More options develop for devolution

2 Mar 12
First Minister Alex Salmond’s ​​independence referendum is only one of several possible routes to Scottish constitutional change, according to the chair of the think-tank behind the ‘devo-plus’ option.
By Keith Aitken in Edinburgh | 2 March 2012

First Minister Alex Salmond’s independence referendum is only one of several possible routes to Scottish constitutional change, according to the chair of the think-tank behind the ‘devo-plus’ option.

In an interview with Public Finance,  Ben Thomson of Reform Scotland said that consultations being held between Edinburgh and London governments, Sir Menzies Campbell’s policy review for the Liberal Democrats, and the recently launched civic coalition, Future of Scotland, could all provide conduits to a negotiated constitutional settlement.

‘There are lots of different ways you could arrive at a new structure in Scotland- that don’t involve the referendum,’ Thomson said.

He suggested that the Scotland Bill, currently before Westminster, be turned into an enabling Bill rather than enacted in its present form, which gives Holyrood control over income tax above the first ten pence of the basic rate.

The Scotland Bill, based on the recommendations of the Commission on Scottish Devolution, chaired by Sir Kenneth Calman, is regarded by some as having been overtaken by events. But Thomson sees it differently. ‘It could easily be turned into an enabling Bill. You would then reach mutual agreement between the two Parliaments about which taxes could be devolved,’ he said.

‘You also have the possibility of one or two referendums. You could have one or two questions. Or you could have a negotiated settlement with Westminster,’- he added.

Future of Scotland includes groups such as the Scottish Trades Union Congress, third sector bodies, the churches and the Institute of Directors. Launched in January, it says politicians and journalists are too fixated with the process rather than the substance of constitutional change.

Thomson agreed. ‘Getting the right structure is important in getting what we want from public services, and it’s not just a public sector thing. Companies too look at whether they’ve got their structures right, whether to do more centrally or divest non-core business.’

Some had seen the coalition as the civic vehicle that would campaign to put on the ballot paper the ‘devo-max’ option, where Scotland raises all its own taxes and returns a proportion of revenue to Westminster for shared functions such as defence and diplomacy.

But the Future of Scotland rejects that role, although Thomson does not rule it out. He also said that the civic coalition did not restrain Reform Scotland from pressing for its own option of devo-plus.

Under devo-plus, Scotland would raise all the taxes it spent, leaving Westminster in charge of VAT and National Insurance to fund state pensions and maternity pay.

Thomson said it was the best worked-out reform option, and called the constitutional status quo ‘viable but not necessarily optimum’.

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