Thursday, August 17, 2006

David Cameron, devolution and Scottish nationalism

I've been wondering if today Scottish independence is more likely than at any point in my life. Although collectively the nationalist parties increased their share of the vote in 2003, I'm not arguing that this has much to do with the behaviour of the parties in Holyrood or their performance in elections.

Rather, there are two longer term factors at work that might eventually break the Union. One is the Devolution settlement itself, which is unstable. I enjoyed Oliver Kamm's description of Tam Dalyell's "remorseless pedantry" in an article that pointed out that Spain has no equivalent of the West Lothian Question. Yet it seems the internal dynamic of devolution leans towards assemblies accumulating more powers to themselves rather than less, with or without a politician as persistently tedious as Dalyell. In Scotland's case, any answer to the West Lothian Question must inevitably lead to a greater constitutional separation amongst the countries of the UK. Even the Tories have accepted that turning the clock back is not a realistic option.

And while I think Kamm is right about devolution and the West Lothian Question, it is no longer Dalyell who is pressing the issue. The other major factor pushing the UK towards a greater degree of separation is the fact that David Cameron, leader of the Conservative and Unionist party, is apparently at best a rather half-hearted Unionist. The benefits for the English Tories are obvious and no-one should doubt that this is why the question is being pressed. There is no evidence that English voters are any more pissed off with Scots MPs voting on English-only matters than they were in 1999. Rather it has reached the media now because they see an opportunity to attack Gordon Brown and to secure a majority in Westminster on matters pertaining to English legislation.

Thing is, while I'm a Unionist myself, even I have started to wonder if something like fiscal autonomy might not be a good idea. Jack McConnell once criticised the SNP for playing the "politics of identity", which is true of course. However, given the present constitutional settlement, they don't have much choice. Beyond claiming to be able to manage the slice of the fiscal cake that Holyrood gets from the Treasury better, in order to distinguish themselves from the status quo, parties have little alternative to banging on about the the nature of devolution itself. Fiscal autonomy would allow the parties to place themselves more traditionally on a left-right axis.

I don't really know how it would work, beyond some kind of federal tax system. But the problem with this is the same one that has been apparent since the Scottish Parliament was set up. Devolution is not a matter just for Scotland because it has implications for the rest of the UK as well.

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