Does Scotland need Home Rule, or just to use the powers it has?

Siobhan Mathers, Scottish Liberal Democrat activist, former (and, I hope, future) parliamentary candidate and policy convener argues in today’s Sunday Times (£) that it’s time that Scotland got a full home rule settlement. She sets out what she means by that:

I will use the fiscal definition that Scotland under home rule should raise what it spends — self-sufficiency — and the sovereignty-focused philosophical definition of Steel: “The principle of home rule is different from devolution. Under home rule, sovereignty lies with the Scottish people and we decide when it is sensible to give powers to the centre on issues like foreign affairs and defence.”

She says that there is no point waiting for the UK to sort out a federal structure for itself because it’s just not going to happen any time soon and that it’s in Scotland’s “enlightened self interest” to pursue full home rule to see off the demand for independence:

It strikes me as an act of misguided altruism to wait for the constitutional laggards, our bedfellows in the UK. Yes, it would be nice to help sort everyone else’s problems in how they relate to the constitutional parents in London, but it is not a priority for many.

During an air emergency, passengers are advised to put on their own oxygen masks before helping others. I would argue that Scotland’s relationship with Westminster is at such an emergency point and we need to pursue enlightened self-interest by focusing on our own problems first.

She goes on to say that home rule needs a rebranding. I personally don’t think that people really understand what it means and until it’s explained to them in very practical terms, they won’t be necessarily very interested. Constitutional talk has been too dull and dry and has allowed supporters of independence to paint that option as the only one which offers any hope.

The other thing worth mentioning is that nobody has yet used the powers given to Scotland in 1998 to the max. In fact, John Swinney pretty much gave away the power  during the SNP’s first term in office. Since then, the Scotland Act 2012 has given further tax raising powers and the forthcoming Scotland Bill adds more. Yet there’s no sign of anyone actually being creative about using them. The SNP have no interest in so doing because it doesn’t help their pro-independence argument to show that we can do well as part of the UK. It’s far easier for them to make the case that  everything is evil Westminster’s fault. It’s not, though. They have presided over catastrophic failings in health, education and policing in Scotland while underspending on their budget. That makes no sense.

I would like to see the Scottish Liberal Democrats devise a strategy for using the powers the Parliament has to deliver an ambitious programme to improve public services and make Scotland fairer. We can afford to be bold and radical. Some might argue that we can’t afford not to be. Willie Rennie is making good progress in developing the narrative that we need, as outlined in his latest broadcast:

Liberalism, at its heart, is about fairness, is about looking to the long term. Looking beyond our shores, to help other people in other parts of the world and pushing power right back down into communities so it can reflect the wide and varied country that we live in.

That is the essence of liberal democracy.

My message to people in Scotland is this:

If you want to get up and get on. To care for the people next door, across the world or in the future. If you want that combination of economic discipline and social justice. If you’re an aspirational Scot with a social conscience, then back the Liberal Democrats.

It would be a great shame if this election was about the constitution and not about the shambolic way the SNP is running so many of our vital public services. They can’t be allowed to avoid scrutiny of their record in government and it’s not good enough for them to blame Westminster for things that they control. However, being in any way defensive or not open to the idea of further powers would be a mistake. We should be relaxed about the prospect while advancing our own radical agenda for using the ones we have. If the SNP can’t do it, then we should tell them to, well, move over darlings, because we can.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • Is it not likely that people will not question SNP competence until Hone Rule (or Independence) is achieved?

    Caron’s account of Siobhan Manters’ article looks to me like a glimmer of hope for the Scottish Liberal Democrat Party.. Comprehensive settlements in UK politics is for the long grass; the issue of the place of Scotland in the UK is much more immediate than that. So much of Lib Dem stuff from Scotland is a mystery to me: I had been suspecting that the Party in Scotland might be a lot more conservative than in England. Possibly someone will enlighten me.

  • Shaun Cunningham 4th Oct '15 - 1:29pm

    Will there ever be a day when Scotland stops complaining. They have more autonomy others can only dream about.

    Powers devolved to Scottish parliament

    Agriculture, forestry and fisheries
    Education and training
    Health and Social Services
    Law and order
    Powers reserved by UK parliament
    Benefits and social security
    Local government
    Sport and the arts
    Tourism and economic development
    ‘Many aspects’ of transport

    Powers not devolved

    Foreign Policy
    Trade and industry
    Nuclear oil, coal, gas energy
    Consumer rights
    Data protection
    The Constitution

    Spending by the Scottish Parliament and local authorities on all the areas it controls is at least £38.5 billion, out of total identifiable spending (spending which can be attributed to a particular country in the UK – so excluding defence etc.) of £56 billion.
    In other words, the Scottish Parliament and local authorities control around 70% of identifiable spending in Scotland.

    Anyone would have thought Scotland was hard done- by……please remember iIndependence was rejected was it not.

  • Siobhan Mathers 4th Oct '15 - 2:45pm

    Seeing this within a Scottish context, which we have to, it made no sense to use the tax raising powers in place from the Scottish Parliament’s inception as we would lose a corresponding amount in Barnett transfers and would cost a lot to create a collection mechanism for such a small amount. To criticise the SNP for not using these powers, therefore, seems like gratuitous Nat bashing to me.

    Our stance on devolution of powers seems to have become progressively less radical over recent years. From leading the way in the Steel Commission a decade ago we now look far to cosy with the Westminster government, and decidedly unradical, in siding with them to say we should just get on and accept what they’re willing to give us. I think that is dangerous for our positioning in Scotland across the board particularly taking into consideration our recent history in coalition.

    For those from outwith Scotland who think we’ve got quite enough already, I’d say that from a perspective of fairness and accountability we need to be raising far more of what we spend in Scotland. New powers will take that to around 40% of money being spent in Scotland being raised here. That leaves us dependent on Westminster and not “manning up” to take responsibility for our own affairs.

    I have little faith that the new Scotland Bill will deliver an enduring settlement which works well for a 21st century Scotland. To say that we should just accept it and get on with it looks to me like sticking our heads in the sand.

  • “She says that there is no point waiting for the UK to sort out a federal structure…because it’s not going to happen anytime soon.”

    Perhaps it’s time for the LibDems to produce a coherent message on UK Federalism?

  • @cllr Mark Wright

    Actually Scotland’s is using the useful powers it has despite Carons claim that it isn’t. It’s income tax powers to date have been to vary only the basic rate which is worse than useless. The powers in the 2012 Act ( to vary all rates by the same amount again pretty uselesss in practice ) only come into effect n 2016 by which time in practice we will need to wait for the next powers in the 2015 Act to come into force. The Scottish Government has used it powers to introduce a successor to Stamp Duty and introduce stricter drink driving laws.

    I think the Lib Dems need to be honest; do they support “Home Rule” as they seem to claim or not. Scotland simply isn’t going to wait while they procrastinate from decade to decade.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 4th Oct '15 - 9:22pm

    Siobhan, Swinney was certainly at fault for not being upfront about letting the powers lapse. He got his knuckles slightly rapped for it in Parliament but it’s impossible not to like John Swinney so he got away with it. My point was that we need to show that we Lib Dems have to show some credible ,and radical and practical ideas for using the powers that we have and are about to get as well as being relaxed about the prospect of more. My view is that if it makes sense for the power to be with the Scottish government, then it should be there.

  • James Ridgwell 5th Oct '15 - 8:08am

    ‘home rule’ as defined by Siobhan sounds like ‘full fiscal autonomy’ (FFA). In my view, this is almost independence, and would be the final staging post to full independence. I guess that’s why (if I understand correctly), SNP are in the medium term aiming for FFA (if they can’t get full independence in one go before that). FFA implies little risk/resource sharing on most public spending, eg wefare, infrastructure, etc – in the age of the welfare state, risk/resource sharing on defence alone is pretty thin and the ties that bind Scotland to the rest of us would be brittle and weak. Worse than that, the lack of meaningful fiscal transfer through significant shared tax and spend at the UK level would also probably bring about all of the problems of a currency union without fiscal transfers as demonstrated by the euro.

    From a liberal perspective, there is balance to be stuck constitutionally – we want as much power held as locally as is sensible, but we also fundamentally believe that cooperation not separation is the right way for people to organise themselves. Hence being pro-EU, and (generally) against separation. I think FFA is too far in the ‘separation’ direction. There are advantages to having UK level tax and spend on some welfare, health and other spending (with significant eg Scottish variation of tax and spend possible on top of that) – where if one end of the UK is temporarily doing well economically it can help sub another areas and visa versa etc. That would be the model already followed by long lasting and successful federal states in the modern world and I think would be vital for a stable settlement and £ currency area.

  • Moving on from my comments on Federalism, the forthcoming Scottish elections will present an interesting challenge for the Lib Dems and Labour. Both parties are clearly being out flanked on the Unionist argument by the Scottish Tories who, I imagine, will also campaign vigorously for Tax cuts during the election.

    So how do the SLD present themselves? Are they also going to campaign for tax cuts along with the Tories, or tax rises (does anyone remember the SNP ‘A Penny for Scotland’ campaign’?), or sticking with the status quo? What ever they do the SLD (and Labour) will be damned by the SNP/Yes voters, and the final option would be a disaster IMO. I will also be very interested to see the demographics of under 25 voters who, according to the polls and surveys, are far more pro-union than their over 25 siblings, and who simply don’t remember the Thatcher and Major years.

    I believe there is a significant chance that the Tories will be the official opposition in Holyrood come May 2016 unless the LibDems and/or Labour are truly radical in their election policies and campaigning.

  • At last a call for us to return to our principles!! We believe in power being vested as close to the people as possible. We were strong advocates of Home Rule for Ireland. We are the party of Internationalism. We should always be campaigning for Home Rule or fully fledged Independence whichever is most appropriate. Eire has done just fine since being independent . Since joining the EU with us in 1973 they have embraced the EU wholeheartedly and far outperformed our economy. Despite the crash and their bailout they are now 20% wealthier than the UK. They also have an £8bn / year trade surplus. No oil but massive Foreign Direct Investment has fuelled their growth. Scotland.

  • Just to clarify a further point made by Caron. No taxation powers have lapsed or been allowed to lapse. What did lapse was the agreement between the ST and HMRC which provided for the SG to pay a substantial annual sum to HMRC so that it maintained the capability to collect a different Scottish income tax. As I understand it Swinney decided against renewing it when HMRC in addition demanded several million pounds for an IT upgrade.

  • Where does this leave Wales ?
    I am sure that if Scotland gets its independence, then Wales must follow in declaration of independence.
    Can anyone think that Wales will be given a fair deal from the UK? Given the UK will be run by a centralist Tory party until 2020 with most of its power based in London.
    Yes, a federal system will save Britain but where is the Liberal democrats to put the case ?
    Is there still a case for the UK, given that SNP and Plaid want to remain in the European Union ?

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