What next after the Smith Commission?

What next after the Smith Commission?

by Lap Gong Leong
article from Tuesday 2, December, 2014

LET’S BE HONEST on what the Smith Commission was not. The Smith Commission was not the modern day form of the Scottish Constitutional Convention. 

At its worst, it was a room of representatives from five parties trying to agree on something while simultaneously trying to score benefits. There was very little time for a proper review of the proposals, as they also had to read 18,000 submissions from special interests. 

At its best, it was a cross party consensus. Something like this has been done before in British governance. It has handed a large sum of power to the Scottish Parliament. It also recognised, however, that over two million Scottish voters wanted to remain an integral partner in the British Project. To what degree of integration will be disputed. It has also tried to satisfy 1.6 million yes voters who wanted independence. In short, it was a good compromise between unionists and nationalists, and given each camps what they wanted. Nationalists wanted their Parliament to have more independence from London and Unionists wanted to keep the strong bonds and benefits of the Union. 

So what happens next? There are three things that should happen: fairness for England, changing devolution from an isolative to a UK-wide context, and trying to develop a new set of powers and mechanisms to help make a new type of Union. 

Now that Scotland has the powers of a Swiss Canton, England can no longer be left out of constitutional change. Whatever form of devolution England chooses to have (English Parliament, English Regional Assemblies, or City Regions) it must have the blessings of the Scottish Political leaders. If any Scottish political body was to help guide and champion the (hopefully better) process of English devolution, it should be the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party. 

There can no longer be a union settlement where devolution is developed separately with Scotland in one place, and England in another. England needs change, but it shouldn’t just be English leaders who champion it. There are plenty of mistakes ought not to be repeated from the Welsh, Northern Irish, and Scottish experience. What better example of solidarity than Scottish Conservatives aiding the English process? A speech in York or Bradford from Jackson Carlaw or even Ruth Davidson can be the first chapter of a very positive cooperation. It is now a moral duty of any Scottish Conservative to help champion, if not, lead the process of English devolution. There is no excuse left for constitutional isolationism. 

The UK now has to develop further devolution and decentralisation in a UK-wide context. This does not mean the end of regional policy making; there will probably be more of these commissions in the future. Especially when English devolution is to begin its speedy journey. It can, however, no longer be all down to a leader of a party. The next time things are devolved it will have to receive consent from parliamentarians in Westminster. The chattering class often forgets that the central government of Scotland is not Holyrood, it’s Westminster. And any leader wanting any more devolution or constitutional change should consult the representatives of all parts of the UK. However long and arduous the process approval takes is irrelevant. 

Smith’s biggest mistake was its characteristics of an executive order rather than an Act of Parliament. No MP was given any information or had given consent to the “Vow.” If the UK is to keep its liberty, it cannot have change dictated at a Prime Minister’s whim or an opposition leader’s soundbite. 

Whatever devolutionary process happens for any part of the UK it is probably best if it can be a more inclusive and UK-wide process. Perhaps having meetings in all capital cities, or having a special board of representatives from all law making chambers would be better than six people in a room dictating terms to the rest of the UK wherever it may be. The Strathclyde commission proposed a Committee of UK Parliaments and Assemblies, I think its time that it was established and stocked with the most able parliamentarians of any generation. In fact, the Strathclyde Commission acknowledged that devolution on a unilateral basis must end. The union is still unsafe if devolution, in its current form, continues piecemeal. 

The Smith Commission must be the end point of this type of devolution; a new type must start now.    

The last thing unionists should do is stop being on the defensive. For too long during the referendum, unionists were always out on the defensive. Unionists have a PR problem, and need to find a way to have a more positive case for the Union in both emotional and technical terms. Too many times, it felt like unionists were most in love with the Barnett grant rather than the feelings of collective nationhood. In light of Income tax devolution, the union will have to find new powers and mechanisms to help have a closer (but more decentralised) union. Perhaps subsidies to Scottish students that wants to study in other UK universities or new needs-based formulas of redistributing income taxes to the poorest parts of the nation? Another mechanism could be a deep discount for intra-UK tourism among citizens. Whatever policies come forth, devolution must come with new mechanisms that help the union function as a whole. 

The Union is changing, maybe too rapidly; the smith commission is not the end of the line for independence. Many people in the SNP will try to rally for more and currently looks like winning the 2015 election. The Smith Commission is, however, a double-edged sword with many opportunities to strengthen the union. It is important for unionists to take this opportunity to better govern Scotland and help change the UK in general. 


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