The most startling development over the past few days has not only been the narrowing of the polls but the consequential commitment of the three UK party leaders to Gordon Brown’s accelerated timetable for agreeing more devolution. Whether or not it convinces voters, this promise will have far-reaching effects not just for Scotland but also for the rest of the UK. The Brown plan envisages the setting out of options by the end of October, a month-long consultation before a White Paper on a plan by the end of November, and draft legislation in January.
Leaving aside all the practical difficulties of meeting that timetable, there is no agreement on what ‘devo more’ might mean. The Tories have suggested that Scotland would be able to set its own income tax bands and rates, and receive all income tax revenues, while the Scottish Government would receive a share of VAT raised north of the border. Some welfare spending would be transferred. The Liberal Democrats take a similar view on income tax while also proposing that Scotland would have charge of inheritance tax, capital gains tax and air passenger duty (the latter also a Tory option). Proceeds of corporation tax would be assigned to Scotland. Labour has been more cautious, giving Scotland the power to vary the income tax rate by 15p in the pound above or below the rest of the UK – which is not very different from what is due to be implemented in 2015-16 under the 2012 Scotland Act—and rates would be made more progressive. But Labour does not envisage any action on VAT or air passenger duty. Labour would devolve a range of welfare and employment policies, covering the attendance allowance, employment tribunals, the work programme and skills development.
Reconciling these differences and, above all, getting the agreement of the Scottish National Government will be very hard in such a brief period.