That this bill is heading towards statute carries substantial and strong messages.
The issues that would have prevented it being passed even at Christmas have been largely deleted, not every deleterious aspect is gone, but the Bill is now palatable in the view of our elected officials, and for most who now examine it there’s little of significance that can cause harm to the devolution process.
Setting aside what’s in the Bill at present, it is worthwhile to examine what’s not there. Five of six demands made by the current Scottish government were not included, allowing Unionist parties and commentators to crow over a “climb-down by the Nat’s”. The reality of the situation is that without Westminster cooperation there would be no single additional power at all.
Holyrood has played “grown up” politics, it has recognised it has achieved everything possible in the timeframe and under the current constitutional settlement that it can achieve. By removing the severely toxic aspects of the Bill, by exposing the constitutional irrelevance of the House of Lords, and by leaving the constitutional appetite whetted but un-sated, Holyrood has gained much.
Edinburgh now has the precedent set that under the present constitutional settlement any transfer of powers will fundamentally only go from Westminster to Holyrood, unless Edinburgh is in agreement. If we Scots in future elect a government that undermines any hard won sovereignty, that will be our issue, for now the process is safe. However, a Union party in power could dramatically change that dynamic.
A precedent has also been set, and completely unheralded in Scotland’s mainstream media, together with an acknowledgment by all parties that Scots are hungry for more power in their own affairs. The precedent was re-enforced by the fact that under this repatriation of sovereign powers none saw a need to ask we Sovereign Scots if it was something we actually wanted.
Step back and think. When the ’97 referendum took place there was a whole separate question dealing solely with tax raising powers, powers designed never to be used and limited only to 3%. A short fifteen years later we witness a situation whereby that taxation share is more than tripled, but a referendum is not seen as required because all political parties tacitly acknowledge the Scots appetite is for more.
Many Scots would also agree a referendum isn’t required, as long as the process cedes authority to Holyrood. Should the reverse ever become a proposal those same individuals are likely to ferment some severe dissent, and rightly so.
As we think about the tax issue, that single change from optional to mandated tax devolution, requires alterations at HMRC to fundamentally institute a Scottish Revenue Service, one which will provide discrete accounting of Scottish income tax. That alone is a significant preparatory step on the road to independence.
The Scottish Government has also won tacit acknowledgement that the Scotland Bill isn’t the real issue anymore. This legislation has been overtaken by constitutional events that are continuing to gather pace. There is a strong likelihood that by the time the provisions of the Bill actually come into force, they will be irrelevant.
The optimist among us would rather view the Scotland Bill as a highly significant milestone, a milestone that is quietly heralding a new dawn, a sunrise showing behind the current acrimony of Westminster / Holyrood relations. In the best of worlds it would be but the first example of mature and adult negotiation between two governments who will soon need to discuss a myriad of issues as equal partners rather than as colonial power and subjugated nation. As we have seen from recent document releases concerning treatment of Kenyans during the Mao-Mao Uprising, Westminster has a history of abuse towards those seeking their own path.
Both governments appear to have reached an understanding, as evidenced by this Bill’s passing, that it is now better to clear the decks of old business and prepare the way for the future.
That David Cameron sees this as a probable future is evidenced as much by his silence to events as by his negation of the Lords amendments. The SNP in Westminster recently advised the Commons that England, the rUK would be liable for a majority share of decommissioning of current UK nuclear power stations in Scotland. That could amount to anywhere north of 25 billion. Although there was consternation in the House with several individuals giving quotes of outrage, nothing was forthcoming from Number 10.
The Commons were also advised that there would possibly be a bill for decommissioning old oil fields in Scotland’s North Sea, the price tag for that was put at 30 billion. The government of the future rUK was again silent on the issue, though Scotland’s mainstream media reported it principally as being a cost to be borne by a future Scotland. Often that which is not officially said carries more value than the witterings of interchangeable underlings.
That there will be two separate, equal governments after 2016 was verified by the bookmakers. Betting shops rarely get it massively wrong, at the initiation of the Scotland Bill the odds for Scottish Independence by 2020 could be had as high as 10/1, checking on the odds of a “NO” immediately after the announcement of the Bill’s passage showed William Hill offering 1/3 against. Although betting odds are weighted by many factors, that’s a huge change in the lifespan of a single bill with regards to the constitutional outcome of four nations.
It’s a change that could now be being mirrored by the stance of the relevant elected political leadership in each nation. We can hope.