Shut up? Not until they put up

You can imagine the shock for a valley girl – comprehensively educated, well travelled, reasonably cultured but essentially the product of a rural upbringing – arriving at St Andrew’s University. In my first 1st year French tutorial, I recall vividly how one doyenne from Dollar Academy made me feel. Tossing her waist length hair, crossing and uncrossing her legs, throwing her arms open to emphasise her point, pronouncing confidently on the meaning of the text, the importance of the characters, spending much of the hour talking in French. I shrank visibly and barely said a word.

By the third week, I’d worked out she hadn’t read the novel, her pronunciation was dodgy and she was basically talking shite.

But what she and all the others of her ilk did – and they were aplenty in St Andrews – was exude power.  They lived, talked, socialised and worked (occasionally a few deigned to do so) with a sense of entitlement, with the kind of confidence only money and status can buy.

The reaction by some to the Smith Commission report has rekindled these memories – or more particularly, the attempts to shut us up in its aftermath, have

The outcome of the Smith Commission was inevitable right from its construct. The Unionist parties started from various points on a low bar, while the SNP and Greens were already at ceiling height. That the parties round the table were brought to the middle is testament not just to Robert Smith’s acumen in chairing the process but also in the willingness of the parties and the individuals around that table to reach agreement. The SNP entered those talks knowing it would not get what it wanted which was near as damnit independence and knew that the outcome would be far from what it wanted to achieve. The point of staying the course was to make the case for as much devo as could be agreed, to pull and in some cases, drag the others up the scale.

Its case was aided and supported by large sections of Scottish civic society. Trade unions, anti-poverty campaign groups, disability campaigners, voluntary organisations working with a wide range of community interests.  All those whose work brings them into contact with the impacts of poverty and inequality were quite clear that Scotland needed most or even all revenue-raising and welfare powers. They were listened to much less than the ones who advocated large chunks of it all staying the same.  In short, can’t beat can.

Partly this is to do with where power and resources currently lie. When you are a government department, an official of some years’ experience, with data and information available to you to produce as evidence, it is easy to construct an argument. When you are a campaign group run on people’s donations and grants, with limited access to the resources of power, it is harder to make your case.

Moreover, those who argued for fewer powers to transfer to Scotland have a vested interest in things staying as they are. All that upheaval, all that change, all those known unknowns, as well as the unknown ones, the surprises that would spring, the unintended consequences – you can almost feel some officials and some of those who do very nicely out of the current set-up – shuddering at the thought of it all.

And it is always – as we saw during the referendum campaign – much harder to make a convincing case for change when effectively what is being asked for is a leap into the unknown. You can only surmise and at best, model the results. Moreover, while advocates of much more devo were arguing for powers for a purpose, sometimes the purpose differed.  And even when people were clear what their purpose was – to tackle poverty, reduce inequality – what they were effectively arguing for was potential: the political will to use those powers for an as yet unclear purpose is not a given.

And underneath it all is the ability to make the case for can’t with confidence, the sort of confidence power brings and so, the can’t brigade won the day. What has been delivered – or at least promoted, as we’re far from delivery yet – is more than those who voted yes might have believed would result, but less than it could have, and less than a majority of people in Scotland aspire to.  A small matter of democratic accountability which appears to have been brushed aside.

So now it’s time for you all to shut up. You’ll have had your tea.

John Swinney was thoroughly gracious in his remarks about the report. The SNP welcomes the powers but we’re disappointed that civic Scotland wasn’t listened to and that the powers they propose do not meet our aspirations.  Moaner, whinger, was the retort.

It didn’t take long for them to round on Nicola Sturgeon.  When will she ever stop?  (we are a right wing commentator away from “nagging” or “nippy” being introduced into the lexicon about our new First Minister.)

According to Gordon Brown, our de facto opposition leader even though he didn’t have the inclination to actually get himself elected to the role, it’s time to stop arguing for more powers and to work with what we’ve got.  Eat your cereal, Scotland.

Yet, there is some point to what he says. We must focus some energy on working out what to do with the powers we’ve got, how to use them to their greatest effect. We’ve got the political equivalent of a chicken carcass, can we deliver 2 meals and a pot of stock out of its meagre offerings?

The Scottish Government has shown to good effect what can be done: stamp duty is now land transaction tax and aims to extract more revenue from those who can afford it most.  But it also abdicated any attempt to reform council tax benefit when it was devolved, opting even to keep the administration of it the same, when having 32 local authorities run the same system slightly differently 32 times to apply the benefit is clearly not the most cost-efficient way of doing things.

But as always, this is about power and control. Having succeeded in repelling attempts to effect a complete transfer of power and achieved further success at guarding against real powers shifting from their current locus, now is the time to close down the conversation. This is the establishment doing what it always does best and holding on to what it thinks is rightly its own. Include in that, establishment politicians, establishment business and their well-heeled representative bodies and establishment government departments and officials (however well intentioned they were when they entered the civil service).

So now the establishment thinks it has got away with it again. Except it hasn’t.

Already, others are finding their voice. The devolution of air passenger duty has resulted in calls from North East and West England MPs for measures to support their airports. And there are some also calling for attention to turn now to these regions’ – and others’ – needs for greater control over resources and revenues. The failure to devolve corporation tax to Scotland is far from a done deal when power over the same tax is headed to Northern Ireland. The establishment’s edifice is crumbling and Scotland’s constitutional debate has not just resulted in a political awakening here, but it has encouraged others to be bolder, to ask for more.  As it always had the potential to do and so, it should be.

At all levels of consciousness, this debate is about power, where it lies, who wields it, how it is used and for whose benefit.  And it’s why those who currently have it threw everything they had into the No campaign to make sure they held on to it.  They sense though that their victory could be hollow: Scotland has not retreated to lick its wounds and forget any notion it might have had about taking greater control and responsibility for itself.  We’re still up for it. So now we’re being telt.

But just as I found in those French tutorials many years ago, once you’ve got the measure of them, once you’ve worked out they are all empty confidence, with very little substance behind them, there is no need to cede the ground to them.

Scotland has started to find the establishment out. We’re beginning to understand what this is all about.  Power and control. They have it, we want it.  We have found our political voice.

And they can tell us all they like to shut up but that isn’t going to happen anytime soon. Not until they put up.



Read this while you wait for the Smith Commission report

As relevant now as when it was submitted; perhaps more so when listening to the dancing on pinheads going on this morning about which bits of which powers Scotland should be allowed to have.  Jonathan Sher moved from the USA to Scotland 10 years ago and became a UK citizen earlier this year in order to vote Yes in the independence referendum.  This was his personal submission to the Smith Commission. It makes a lot of sense to me.

Dear Lord Smith,

Thank you for accepting this complex, but vital, assignment.

The Herald published three of my personal opinion pieces on the Scottish independence referendum (16 June, 4 July and 15 September), which provide a context for my submission to you today.

As I understand it, your intent is to reflect the will of the Scottish voters accurately in relation to the additional powers that will soon be devolved to Scotland. A majority of voters in last month’s referendum wanted at least ‘Devo Max’, so that is what should be delivered. [Note: I am using ‘Devo Max’ to refer to the powers articulated by the SNP and Scottish Greens in their submissions to your Commission]

What is known is that:

A. 55% of Scottish voters preferred to remain within the United Kingdom, thereby removing independence as one of the current options.

B. 45% of Scottish voters wanted all powers to be vested in the Scottish Parliament.

C. Opinion polls, both before and after the referendum, indicated majority support for at least Devo Max. If even as few as 1 in 10 No voters (5.5% of all voters) were persuaded by leading politicians to think they were voting for Devo Max, then a majority (at least 50.5%) of all Scottish voters made it plain that they want the maximum possible powers to be held by the Scottish Parliament.

D. Given this simple calculation (45% Yes voters, plus at least 5.5% No=Devo Max voters), there seems a moral obligation for you to insist upon an agreement that delivers as full a devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament as is possible without causing the UK to be unable to function successfully.

I am struck by the focus in much of the recent public and media debate on which specific powers should be devolved by Westminster to Holyrood. This seems back-to-front. Shouldn’t the focus be on reaching agreement about which specific powers must be reserved at Westminster for the United Kingdom to function well? Any power not explicitly reserved at the UK level devolves to the Scottish Parliament.

During the referendum debate, the key powers discussed as the defining ones to have a United Kingdom were currency, foreign affairs and the military. There may be a small number of other specific powers necessary for the UK to function successfully, but you are doubtless more aware of them than me.

This referendum was not simply the prelude to the best compromise that can now be brokered among the five political parties at your Commission’s table — based upon their priorities and preferences. In my opinion,  your Commission’s final agreement should embody and honour the expressed desire of a majority of Scotland’s voters to have the maximum possible powers devolved to the Scottish Parliament — a parliament whose existence must become permanent, i.e. one that can neither be abolished nor controlled by Westminster.

In practical terms, any agreement that delivers less than Devo Max would discount the votes of the 45% who voted for all powers to be held by Holyrood – and also discount the votes of all citizens who, while against independence, were voting for the greatest possible devolution of powers to Scotland within the UK.

With appreciation for your consideration,

Dr Jonathan Sher

Powers for a purpose but whose and what?

Scottish Labour declared the focus and approach for its Devolution Commission to be about “Powers for a Purpose”.  But whose and what purpose?

Much has already been written about the timidity of the proposed extension of powers – not least by Labour commentators – with the findings failing even to live up to the dizzy heights of expectation created by the interim report. There are inherent contradictions too, in terms of what will be devolved and what will be left behind. For me, one of the most glaring is on the devolution of attendance allowance but not the non-contributory elements of employment and support allowance. Apparently, there “is an overriding argument for reserving” this it is an “explicitly redistributive” benefit.  Set aside that support for disabled people and those with long-term health conditions was never designed to be redistributive, the Executive Summary declines to say what that over-riding argument is. I’m sure if I wade through the full report I’ll find it, but I’m struggling to think of a coherent one.

The Executive Summary states, in recommending devolution of attendance allowance, a “connection between attendance allowance and health and social care policies”.  Thus, devolving this benefit would give the Scottish Parliament the means, or at least some of them, to meet the ever-rising costs of free personal care for older people by top-slicing the pot or, if it chooses still to give over the whole amount to pensioners, to means test its application so that only those with limited means to pay local health and social care charges benefit the most or, simply to allow it to continue as a universal benefit, to be recouped by local authorities through home care charges and the like. Yet, the non-contributory element of employment and support allowance, which is largely payable to disabled people and those with long-term health conditions of working age, would provide funds to be more creative about how to meet their care costs too. Or even allow Scottish Labour to extend free personal care to younger age groups.  On a policy level, devolving one and reserving the other makes little sense.  Not for a coherent policy purpose then.

The proposals fail a more fundamental constitutional test: they do not meet the expectations of the Scottish people. It’s not quite “devonano” or my favourite, “devoheehaw” but it is “devolimited”. And if the intention, even on an unwritten or subconscious level, was to provide an offer which stops the inching in the polls of Scots towards a yes vote in September, it’s hard to see that it will be enough.  Because Scots want more: all the public opinion surveys which have asked this, show so.

Scottish Labour could and no doubt, will argue that saying they want full control over welfare and benefits in Scotland is sweeping and without proper consideration of the complexities of decoupling things like child benefit, winter fuel payment and carers’ allowance. Voters’ eyes will glaze over as the party explains just how so – well at least I hope it does in the 300 page tome. But that is missing the point. The Scottish electorate, for a number of years now, has set the bar on its aspirations for further devolution and Scottish Labour has failed the test.

Just as it has on electability. The Scottish electorate has fallen out of love with the party it has voted faithfully for, for decades and in some communities, generations. On a purely political level, there is much to like for those well to the left on the political spectrum, myself included. It’s well past time that the better off were required to pay their fair share. Higher earners should pay more tax; the few on stratospheric salaries and income in Scotland should pay more still. The limited recommendation to upgrade property taxation to make it fairer suggests the creation of new property bands for the council tax, presumably at the top end. [Which is so unambitious that it was proposed by Jack McConnell in the 2007 election]

There are many Labour voters who like the idea of soaking the rich. And if the intention of the proposals is to shepherd back into the fold, Labour heartlands, then they will probably achieve that. But the SNP winning constituencies like Anniesland, Clydebank, Airdrie and Coatbridge in 2011 was always an aberration. Recent by-election results in Dunfermline and Cowdenbeath suggest that these lost sheep will probably return of their own accord.

But regaining heartlands is not enough to win a Scottish election for Labour. It must find the way to appeal to those voters in those constituencies who will be nearly a decade apart from the party in voting terms. Breaking the habit the first time is one thing, reinforcing the break a second time means forming a new voting habit on the third occasion becomes much more likely. And there is little to prevent that happening with these proposals.

It does not matter that most of the voters and constituencies Scottish Labour needs to target have barely a handful of big hooses and high heid yins. It’s the aspiration that counts. And there are many who having bought their council house and seen their weans off to university and into good jobs, fancy cars and hooses with an en suite in nice communities are by definition, families who through striving and application believe in the ability to better themselves. Ignoring the detail that they are unlikely to earn the levels at which it all kicks in, they will see Labour’s tax proposals as punishment for daring to get on.

This matters because Scotland’s middle class is burgeoning. Still. It has paid little in the way of the price of austerity, as has been the case elsewhere in the UK. The no compulsory redundancy policy for the public sector has helped, as has the raft of universal policies – the something for nothing accusation applies just as much to those who could pay as those who can’t.

Appealing to aspirational Scots to win elections is something the SNP grasped two Scottish elections ago. By this report, it seems Scottish Labour still hasn’t got the hang of it. Building an electoral manifesto around proposals which hike up income and council tax for the better off won’t change their electoral fortunes much. It’s almost as if Labour never wants to be elected again.

At least in Scotland. Because the timidity of the power transfer and the focus of the tax proposals point to only one real purpose. Winning the UK election in 2015.  The whole premise smells of a compromise being brokered which buys off grumbling MPs, limits the ambitions of those more in thrall to devolution and crucially, provides the basis of UK Labour’s platform for 2015.  The UK party wouldn’t want recommendations coming from Scotland which undermine their bid for power at Westminster nor create the opportunity for awkward questions to be asked if divergence on key policy streams like tax, welfare and immigration could be discerned. The Powers for a Purpose boil down to being what the party at UK level was prepared to thole and willing to deliver if in government after 2015.

These powers are not for Scotland’s benefit, but Labour’s. They are not powers for a purpose, except that the purpose is power for itself. And in this, Labour’s proposals for more devolution will fail to stem the flow, towards a yes vote in September and towards its core vote becoming SNP voters, not just for the odd election but for keeps. Because they’re no daft and they know when they’re being sold a pup.