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Fit a fankle aboot Federalism!



In an interesting recent editorial, Scotland on Sunday observed the SNP government didn’t hold robust views on what we might describe as the various stations between status quo and independence.

In an interesting recent editorial, Scotland on Sunday observed the SNP government didn’t hold robust views on what we might describe as the various stations between status quo and independence.

Now the government might claim that’s a bit unfair, particularly as they have tried to stake out their ground on the shortcomings in both the Smith Commission and the recent ‘Enduring settlement...’ command paper.

Actually I think Scotland on Sunday was being pretty fair, although to be fairer still they would have extended their criticism to all (or at least most of) the parties trying to win our votes this year, and next, and then the year after – for local government elections.

Actually I’d go further and suggest that most of us – whether we spend near obsessive amounts of time thinking about the constitution of the UK/GB/Scotland or just (occasionally) cast a vote whenever we think it’s really important – don’t really think hard about the implications of the 'neo federalism' we are moving towards, even if that movement is in fits and starts and very erratic.

Just a few instances of where some of these gaps in our thinking are:

1) One of the key themes that emerged from the referendum and the aftermath was a sense of social solidarity between the different components of the UK – most expressed in the rather sentimental attachment to a common state pension (and indeed other forms of social security benefit). Yet when that is put to the test it’s clear that lots of us would abandon that solidarity if we thought we’d benefit materially. I can only assume that is why the Labour Party has recently highlighted the possibility of Holyrood powers to increase benefits of various kinds. This was expressed as some form of cash transfer within an overall budget – so, for example, less on pre-school child provision or supporting film production, more on housing benefit or pensions.

In principle, exactly what any form of federalised government allows is not likely to be popular with those who want more on childcare and film studios – and actually unlikely to yield much for those additional cash benefits. In countries that are accustomed to – and more comfortable with - the variations that flow from federal arrangements the majority of the population are used to it and accept it. So if you live in the US, commit and be convicted of murder in a death penalty state then you get a tougher punishment than in a non-death penalty state. C’est la vie.

2) At a recent meeting the CSPP organised along with the Campaign for Scottish Home Rule we discussed what Home Rule meant – and the CSHR has some underlying principles which point a direction to this, but are not absolutely definitive. Some of the people present were near adamant that the phrase 'Home Rule' was long understood by lots of people as synonymous with 'independence'. Now clearly that is not the interpretation that the current (or recent) SNP leadership place on that phrase; rather they go with – 'everything apart from defence and foreign affairs'.

Leaving internal SNP arguments to one side, it would be really interesting to see what Fiona Hyslop and Humsa Yousaf have to say about this idea. After all one of them loses a job and the other sees her current post butchered. And the corollary of that kind of settlement would be that the sphere of government is perhaps best placed to represent us in Brussels fishing talks – Ministers here in Scotland, where the bulk of the UK fleet is – are not invited to watch, leave alone join discussions.

Is that really what Alex Salmond anticipates if his second best outcome is where we end up?

3) Clearly there is impending turmoil in and around Aberdeen, if oil prices stick where they are for a long time. That – as we saw this week – fuels the long standing Aberdeen & /shire argument that the region is under-supported by Scottish government money.

What we see in that part of the North East is the reality of fiscal equalisation – Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire receive less support than, say, North and East Ayrshire – and that’s life as well.

With a more devolved/neo-federal arrangement in these islands, there would continue to be redistribution (or equalisation) but probably less flow in the direction of Scotland. Are we really ready for that?

       
Centre for Scottish Public Policy
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