Ian Swanson: Power play as Scotland Bill clears latest hurdle

Lord Smith of Kelvin unveils the findings of his commission. Picture: Contributed
Lord Smith of Kelvin unveils the findings of his commission. Picture: Contributed
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IT may not be ‘devo-max’, but the SNP’s success has forced Westminster’s hand nevertheless, says Ian Swanson

THE Government benches may have been virtually empty and the vast majority of Scotland’s MPs distinctly unimpressed, but the latest transfer of power and responsibilities from Westminster to Holyrood has finally been approved by the House of Commons.

The Scotland Bill – which still needs to be passed by the House of Lords and given “legislative consent” by the Scottish Parliament – will hand MSPs control of most aspects of income tax and allow them to top up welfare payments and introduce new benefits. It will also give them half the revenue from VAT in Scotland, as well as more borrowing powers. Controversially, abortion will now become a Holyrood responsibility. And Crown Estate properties north of the Border will come under Scotland’s control – except, bizarrely, for Fort Kinnaird retail park.

Not included in the handover of powers are tax credits, corporation tax, trade union legislation, holding another referendum – and a whole lot more the SNP would love to have seen.

Depending on your perspective, the Bill is either creating “one of the most powerful devolved legislatures in the world” – according to Labour and the Conservatives – or is “very modest” and only “progress of sorts” – according to the Nationalists.

The SNP, of course, was never going to be satisfied with an extension of devolution. Its aim is independence and anything less, by definition, is a disappointment.

But at the same time, it is the SNP’s dramatic successes in recent years – the narrow win at the 2007 Holyrood elections, the overall majority in 2011, the 45 per cent support for independence and the almost clean-sweep in the general election – which has led to all these extra powers.

The Nationalists’ first election victory prompted the pro-UK parties to set up the Calman Commission which fed into the 2012 Scotland Act, transferring responsibility for air rifles and speed limits, as well as stamp duty, landfill tax and a slice of income tax.

But before all that had had a chance to bed down, the SNP was advancing again and the pro-UK parties decided more powers should be handed to Holyrood. The famous “Vow” made in the closing stages of the referendum campaign, after polls suggested a Yes victory, was designed to persuade voters to draw back from independence on the basis of a stronger devolved parliament.

The Smith Commission was hastily appointed after the No verdict and given a tight timetable to come up with a package to keep everyone happy. The SNP was included, but unsurprisingly ended up less than enthusiastic.

The resulting Scotland Bill was said to fall short of both the Vow and the Smith proposals; and Scottish Secretary David Mundell showed no early sign of accepting SNP amendments, even after their general election triumph.

But at the final hurdle in the Commons, the UK government brought forward 80 or more changes intended to satisfy opposition objections.

The SNP will continue to protest it does not add up to “devo-max” or “the nearest thing to federalism” as touted beforehand. But they have nevertheless achieved a lot.

Devolution was famously described as “a process, not an event” but few expected that within 15 years of the creation of the Scottish Parliament, there would be a referendum on independence and one bill after another to increase Holyrood’s powers. Who knows what lies ahead, but Scotland has come a long way since devolution.