Recently, the Scottish Parliament – better known as Holyrood – celebrated its tenth year of existence. Across the board, Scots are content that the establishment remains and the Conservatives have adjusted rather well to devolution in both Scotland and Wales – as the Conservatives’ topping the polls in Wales at the elections for the European Parliament showed.
Professor Kenneth Calman – a very highly respected, unaffiliated figure – chaired the Commission which was set up to redress the problems encountered in the first decade at Holyrood. The Commission made a strong case for Westminster taking some powers back, devolving some other powers away to Holyrood, and most definitely the case for closer co-operation rather than the ongoing petulance of both Labour and the Scottish Nationalists.
For just about everyone in the Union, the elephant in the room is the funding arrangements and the Barnett Formula. As a Conservative, I believe an organisation charged with the responsible job of representing the people has the responsibility to show it is spending the people’s money sensibly. My biggest criticism of the Scottish Parliament – one shared by others in the United Kingdom – is that the policies implemented by Members of the Scottish Parliament has no impact on the tax revenue received by them because it is supported by the UK-wide Treasury.
Likewise, there is no incentive to rejuvenate Scotland’s underperforming economy because that will not translate into a direct boost in tax revenue. The Economist once compared MSPs to ‘teenagers living on an allowance’ – a comparison I always found rather unfair on teenagers, because at least certain types of behaviour is expected from them for that allowance: nothing can be expected of MSPs for providing them with funds – the money must be handed over no matter what.
The Scottish Parliament, so far, has been good for the Scottish Conservative & Unionist Party. We are implementing our policies in Scotland for the first time in over a decade, and our leader Annabel Goldie commands fondness and respect across the political spectrum.
The key proposal coming forward from the Calman Commission’s report, released last Monday and discussed by Annabel and David Cameron on Tuesday, is to give Scotland the equivalent of only 10% of income tax to the Scottish Parliament from the UK Treasury, and then the Scottish Parliament must essentially deliver a proper budget to determine what the ‘top-up’ rate of income tax should be and that money comes direct to Holyrood. There are already tax-varying powers bestowed upon the Scottish Parliament, whereby the basic rate can be varied by 3%, but this has been totally shirked by successive administrations. Calman’s suggested improvement will force their hand and make them set a tax rate and become more fiscally responsible.
At long last, now the Conservative Party in Scotland will be all it can be. It can tackle opponents in debate on the issue of tax rates, make the case of efficiency and value for money, and of course enlighten their colleagues on the benefits of tax cuts.
I fear though that this will not quell the complaints of unfairness at the current constitutional settlement in England – issues such as the Barnett Formula and the West Lothian Question. As the Calman Report shows, the constitutional arrangement in the UK is still very much in a state of flux. Another thing that becomes apparent is that it will be down to a future Conservative government to implement any of Calman’s suggestions.
The Tories, should they form the next Westminster government, will be able to change the constitutional arrangements across the UK. There is the political risk that Conservatives changing the devolution settlement in Scotland will be attacked as morally ultra vires, unless there is a radical turnaround in our fortunes in Scotland and we win a majority of MPs in Scotland. A Conservative government would be virtually impervious from this type of attack if they stick to what Calman says, because that report has been endorsed by ourselves, the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats.
If the constitution is being tinkered around with yet again, why not just finish the job off and establish an English parliament too? It’s not for me to say – it’s for England to say, and David Cameron should take note of the Populus poll of 3rd May 2009 where a clear majority of England supported the idea rather than opposed it.
There would be many benefits all around the Union of such an institution being formed. From a totally Unionist point of view, we won’t need to redress the West Lothian Question and create essentially two different classes of MP, and avoid what will ultimately preclude any Ulsterman, Welshman or Scotsman from becoming Prime Minister again. The English would benefit from their issues being thrashed out in an election campaign unique to England, on issues relevant to England only, as the Welsh, Northern Irish and Scottish have. Likewise, Westminster elections would become relevant in full to the whole UK universally, rather than now where education, health and policing debates have no universal relevance. That is not a Parliament heading up a Union – the whole situation is untidy and gives the impression of unfinished business.
The Conservatives previously came up with suggestions to right the wrongs that afflict English constitutional affairs. By comparison, these look like a mere sticking plaster trying to keep the Union together whereas making a big, bold step such as creating a new English Parliament would allow the four nations to gel together again naturally.
The case was made for Scottish Devolution by portraying it as strengthening the Union. Those who made that case should have added a caveat – Devolution will only strengthen the Union if it is applied to every nation, and the longer we go on with Westminster as the de facto English Parliament, the longer we go on with the rot of resentment and misplaced umbrage.