On Thursday, the Smith Commission on further powers to the Scottish Parliament will report. Led by Lord Smith of Kelvin, the Commission comprises two representatives from each of the five parties in the Scottish Parliament: Labour, the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the Scottish Nationalists.
The Commission’s ambition, which it has in common with every tranche of devolution since 1997, is to secure a stable and sustainable constitutional settlement for Scotland within the Union. It has taken submissions from all five parties plus hundreds of outside groups, all of which can be found on its website.
Naturally, it will be impossible to find a solution that completely satisfies everyone. Indeed Labour have put about rumours that the SNP plan to storm from the Commission in a fit of pique, although this seems unlikely. Nonetheless, an examination of the initial party proposals suggests which areas will form the basis of a compromise arrangement.
With the exception of Labour (ironically the most devo-sceptic of the five), all parties support the full devolution of income tax and air passenger duty to Holyrood. All parties save the Liberal Democrats also supported the devolution of housing benefit, although since the process began the Lib Dems have u-turned on the issue of welfare.
Due to being inside the European Union, it is not legally possible to devolve VAT, although both the separatist parties and the Conservatives supported giving the Scottish Parliament some return from Scottish sales tax receipts.
Areas of conflict are equally clear. The Unionist parties are keen to maintain a pan-UK universal welfare system, and thus oppose the devolution of subjects such as pensions and national insurance. With the partial exception of the Lib Dems they also oppose the devolution of corporation tax, which the Conservatives claim is too low-profile, low-yield and legally complex to make devolution worthwhile.
Meanwhile the separatists, in particular the SNP, call for the devolution of everything they can lay their hands on with the exception of matters such as the currency, whilst Labour are markedly less keen than either the Conservatives or Liberal Democrats to devolve taxes and risk intra-British tax competition.
Yet will any compromise, no matter how painful to some parties, actually stabilise the constitutional situation? That is less certain.
During the campaign it was made clear, not least by the SNP, that the referendum was a “once in a generation” event. It is now increasingly clear that the Nationalists plan to push for another referendum at some point in the next four years. Despite the clear mandate received by the Union in September, Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie has claimed that Westminster will be “duty bound” to legislate for a second referendum if Scotland backs the nationalists in another election.
Happily some unionists have shown a touch more steel: Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael has attacked the suggestion that “people were too stupid to get the answer right first time”, whilst Jack Straw has proposed (£) shoring up the Union’s legal position, because: “You can’t pull a living plant up by the roots again and again, and expect it to survive.”
The lesson of the story of devolution since 1998 is that no building or institution, and no particular configuration of powers, will of themselves stop the Nationalists from trying to break up the UK. Having finally won a 10.5 point mandate for the Union in a referendum, unionists must discover the strength of will to imbue the Smith Commission’s proposals with longevity and strength. That means saying ‘No’ to the SNP – for a generation.