The devolution debate gets ugly

The consensus which sought to keep Scotland in the UK has well and truly ended.

As the UK government prepares to publish a paper outlining options on the future of devolution in Scotland following the independence referendum, the consensus that brought the unionist parties together to keep Scotland in the UK has well and truly ended.

From a campaign that was united and disciplined, Labour and the Conservatives are now at each other’s throats, raising the very real possibility that the timetable envisaged for further powers to be devolved to Holyrood could be missed, handing the SNP a substantial boost.

Speaking to the Sky News Murnaghan programme yesterday, the former Labour prime minister Gordon Brown accused David Cameron of being “unstatesman-like” for the way he unilaterally decided the day after the referendum that further powers for Scotland would be conditional on the introduction of some form of English votes for English Laws. Accusing the Conservatives of playing “fast and loose with the constitution”, he explained:

“You cannot promise Scotland something on a Tuesday then change the offer the day after the referendum on the Friday and I think the Conservatives have got to think again about playing fast and loose with the constitution.”

As he unveiled his own proposals in a submission to the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform committee, Brown has warned that Tory plans for all income tax powers to be devolved to Scotland and the introduction of English votes for English laws risks breaking up the very union that the Better Together campaign had fought so hard to save just a few weeks ago.

In his submission, the former prime minister argued that devolving all income tax was a “Trojan horse” that could lead to the UK as we know it unravelling altogether, a union which, he argued, relied on the “pooling and sharing” of resources.

Arguing that a combination of such powers being devolved alongside restricting the rights of Scottish MPs to vote on certain matters would lead to the UK struggling to endure, he continued:

“Countries can be lost by accident and even when the majority are for them, Unions can disintegrate because of mistakes.

“Taken together these two Conservative proposals for Scotland are a lethal cocktail which drive a wedge between Scotland and England, are exactly the springboard for separation the nationalists want and deal a potentially fatal blow to the maintenance of the Union.”

Under Brown’s proposals the Scottish Parliament would be given responsibility for raising 54 per cent of its own revenue, quadrupling the figure from the £4bn it currently raises to £18bn in 2016.

This is in contrast to the 40 per cent figure proposed in Scottish Labour’s formal submission to the Commission led by Lord Smith of Kelvin looking at these issues.

The former prime minister has backed Labour’s plans to put three-quarters of basic rate income tax in Scotland under the control of the Scottish parliament, but has gone further by proposing the assignment of 50 per cent of VAT revenues, totalling £5.5bn.

Brown’s warning over the potential of sleep walking to independence was echoed over the weekend by the former Labour first minister Henry McLeish. Speaking at the Scottish Green Party conference in Edinburgh, he argued:

“My worry is if we continue just to look at Scotland and get more powers, and powers and powers, we get no codified constitution in the UK, no solution for England, and Wales is dangling.

“That is a dangerous recipe because Scotland will be going further and further out on a limb, and maybe the only thing that could happen then is for that limb to break off.”

Meanwhile the leader of the House of Commons William Hague, given responsibility for formulating plans for English votes for English laws, has warned Ed Miliband that he has until the end of next month to agree measures to address the West Lothian question – or face having to vote against government proposals to be put before MPs to vote on before the General Election.

Hague told the Sunday Telegraph:

“The end of November is a crunch point. This question cannot be evaded, or evaded or ignored any longer. It is absolutely essential to address it now.

“The only people who are blocking this who are not committed to change are self-interested political parties rather than any voters anywhere in the country.”

Reiterating that the plans would continue “in tandem” with proposals to devolve further powers to Scotland, Hague continued:

“The House of Commons will want to vote on this before the general election and I am not going to do anything to stop it doing so.

“There will be debates and votes on this, in the absence of cross party agreement, and if necessary it will be part of the general election manifestos of the parties.”

The measure will increase further the pressure now faced by Ed Miliband as he struggles to regain Labour’s voice as a champion for all four corners of the UK.

Miliband has been criticised by the former home secretary Charles Clarke, who has argued that the Labour leader’s position on the issue – promising to hold a constitutional convention in a years’ time – was “hopeless” and “foolish”.

Ed Jacobs is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward

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