The end of political unity
The Smith Commission was always a political stop-gap to make the now famous ‘vow’ a reality. It should therefore come as no surprise that its publication has already led to much political dispute. The Unionists are arguing that the vow has been met. The Nationalists argue that it is a disappointment and fails to meet aspirations for federalism or home rule. Any sense that there was political unity around the project has quickly dissipated, with Swinney’s hard-hitting analysis stating “Regrettably, the Westminster parties were not prepared to deliver the powerhouse parliament the people of Scotland were promised” setting the tone.
Smith has had an unenviable task – to produce a report on devolution in record-breaking time. Previous commissions have had years to ponder over proposals. Smith has had weeks and the results reflect that. This is a hotchpotch of reforms – some significant, whilst others seem very specific. The Commission was eager to avoid a pick and mix approach to devolution, yet that appears to be the outcome. If asked to explain what finances will be devolved and what powers have been devolved and why, I bet few would be able to answer in full. Many of the proposals have still to be fully worked out and at times Smith reads more like a work in progress (which it is) than a conclusive report. The report also does not fully provide the rationale for the devolution of some powers and not others. Why devolve fixed-odd betting terminals, but not wider betting powers, for example?
Selling the Smith Package
It would be folly, however, to dismiss the Smith Commission proposals. They are very significant in terms of the level of devolution envisaged and will give the Scottish Parliament control not only of its own destiny through electoral reform, but also over a huge swathe of welfare and tax policies. Scotland is already in the midst of devolving the last tranche of devolved powers. The key lesson from the last round of devolution is the need to sell the proposals. With the current package, that is going to be hard, particularly when the nationalists are saying they fall short. Labour’s movement to accepting the devolution of fiscal powers hardly puts the party in a good light either, calling into question why they did not want them in the first place. There will be many in both the Nationalist and Unionist camps questioning whether Smith has gone too far, or not far enough. That leaves it open to unpicking by both sides as it goes through the legislative stages at Westminster.
The General Election
Of course, all of the political statements today need to be seen in the context of the forthcoming General Election. For the SNP, it is obvious that by calling for additional powers (beyond Smith) they put the Unionists in an awkward spot. Fail to deliver further powers and the Unionists are curtailing Scotland. Give more powers and the SNP demonstrate their clout. The Smith Commission has therefore fulfilled the political expediency mission it had been set, but the debate around it and the powers that it has set out has undoubtedly only just begun.