Scotland’s independent think tank
Scotland’s independent think tank

“Maximising debate on independence” – Herald

This article was the Herald Editorial

British settlers in the Thirteen Colonies that eventually coalesced into the fledgling democracy of the United States of America had a slogan: “No taxation without representation”.

In modern democracies should the reverse also apply?

Not long after the 1998 Scotland Act, individual voices from different parts of the political spectrum began to question the validity of a settlement that produced a Scottish Parliament that spends public money but does not raise it. Labour’s Wendy Alexander, an architect of the legislation, was one of the first to identify this flaw and call for discussion of further constitutional change. Nearly a decade ago, former presiding officer at Holyrood, Liberal Democrat Sir David Steel, questioned an arrangement that left the Scottish Parliament “responsible for massive public expenditure without any responsibility for raising revenue in a manner accountable to the electorate”. A handy epigram might be: “No representation without taxation”.

That is the impetus behind the Devo Plus campaign launched yesterday by the think tank Reform Scotland and an MSP from each of the three main opposition parties at Holyrood. If independence were rejected in the forthcoming referendum, they would campaign for a constitutional settlement that would hand to Holyrood full control over raising most of what it spends – essentially income tax and corporation tax – and also take over the payment of most welfare spending. Meanwhile Westminster would continue to collect National Insurance and VAT and pay the state retirement pension.

Though this idea is by common consent a work in progress, there is a certain logic in such an arrangement. In recent weeks both former Chancellor Alistair Darling and Prime Minister David Cameron have also started talking about the prospect of further devolution within the United Kingdom.

Devo plus falls short of devo max, where all taxes would be raised in Scotland and a portion handed to Westminster for services rendered. Maximum devolution, argues former LibDem MP Jeremy Purvis, head of the Devo Plus Group, is a recipe for instability. Given its implications for the West Lothian Question relating to Scottish MPs voting on English laws, it could also have consequences for the survival of the Union.

In the debate so far, though the SNP’s preference is for outright independence, in devo max the party has also sought to occupy the constitutional middle ground. Devo plus shows how devolution-minded Unionists could challenge Alex Salmond. It is time their voices were heard, given that even with the SNP’s outright victory in May 2011, 55% of voters opted for Unionist parties.

The challenge will be getting the opposition parties to work together, especially the Conservatives, whose Scottish leader Ruth Davidson was elected on a platform of the current Scotland Bill as a “line in the sand” constitutionally.

The new grouping describes itself as being “cross-party and non-party”. That is a refreshing idea in itself and one that could herald new political alignments, crossing party boundaries, to make the case for the Union. There is a certain logic in that too. After all, the SNP currently manages to encompass political views that range from socialism to businessmen who hold right of centre views.

Putting the pros and cons to one side, devo plus opens to scrutiny the vast range of options that lie between the Calman Commission and Scottish independence. That should be a vital contribution to the debate. All voices in this debate deserve a full hearing.