Pain is a powerful motivator. The experience of a hangover or a toothache instils a firm resolve in the sufferer to quit the bad habits that caused the condition. But when the pain subsides so does the resolve. The vow to never drink another drop or consume another plateful is soon forgotten.
In his column for the Financial Times (available here on his blog), John Kay’s subject is another vow that was made in a time of crisis:
“In the panic engendered by opinion polls that showed the referendum on Scottish independence would be a close-run thing, politicians of all the main UK parties made a ‘vow’ to give Scotland greater autonomy if self-rule was rejected.”
With Westminster politicians currently more concerned with events in Kent, further devolution to Scotland hasn’t exactly been forgotten, but it is in the same category as, say, flood defences – i.e. ‘issues that we were all desperately concerned with at the time, but don’t seem so urgent now.’
It’s not that nothing is being done:
“…the task of delivering this promise of more devolution was delegated to the businessman Lord Smith of Kelvin, with a deadline to report by the end of this month.”
But does this or any similar process have a hope of assuaging Scottish discontent? John Kay has his doubts. For instance, if the devolution package is centred around further control of tax rates, one has to question its relevance when Scotland has yet to use the tax varying powers it’s had since 1999:
“When the UK government embarked on a spending spree from 2000 to 2006 – during these years public expenditure in Scotland increased by almost 50 per cent in real terms – it might have been a sensible decision to cut income tax instead…
“Despite continuous complaint about centrally imposed austerity in the years that followed, the possibility of raising extra revenue through additional income tax to make such ‘cuts’ unnecessary has not been debated.”
The demand for greater devolution, if not outright independence, is a genuine one – but John Kay is surely right when it comes to the underlying motivations:
“…within the context of a United Kingdom, the demand is for policies that are different from those in England only to the extent that they are more generous. The real demand from Scots is not really for more powers but for more money to spend on powers which in large part the Scottish government already has.”
It’s notable that the YES side in the referendum made the most progress in Labour’s Scottish heartlands, where the SNP is now on a roll.
Even if Kay is overstating the extent of existing devolution, no amount of further devolution is going to satisfy the SNP’s new supporters if they still end up with austerity – which is why the fight for the Union is only just beginning.
As we all know, most of the cuts required to eliminate the deficit have yet to be made. Therefore, after the next election, two scenarios present themselves. The first is a Conservative-led government imposing cuts on the whole of the UK from Westminster – which is grist to the SNP mill. The second is a Labour-led government doing much the same – unless their coalition partners stop them from doing so.
Who might those coalition partners be? If they include a sizeable contingent of SNP MPs (either in formal coalition or some kind of propping-up arrangement) then Ed Miliband would find himself under maximum pressure to minimise the impact of austerity through additional borrowing and taxation (and by favouring cuts that don’t effect Scotland). Most likely it will be England – and especially London and South East – that pays the price. Needless to say, this will strain the tensions of the Barnett Formula and the West Lothian Question to breaking point.
The United Kingdom survived the independence referendum; whether it can survive austerity is another matter.