Alex Massie

Devolution 2.0: A Centre-Right Revival?

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On this, at least, there is consensus: devolution has proved a disappointment. How could it be otherwise when the Scottish parliament was granted power without responsibility? A parliament that may spend but cannot raise money is but half a parliament. Politicians like spending even more than they like taxing; removing that latter part of the deal leaves the equation unbalanced. It encourages the attitude that more money is the answer to every public policy problem and, in Scotland, has reinforced an already distressingly statist consensus.

Yesterday's Scotland Bill, then, is a modest step forward. The proposals, based on the Calman Commission's recommendations, are needlessly complex and, in places, batty but they may be thought better than nothing and an advance on a failed status quo. Alan Cochrane, as is his wont, despairs that the bill is a needless sop to nationalist sentiment at a time when independence has disappeared from the political agenda. He has a point. But, again as is typical, Alan puts dishing the SNP ahead of better, more responsible, government. That's fine but it's not enough.

The proposal to permit Holyrood modest borrowing powers to fund capital projects is a sensible one and while, like Joan McAlpine, I'd be happy to see a Spanish-style devolution of fiscal responsibility, the new income tax powers are much better than nothing. From 2015, assuming the bill passes, Holyrood will see its block grant cut by roughly 35%. In return, Scottish tax rates - at both the higher and basic rates - will be cut by 10p in the pound. If the Scottish government wishes to make up the difference then it can.

At long last, then, there is the prospect of normal politics coming to Edinburgh. If there's a danger that the country will become the most-heavily taxed part of the United Kingdom there is also the possibility of tax competition within the UK. At present one can't be too confident that the latter argument will prevail but the fact that the battle may now be joined is at least one step forward. For that matter, it should - finally! - give the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party a credible platform upon which to fight elections.

Finally, then, there's the possibility for a centre-right revival as "ordinary" political questions will, for the first time, actually matter. That's the theory anyway. The reality, of course, may prove more typical and consequently reliably depressing...

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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