The Importance of Selling Smith and the ‘Vow’ Delivered

Polling shows that 55% of people don’t believe the proposals in Smith makes any difference, while 27% of people are more likely to vote Yes in a future referendum because of them. Voter-fatigue was certainly a factor following the referendum, but the raft of further powers hasn’t exactly been trumpeted by unionist politicians. Perhaps due to the fact that the proposals fall short of what most people expect of ‘Home Rule’. Major speeches on how their respective parties would use the new powers to the betterment of Scotland have been largely absent. But that is set to change, and ‘Selling Smith’ is set to feature heavily in 2015 and 2016. 

In the context of this UK General Election, every unionist party has to articulate a more developed vision for Scotland – a legacy of the referendum and a high bar set by the SNP. The unionist parties now have to engage with Smith and sell the results of ‘The Vow’. Each is now beginning to do this by applying their traditional party values and strengths.

Persuading Scots that Westminster has a plan for Scotland (pitched by Jim Murphy) is crucial for Miliband’s chances at majority or minority Government. Murphy’s new patriotic Scottish Labour has targeted work and skills, with plans to devolve the power over the work programme immediately to cities as well as the further devolution of welfare. This is also about attacking the SNP and the Scottish Government’s weak spots – decentralisation. In this vein, City Deals for Scotland’s cities is a policy pushed by Murphy (albeit poached from the coalition). Scottish Labour also wants to get off on the right foot on financial responsibility with a Scottish Office for Budget Responsibility. With little public desire for changing income tax rates in relation to the rest of the UK, political and financial responsibility is also more fertile ground for vote-winning.

Davidson’s Tories are pursuing traditional lines – strong, limited but responsible government. In the next few days the party will announce an independent tax commission examining the competitiveness of the Scottish tax regime and analyse whether it is right for economic growth. Reporting ahead of the 2016 Holyrood election, the Tories wish to demonstrate that with tax raising powers they can balance the books. They too wish to decentralise devolving powers down and away from the “central belt bureaucracy”. Unlike Labour, the Tories emphasise the need to further scrutinise public services which hamper the rest of Scotland, though again advocating the need for levers at city and community level. An example of this is the proposal to introduce free schools.

How the Liberal Democrats will utilise the new powers is less clear. Although support from Nick Clegg has been limited, the Lib Dems have long campaigned for a federal UK and Willie Rennie has consistently reminded the public that they have set the pace in the proposals for further powers and implementing the Smith Commission. Whilst maintaining the Home Rule goal, they will now also need to try to sell the benefits of the draft Scotland Bill. Rennie has long been a critic of the SNP Government’s centralising tendency, particularly on police and fire services. In Smith, Rennie has argued for the transfer of powers from Holyrood downwards – a twin track to Smith to push control of powers such as, council tax and business rates away from Edinburgh.

Holyrood will be responsible for more than 60% of Scottish spending and new powers over income tax bands, areas of welfare, employment programmes, borrowing powers and air passenger duty will see control of taxation climb to 40%. Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish Government were quick to find examples in the text of the Command Paper which would appear, on face value, to water down commitments by the Smith Commission. Most notably UK Government vetoes over aspects of the Universal Credit, unemployment support and future borrowing powers. These may well be due to the practicalities of government, legal or constitutional matters but surely they can be worked through. What is required from all sides is a better articulation of what these powers bring to Scotland and how they can improve the economic and social wellbeing of Scotland’s people.

Tim Watkin

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