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The Strange State of Undemocracy: Calman and the Scottish and British Questions

Gerry Hassan examines the proposals made by the Calman Commission, established to review the provisions of the Scotland Act 1998. He argues that, far from strengthening devolution and the union, the proposals reveal a gross misunderstanding of the nature of the UK and the nations and regions within it.
Gerry Hassan
2 December 2010

Gerry Hassan examines the proposals made by the Calman Commission, established to review the provisions of the Scotland Act 1998. He argues that, far from strengthening devolution and the union, the proposals reveal a gross misunderstanding of the nature of the UK and the nations and regions within it.

The Calman Commission proposals – and their enshrinement in the paper ‘Strengthening Scotland’s Future’ and the Scotland Bill – are meant to be a moment of history and importance: the narrative of ‘the evolution of devolution’, of ‘devolution as a process’, and other questionable clichés.

Yet the proposals, important for both Scotland and Britain, spring from a Westminster bunker mentality informed by an absolutist idea of sovereignty, an ossified concept of state and government, and the remnants of imperial delusions alive and well in the Treasury. They reveal a political class and media that mostly does not understand the detail of what is being put forward or the resulting consequences.

This is – leaving aside the smoke screen of Scottish speed limits, air guns licenses and stamp duty – primarily about reducing Scottish income tax by 10p in 2015 and allowing the Scottish Government the right to levy the same amount, less or more: the logic being that this brings a degree of financial accountability hitherto missing.

Jim Gallagher, Secretary of the Calman Commission, has written:

Instead of relying almost wholly on grants from Westminster, Holyrood will have to make income tax decisions of its own – and it will have to rely on the proceeds to support spending. That accountability will be good for democracy in Edinburgh, and it will give the Scottish political system for the first time a direct financial incentive to promote growth. That’s obviously in Scotland’s interest, but it will be good for the entire UK too.

He concluded:

These changes are not just about strengthening devolution; they strengthen the Union too.

The exact opposite is the case. These proposals are nothing to do with democracy – in Scotland, England or the UK. They will not strengthen the union; instead they will continue the slow attrition and erosion of the union – at its very heart – as the British political classes inexorably lose their sense of statecraft and stagecraft which so informed the idea of Britain.

The problems with the proposals are numerous. While reducing the Scottish Block Grant, it still defines Scotland’s spending via London and retains the indefensible Barnett formula. 65% of Scottish devolved spending will still come from the Block Grant; the Barnett consequentials will still determine much of the wider debate. Scottish spending will rise and fall relative to London decisions on tax, and the last thirty years have seen a massive move away from income tax as a means of taxing and raising monies – shown by the fact it was a 33% basic rate in 1979 and is now 20%.

Income tax is a diminishing part of government revenues, a process which long predates New Labour’s ‘taxation by stealth’ and, according to BBC ‘Newsnight Scotland’, HMRC estimates for 2010-11 income tax will raise £150b out of £548b: the rest being made up of £99b National Insurance, £46b excise duties, £43b corporation tax, £81b VAT, £25b business rates, £25b council tax, £79b others; income tax making up 29% of the tax take.

British politics clearly haven’t finished their Dutch auction cutting the standard rate of income tax, and shifting the burden to so-called indirect taxes such as VAT – leaving the Scottish Government exposed. There is the issue of the lesser proportion of Scottish tax which will be taken from top rate tax payers, and the fiscal drag as more and more taxpayers at a UK level are slowly brought into the top rate; the tax powers are thus both regressive and deflationary.

What perhaps is even more of a weakness than the actual failings in the proposals is the political antenna at work in all of this – and the consequences which flow. Leave aside that the entire devolution experiment was never really about bringing democracy to Scotland and was instead about continuing the strange state of undemocracy which Scotland has sat in for as long as anyone can remember – run by either the Kirk, the Liberals in the 19th century or Labour in the 20th century.

The Calman proposals spring from two sources: the unionist parties in the Scottish Parliament and the British state and government. There has long been a Scottish consensus north of the border that the Scottish Parliament can and should painlessly accrue more powers; this consensus ranges from the Tories to the SNP and Greens, and in the unionist version given articulation in Calman is driven by a fixation with shooting the Nationalist fox. This is sometimes seen as the unionist obsession with what they see as the Nationalist obsession of constitutional change: never a good motivator in politics.

Where this has to be questioned is that the British state has less and less of an understanding of the nature of the UK: increasingly wedded to the idea of the UK as a ‘unitary state’ when it is a ‘union state’. The British state sees Scotland as a troublesome territory which has to be managed, but the way by which it is doing this is a piecemeal process, conceding powers in an ad hoc manner. What the British state has no idea or interest in – is identifying what a final settlement of the Scottish and British questions would look like. Such a vacuum was obvious from the enactment of the Scotland Act 1998 and asymmetrical devolution, and began to matter more and more with the obvious inequity of the English question(s). The Scots cannot go on being given on an ad hoc basis more and more powers, as a delaying tactic to examining, root and branch, the nature of the UK.

It is understandable that the British political classes don’t want to stare into the abyss; there is also a logic that the Scottish political narrative of ‘devolution is a process’ is one which many want to keep running for as long as possible. But this is myth and dangerous myth at that. The Scotland Act 1998 was a kind of constitutional coup d’etat which Scotland played on the rest of the UK; you cannot keep returning to the terrain and style of your greatest hits without something giving.

Alex Massie has called the proposals ‘needlessly complex and, in places, batty’ and yet at the same time has concluded that ‘they may be thought better than nothing and an advance on a failed status quo’.

Alan Cochrane, from a rumbustuous uber-unionist perspective, dismays at the rationale of Cameron et al. What was the thinking of Michael Moore, the second Lib Dem Secretary of State for Scotland (after the short-lived Danny Alexander)? Cochrane writes:

… he did not think it at all strange that all these new powers were being devolved to Holyrood at a time when, with the Nats looking anything but supreme, the Union has never been safer.

Calman, from this viewpoint, is nothing but the continued appeasement of the Nationalist cause by a unionist mindset, which has only known retreat:

Although the SNP is pretending publicly to be in a bit of a strop over not getting all the taxation powers it wanted, most of its leading lights are content that they only have to say ‘Boo’ to Labour, the Tories and the Liberal Democrats and another tranche of powers falls into Alex Salmond's lap.

This analysis is a more pertinent and relevant account than that put forward by the advocates of change. In many of the discussions, it is clear the supporters of Calman, and some of its opponents, have no idea what they are talking about. A ‘Newsnight Scotland’ discussion with Pauline McNeill, Labour MSP; David Mundell, Tory MSP and Scotland Office minister; and Robert Brown, Lib Dem MSP, showed that not one of them had a detailed grasp of the brief. Mundell, one of the minister’s piloting the legislation through the Commons, had no idea what financial areas any ‘transitional arrangements’ would cover.

What is needed is an entirely different Scottish and British approach. Scotland needs to begin its belated democratisation and dismantle the managed society of the union: of elites, experts and professional vested interests running the nation’s affairs. Calman does nothing to address the deep feudalisation of Scottish civil society – and in places extends and institutionalises it – proposing that Scotland’s Crown lands should be administrated by a Crown Estate Commissioner appointed by the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Democratisation should be connected to the idea of a much fuller fiscal autonomy whereby Scotland raises all of its monies and identifies and agrees an amount for common services with London; this is the type of measure seen in the Basque Country and elsewhere in the world – unlike the Calman proposals – which are untried anywhere, untested and uncosted (with no financial modelling undertaken by its supporters).

Whatever road Scotland embarks on – even if it were to eventually embrace independence – there is the need for a radical British reform movement which poses a very different kind of country to the one we live in.

The current Calman proposals show the political and historical illiteracy and wish-fulfilment of the British political classes, state, government and wider political community. They tell a wider story of crisis, loss of confidence and a misunderstanding of the nature of the UK, the nations and regions within it, and the obstacles and resistance which will be posed to challenging the centralist order which Britain has become. Calman in this isn’t part of the solution, but part of the problem.

This piece was originally published on Gerry Hassan's blog.

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