it won’t be — but it is constitutionally barren.

The Scotland Bill is neither triumph nor travesty; it is just there, a paper monument to political legerdemain, a legislative tribute to intellectual modesty. The Scottish lion roared and this is the Westminster mouse’s squeak in response.

Originally published on STV News. Feature image © Ad Meskens / Wikimedia Commons.

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