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Keeping Promises: The Smith Commission, Scotland and England

Thursday, November 27, 2014

 

The Smith Commission has reported on its cross-party recommendations for further powers for Scotland. Amongst them are the powers to give votes to 16 and 17 year olds, powers over welfare allowances and to retain all income tax they raise. Scotland would also get a share of VAT, control of air passenger duty and permanency to its Parliament.

Promise 1: More devolved powers to Scotland

The powers in the Smith Commission will be devolved due to the promises made in panic by the Prime Minister and others in the last few days of the September referendum campaign. These promises also referred to as ‘bribes' were deemed reckless by Boris Johnson and many other Tories.

The PM has said on record that those final days of the campaign were some of the most worrying of his career and back in September, Cameron was in a difficult position.

Momentum was really getting behind the Yes campaign. The Prime Minister was facing the prospect of ringing the Queen to say Scotland was leaving under his watch, assigning him to history as the PM who broke up the United Kingdom. Perhaps he thought the new momentum would be for his resignation?

The result of this panic has been motivation for the nationalists ever since. The 55% who said no to independence have been forgotten as the 45% who said yes mobilise and increase their voice. Today’s Smith Commission recommendations have been greeted with cries of ‘not enough’ by the SNP and no-one can think that the matter of who governs Scotland is over. 

Promise 2: Devolved power and ‘English Votes for English Laws’

The other promise made by the Prime Minister is greater devolution to England, and Wales, at the same rate as Scotland. This is much wider than what is known as the West Lothian Question, where MPs from Scotland can vote on purely English affairs but not the other way around. So far, a full proposal on English devolution taken on with gusto by William Hague has been bogged down in Westminster committee rooms.

Now though, to placate people after the Smith Commission’s findings, the Prime Minister has now announced a proposal by Christmas on English Votes for English Laws.

I think David Cameron does believe in getting greater powers for England. But, although wishing to be proved wrong, I’m doubtful that his proposal will be more than another ‘love actually’ styled speech, playing politics with the Labour Party and of any substance.

The Conservatives are still in coalition with the Liberal Democrats and we are just months away from a General Election. So, what we are likely to get is another pre-election promise. As with most pre-election promises there will be a few caveats though. You’ll get devolution if a) you vote conservative and b) enough of you vote conservative to get a majority.

The biggest obstacle to this is a small matter of trust. Similar to promising a referendum on membership of the European Union in 2017, the public has to believe that the Conservatives led by David Cameron will keep any promises made on English devolution. Evidence, in the form of millions turning to UKIP, proves so far that trust is lacking.

Attempting a pre-election promise is also not helped by today’s figures on net immigration showing that the number of people coming into the UK is higher under the coalition that it was under the previous government. The last pre-election promise by the conservatives was “vote for us and we will cut immigration to the tens of thousands not hundreds of thousands.” The difficulty isn’t that the promise was not kept but whether at the time of making it the promise was known not even to be possible.

On the 19 September the Prime Minister said he thought the issue of independence in Scotland had been ‘settled for a generation’. This isn’t likely to be true. The issue of ensuring greater powers to the rest of the United Kingdom is only just starting and will be a major policy area at the General Election    

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