A line in the sand? Why a ‘No’ vote in Scotland should mean no further devolution

By Jonathan Galbraith

Home Affairs IAfter what feels like an eternity, the referendum on Scottish independence is now less than six months away, and as each camp now seeks to consolidate its existing support and capture new territory.  The Scottish Conservatives held their annual conference last weekend in Edinburgh – a three-day affair that also served as a rally for the European elections in May and the referendum itself.  The event was addressed by the Prime Minister, and he delivered an impassioned speech in defence of the Union.  I salute David Cameron in his commitment to keeping our United Kingdom together, but the detail of what he proposes post-September should give us all some cause for concern.

Make no mistake: I am a proud Conservative and Unionist.  I yield to no-one in my determination to see the people of Scotland wipe the smug grin from Alex Salmond’s face this September.  People will not vote for “dunnos”; all that the Nationalists have to offer on the big questions.  Further, I do not believe that fracturing the Union would be in the interests of the UK’s other constituent parts – arguments that the UK deserves a place at the international top table would be weakened, perhaps irreparably, by a Scottish secession.  And for those who argue that “rUK” would enjoy permanent Conservative government with all those pesky Scottish Labour MPs removed, I would remind them that nature abhors a vacuum, and that new opposition would arise over time.  Indeed, Labour once thought they could never lose at Holyrood…and look how that one turned out.

But my focus here is on what happens after the September referendum.  If it’s a Yes vote, then it’s game over for the Union, and Salmond will have won.  But if it’s a No vote – as both I and the polls expect it will be – what then?  The Conservatives and Unionists will have won, but what will that success look like?

The Prime Minister told his Edinburgh audience that a No vote “can mean further devolution, more power to the Scottish people and their parliament, but with the crucial insurance policy that comes with being part of the UK”.  Here, he nails his colours to the mast as one who believes that devolution is a process, not an event, and opens up the door for the UK to continue, but with further fragmentation and ever-greater disparities between the governance of its various parts. Indeed, it’s a far cry from the “line in the sand” that Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservative leader, promised in her leadership campaign back in 2011.

I believe that this is the wrong approach, and that Cameron’s proposals would weaken the Union further.  Below I set out why this is, along with some alternative proposals for how we should react upon Scotland’s rejecting independence this September:

No more referendums on independence.  Here, I am in agreement with the Prime Minister: the question of Scotland’s constitutional status within the Union must be resolved once and for all this September.  Salmond’s deputy, Nicola Sturgeon, seems to think that a narrow No vote means that they can have another go at a later date in the hope of getting a Yes vote – it’s straight out of the EU playbook.  I don’t think so, Nicola: if it’s a No vote then you and your friends are out of business for the foreseeable future.  Somehow I doubt she’d be suggesting a second round to this in the event of a narrow Yes vote, so consistency requires that the converse also applies.

No more powers for the Scottish Parliament.  Alas I fear that the PM and I are about to part company.  A consensus has emerged between the Conservatives, Labour, the Lib Dems and—ironically—the SNP (this is usually a bad omen) that a No vote could result in further powers being devolved from Westminster to Holyrood.  The Scottish Parliament has complete control over health, education and the justice system; significant control over areas such as home affairs and transport; and areas such as defence, welfare and foreign policy remain solely under the competence of the UK government.  How good a job Holyrood does with these powers, I will leave to others to decide.  But a No vote is a rejection of Salmond’s agenda – it should not be implemented by the back door.  Vote Yes, and the Scottish Parliament becomes sovereign and gains more powers.  Vote No, and the Scottish Parliament doesn’t become sovereign…but it still gains more powers.  How does one vote to retain the status quo, less still restore the pre-1999 status quo ante?  I understand why the Unionists are doing this: they want to shore up their support with those who are tempted by Salmond but are not SNP diehards.  But it makes a mockery of saving the Union – saving it for what? – and means that we are forever fighting the battle on Salmond’s terrain.

Abandon Barnett.  The Barnett Formula is the mechanism used to allocate public spending between the nations that make up the UK, and has led to proportionately higher levels in Scotland—plus Wales and Northern Ireland—compared to England.  The chart below shows how public spending per head is distributed across the UK’s regions and nations.

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Source: HM Treasury, Public Expenditure Statistical Analyses update, October 2012

As you can see, there is plenty of variation: but overall spending is higher in Scotland (plus Wales and Northern Ireland) than in England.  I don’t believe that the variation in England presents any democratic problems: the MPs that represent Ashford, Ashfield and Ashby de la Zouch do so on identical terms.  But not so a member from Aberdeen: Scotland has a devolved Parliament, with powers to spend all this extra public money.  Some of this cash has been used to benefit Scots to the detriment of other UK citizens e.g. the fact that higher education in Scotland is ‘free’ to the locals, but students from the rest of the UK must pay fees.  Who represents the interests of the English taxpayer in the Scottish Parliament?  What Cameron calls an “insurance policy” is ultimately paid for by taxpayers in England.  A rejection of independence would be an ideal opportunity to correct this anomaly.

A new constitutional settlement at county level.  While a No vote will mean that Scottish independence is dead in the water, some thought should be given to how the constitutional settlement of the UK should look in the future.  The status quo is hardly satisfactory for anyone, and any future solution must consider all parts of the UK, not just the Celtic fringes.  Some raise the suggestion of a federal model, akin to that in the US, between the UK’s four constituent parts, but I fear that the relative sizes of these would render this impossible.  I would rather we devolved real power to our cities and counties: if this were done in England, it could address the West Lothian question once and for all.  The argument would then follow that if Warwickshire has control over health, universities, justice etc, why can’t those who live in Berwickshire make these decisions locally too?  This, I fancy, could be the subject of a much longer article!

In conclusion, a No vote must mean the end of trying to bribe the Scots with more money and encouraging them to look inwards, away from the people with whom they share a small island in the North Sea.  Instead, it’s time to strengthen our Union and look to the future together.  You might even call it a One Nation approach…

Jonathan Galbraith is a Fellow of the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries and a member of the Conservative Party.  Born and educated in southern Scotland, he now lives in Warwickshire and works in the pensions industry.  He writes in a personal capacity.

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