For those of us who regard devolution as the fusty, cluttered waiting-room for independence, and who rely on the constitutional fairmindedness of the Westminster state as far as we could tip it into the Thames, the “fiscal framework” dispute isn’t the most gripping, inspiring affair.
But before the detail resolves itself, and the vape-filled rooms clear, there has been something ironic to enjoy. At times it’s felt like an am-dram rehearsal of what macro-economic relations might well have been like under an “Indy Lite” victory in September 2014 (and may well be again). ‘Holyrood set for historic powers transfer after fiscal framework deal finally agreed’.
Wasn’t the scenario often floated that a Sterling Zone would imply “sensible” negotiations about overall tax-and-spend packages between Mr Swinney and the Bank of England/Chancellor, in order that the economies would, well, incur not that much relative “detriment”?
Because, as we were regularly told by Salmond, the essential harmony between the performance levels of two economies is what would make the currency union work anyway – at least, in terms of assuaging wider financial markets that the whole construction would proceed stably?
Well, that’s what I remember (and I remember being not that crazy about the Sterling Zone anyway). Worth noting that, hilariously, Boris Johnson’s single announcement of his intent to join the Leave campaign in the EU referendum has caused more financial damage to “Oor Ain Poond” on global markets in one day than the threat of Scots Independence-in-Threadneedle-Street ever did. What, aren’t you laughing?
As the Scottish ministerial BA flights rack up, at least as professional political theatre, this situation doesn’t feel that different. Each process has its sanctified clause of agreement – the Edinburgh Agreement’s commitment to “constructive” working after the event, and the Smith Commission’s principle of “no detriment”.
And no doubt, under the harsh and penetrating Sauron stare of international bodies and nervy/predatory markets around a post-Yes vote, those “constructive” relations would have ensued (and will ensue).
But maybe the devolution-averse like myself should listen to the old gradualists a bit more. The ratchet effect of Scottish self-government has gotten us to a level where there are quite a few opportunites to act (or strut) “as if” Scotland was independent already.
Foreign economic policy develops apace (Bill Kidd and Tasmina Sheikh in Iran, Salmond – no, not Nixon – in China, etc), declarations of “innovation nation” are made. Not only do there seem to be significant broadcasting concessions about to be made to BBC Scotland in the forms of a Scottish Six. But Prestwick might even be a spaceport soon! Ad astra, Nova Scotia!
For me, the continuing and huge frustration of the No vote is that – for all the White Paper’s fatal muffing of the currency issue – there was still, deep inside there, a plan to start a state afresh. To look at efficiencies in the design of so many areas – whether welfare, taxation, land use, r&d investment, public service media, public diplomacy, and all the ways they could join up together anew. What an extraordinary opportunity for institutional clarity and functionality. Let’s hope we get it again.
But in the meantime – until the old Palace and its shuffling fossils are sucked into Chthulu’s maw, somewhere beneath Tower Bridge – I do have a basic respect for what the ScotGov are trying to wrest out of the situation, and build into the Scottish polity, as the UK totters a little under its own decay, and opens up options.
I am properly ambivalent, and flip around the issue day by day, on tax-raising powers. Should we try to make progress towards a level of overall taxation-in-relation-to-GDP at Danish levels anyway, on the basis that a better Scottish society should be drawing different social-democratic boundaries, but that we maybe should get used to how that feels first? And trust to constitutional and historical momentum to eventually bring in the nation-state arrangement which will make that logical and viable?
Or do we persist in pointing out the combination of Byzantine complexity, and incoherent sovereignty, that “power devolved is power retained” means? The rank absurdity of what now looks darkly like a long stretch of Conservative government, pulling in a radically diverent socio-economic direction from our own? How can any “commission” of good souls deal with the omissions of a Scottish polity that has less than independence?
What’s my position? It depends how impatient my inner Angry Corrie is, of a morning. As it is, I was listening to Swinney first thing this morning as he gave testimony to the Holyrood economy committee. I noted and enjoyed the subtlety that he had sneaked into one of his answers about the “no detriment” principle. No detriment applies to the basic financial structures of how the two adminstrations went forward – but Swinney also assured his audience that it also allowed for revenue generated by “better performance” in Scottish parliament over and above those structures, and with those revenues to be retained in the Holyrood budget.
Really? Will that one get through? Because that sounds like the opening up of a Devo-Quite-Big, in fact almost a Californian-federal front. Even within the stupid, horrible limitations of devolution – our inability to stop the crippling of our renewables industry, or the maddening recommission of Trident – it looksl like we still have some opportunity to modernise and grow, according to our own decisions. (Though I hope we have more Greens and RISE after May, so we can start a proper conversation about different visions of “growth” for Scotland).
So while robots get smarter, migrants are thrown round the world, the planet warms, potable water recedes, our societies age, tyrants tyrannize and global poverty is still a utter fucking outrage, it is at least good to know that our trusted YeSNP tribunes can negotiate effectively with their silky opponents in the UK Establishment. To a greater and nobler ultimate end, we all trust.