Ian Swanson: Tories risk SNP devolution war

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WESTMINSTER got down to business this week with the Scotland Bill, handing more powers to Holyrood, the first piece of legislation to be debated.

But so far David Cameron’s new Tory-only government has shown little sign of taking into account the new political situation in Scotland since the election.

The Conservatives may have won an overall majority across the UK, but their slim, albeit unexpected, victory is nothing compared with the 
unprecedented scale of the SNP 
triumph in Scotland.

Yet Mr Cameron has made no serious concession in response to the fact the Nationalists now have 56 of the 59 seats north of the Border.

The Scotland Bill is based on the recommendations of the cross-party Smith Commission – though critics, including an all-party committee at the Scottish Parliament, say it does not even implement these fully.

But the SNP says Smith was a response to the referendum result; the outcome of the general election requires something more.

SNP Westminster leader Angus Robertson told MPs in the debate: “The lesson of history about Scottish devolution is that when the SNP does well, Scotland’s powers are strengthened.”

He is right – the new tax powers for Holyrood due to come into effect next year emerged from the Calman commission set up after the SNP’s first Holyrood victory in 2007. And going way back to the 1970s, Labour’s 
interest in devolution only became serious because of SNP successes at that time.

But with the Tories looking unwilling to make concessions on the current Bill, could this be the time when that lesson of history falls flat?

Perhaps it is early days – the Bill has only just started its journey through the Commons. Perhaps Scottish Secretary David Mundell will accept some of the opposition amendments or bring forward compromises of his own.

Labour is proposing, as it did in the election campaign, to go beyond Smith by adding further powers over welfare.

But the evidence of the past few weeks, since the election, is that the Conservatives – despite talk of a “respect agenda” and a conciliatory visit by the Prime Minister to Bute House – have made little adjustment to the new political scene in Scotland.

Indeed, Chancellor George Osborne’s decision to bring forward spending cuts has a knock-on effect of slashing the Scottish Government’s budget by £107 million.

To force such cuts on an SNP government when the party has just won massive support on an anti-austerity manifesto is a blatant snub not just to Scotland’s politicians, but its voters.

Finance Secretary John Swinney put it bluntly: “It is completely unacceptable for reductions to be imposed in this financial year to the budget that has already been agreed by the Scottish Parliament.”

And the UK government is also taking a hard line on future talks about increased powers, saying the Scotland Bill is the only opportunity in this parliament for the SNP to achieve full control of tax and spending.

Leading Nationalists had suggested there could still be “negotiations” after the Bill was passed.

If they stick to their guns, it looks as if the Tories are willing to risk a full-blown conflict with the SNP. It would be a test for both sides. Could even 56 SNP MPs force anything from a majority Tory government? But how long will that Tory majority last?

ian.swanson@edinburghnews.com