Ian Swanson: Conservative lady is for turning

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THEY urged voters to reject devolution and warned the Scottish Parliament would be a slippery slope, the thin end of the wedge, paving the way for the break-up of the UK.

Now they say Holyrood should be handed almost full control of income tax and even some welfare matters.

The Scottish Tories’ change of position could hardly be more stark.

And it puts them in the unlikely position of being, arguably, the party proposing the strongest set of extra powers for Holyrood.

All three of the main pro-UK parties have now set out their stall, promising that if Scots reject independence it’s not a vote for the status quo; and new responsibilities would soon be on their way.

But the pledges of more devolution from those campaigning for a No vote have been greeted with some scepticism.

And a cynic might say the fact the Tories are now advocating the most radical change makes the prospect of anything really happening even less believable.

More powers are already on their way for Holyrood courtesy of the 2012 Scotland Act, which transfers responsibility for air guns, drink-driving, speed limits, stamp duty, landfill tax and a bigger portion of income tax.

It would not be difficult – or unreasonable – to argue these changes should be allowed to bed down before any further powers were introduced.

The Scotland Act measures were based on recommendations from the cross-party Calman commission, which involved prolonged discussions between and within Labour, the Lib Dems and the Tories about how far to go in proposing new powers.

Despite all the time and effort involved in that exercise, it seems the package is now being effectively consigned to history before it is even fully implemented.

There has been no satisfactory explanation of how three parties which came together, however uncomfortably, and hammered out one set of fairly modest proposals on how devolution could be advanced have suddenly all come to believe they did not go nearly far enough and feel there is an urgent need to come up with further powers, many of which must surely have been considered and rejected in their previous discussions.

Unveiling the Tories’ proposals, leader Ruth Davidson was at pains to insist she was not getting involved in a bidding war or a Dutch auction.

But the income tax proposals, at least, do go significantly further than Labour, who first produced an interim report arguing for full devolution of income tax, but then pulled back from such a move and instead proposed a power to vary it by up to 15p in the pound.

Former prime minister Gordon Brown this week became the latest to call on the three pro-UK parties to reach some sort of agreement on more powers for Holyrood after a No vote in September.

But the differences between their proposed packages are not superficial distinctions to be glossed over. They are the result of sometimes bitter internal debates.

And they reflect an even bigger gulf between the parties’ ultimate aims. Labour’s proposed tax powers were carefully framed to prevent Holyrood cutting top tax rates to lure high earners, while the Conservatives have made clear they would want to use new powers to bring in tax cuts.

An agreement on extra powers which hides such clearly different agendas would indeed be an unholy alliance to be suspicious of.