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Henry Hill is a British Conservative and Unionist activist and writer. Follow Henry on Twitter. He is also editor of the non-party website Open Unionism, which can be followed on Twitter here.

Child-care battle sees SNP voting down its own policies

It is one of the more absurd facets of the current referendum debate that it has boiled down to vicious firefights over the smallest areas of policy. On the Spectator site Alex Massie sums up nicely how two in particular – higher education and childcare funding – have tripped the First Minister.

The SNP’s determination to maintain the (already disgraceful) situation wherein British students from outside Scotland are charged for attending Scottish universities when other EU students are not, even if the loophole is closed (by independence) and the rUK becomes just another EU country – is almost certainly illegal. The idea that the EU would allow Scotland to continue to persecute UK students, contrary to EU law, on the grounds that “we’ve always done it this way” is absurd.

Yet the posturing is useful in that it gives a clear indication of the real value the party places on the so-called ‘social union’. This idea – that Scotland and Scots will remain British after independence, as if constitutional separation were simply a technicality – has been pitched by leading elements of the Yes campaign in an attempt to win round wavering voters and neutralise the identity angle. But actions are what count, and when you exploit a loophole to penalise other British students, and pledge to continue to do so even when your own actions are going to close that loophole, pretty talk about cherishing links with the rest of the country is put into perspective rather.

If that wasn’t enough, the SNP have snared themselves over their childcare proposals. These were unveiled as part of the party’s White Paper which, at least according to them, is what the Scottish people will be endorsing in September if they vote ‘Yes’ in a referendum on an unrelated question drawn up long before the White Paper was published and championed by a ‘broad’, ‘non-party’ (*ahem*) campaign.

Soon after this was announced, however, unionists pounced on a major flaw in the plan. Not the aforementioned fact that the referendum has nothing to do with specific policies beyond ‘in or out’ – several were busily claiming a ‘No’ vote for their own ends – but the fact that the Scottish Parliament already had all the powers it needed to pass the childcare measures the SNP were proposing.

The SNP response, so far as I can determine, was that there was no point passing this measure to get Scottish women back into work and boost the Scottish economy because within the Union the rest of the UK might see some of the benefits. Unpersuaded by this, the unionists decided to prove the point and bring the SNP’s own legislation before parliament. Whereupon, surreally, the Nationalist MSPs voted it down.

This development is interesting not only because of the impact it might have on the near future of the Yes campaign – it is hard to build a campaign around policies you voted against – but because it represents a further suborning of politics to the referendum.

One of the creditable features of the Nationalist effort to date has been that, possibly due to wariness over ‘YeSNP’ jibes, the administration in Edinburgh has largely got on with the job it was elected to perform, leaving the business of campaigning to a few key figures backed up by the local (British) Civil Service. The idea of treating the big, one-off question as distinct from the normal business of government was a good one, even if it was improbable in the long run.

But with the White Paper dragging policy into the heart of the debate, the Scottish government are now in the position of having to deliberately block solutions they proposed to problems they identified. How often is that going to happen over the coming months as unionists trawl the White Paper looking for mischief – and how much damage might it do to the SNPs undoubted credibility as a dependable party of government?

Welsh economist accuses Westminster of unfairly chancing Welsh tax powers on ‘highly losable’ referendum

Gerald Holtham, an economist and advisor to the Welsh government, has told MPs on the Welsh Affairs Select Committee that the UK is treating Welsh devolution unfairly, both by limiting the powers available to Welsh politicians and requiring that the people of Wales endorse the transfer of those powers – which, Holtham grimly warns, they might not.

His solution appear to be thus: willingness to examine a different devolution arrangement to that of Scotland; the UK offering to “guarantee Welsh spending” to mitigate the potential downsides of tax devolution and, by implication, no unjust referendum stipulation.

On the first two, one would hope that those issues will fall under the remit of the pan-UK constitutional settlement we so desperately need after the Scottish referendum is resolved, one way or the other. Off the top of my head it seems hard to justify using the UK treasury to spare Welsh politicians the tough choices that come with tax responsibilities, but they and Holtham can make their case to the convention. Likewise with whatever ideas they have for a different pattern of devolved powers.

The third is harder to justify. It is surely ridiculous to claim that forcing Welsh politicians to ask the Welsh people for more powers is unfair on the grounds that the Welsh people might decline them. The fact that public opinion on the subject of tax devolution is split down the middle must be uncomfortable for a Welsh political class almost unanimously in favour of it, but asking them to confront that does not constitute an injustice.

Indeed, the fact that the referendum is “highly losable” is probably the most powerful argument in favour of holding one. I pointed out a couple of weeks ago how divorced the Cardiff consensus seemed from genuine Welsh public opinion, but so far the only political party to take the “let’s not ask them” way out has been Plaid. Counter-devolutionaries should start sharpening their axes – this could be the closest fight since 1998.

Holtham says: “So you’re asking them to fight a losable referendum for a tax power they can’t use.” They ‘can’t use’ the proposed tax powers – which fix the Welsh tax bands in relation to each other so they can only be altered en bloc – because raising the top rate might adversely impact on Welsh public finances by driving the wealthy out of the province. Which suggests the Welsh government wants the freedom to raise lower bands on their own – which might explain why that referendum is looking so losable.

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