Devolution or Independence?

It is with some trepidation that I offer this contribution to the debate over Scottish independence. After all, I am English by birth and ancestry (more specifically a Yorkshireman), and my home has been Wales for most of the last 50 years. So I do not have a vote in the referendum; but, as others have said, I do have a voice.

Just so you know where I stand: I am sure that if I were Scottish, I would be voting ‘Yes’. I think my heart would probably have said ‘Yes’ from the beginning, and my head would have joined in after reading the White Paper, “Scotland’s Future”, available here, which I believe shows that independence is a practical possibility.

Others will, of course, disagree; and the main impetus for this post comes from one such disagreement, in this case by Stephen Doughty, the Labour MP for Cardiff South, as expressed last week on the Labour List website. He suggests that:

“Devolution – not independence – is the right vehicle for ambitions of strong nations with a shared purpose.”

As an aside, I’m not sure how this might match up with the independence of the EU nations who have a shared purpose; however, this issue is certainly one worthy of consideration. It would be good to have a reasoned debate over the relative merits of these two approaches, as they might apply to Scotland, but if this has happened, I haven’t seen it. Instead, much of the ‘No’ campaign has played on the uncertainty of independence. Mr. Doughty is no exception:

“In stark contrast to the unchartered and abyssal waters of independence, we know what devolution delivers.”

Soe we have the uncertainty of independence versus what is ‘known’ about devolution. The problem is, it is very misleading to suggest that devolution itself is not uncertain.

To begin with, 15 years ago it was the good ship ‘Devolution’ that was about to set sail into unchartered and possibly abyssal waters, following the first elections to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. And uncertainty over what devolution might mean was just as much a feature of the ‘No’ campaign a couple of years before that as it is now. It is only with the benefit of hindsight that “we know what devolution delivers”.

But the real uncertainty is over the future of devolution, with the previous and potential future gains under threat in several ways. Here are some of the threats, in no particular order.

First, the devolved powers were granted by the UK Parliament, and could also be taken away or challenged by them. For example, in December last year, the House of Lords removed some of the Scottish parliament’s powers relating to renewable energy; and this year a Welsh Agriculture Bill was challenged in the courts. (The challenge was struck down, but it did cost taxpayers’ money.)

Second, the ability to exercise devolved powers is dependent on the funding available – which is controlled by the UK Parliament. This has already been cut as part of the UK Governments austerity measures; there are concerns that the privatisation of the English NHS may be an excuse to reduce equivalent Scottish and Welsh funding; and even suggestions that Scotland already receives too much.

Third, even if devolved powers are not removed, there have been suggestions which would reduce the ability of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly to use them fully. For example, Gordon Brown has suggested that the Scottish education system should be brought into line with the rest of the UK; and Andy Burnham has said that there should be more commonality regarding health services across the UK. How can devolution work if devolved areas are brought back under UK control?

Finally, although the main UK parties have offered more devolution if Scotland votes ‘No’, it is not clear what theis might mean, what extra powere there might be; and there have been recent suggestions from some prominent voices (e.g. Boris Johnson) that this might not happen at all.

So, can devolution continue to deliver for the people of Scotland and Wales? Who knows?

Both devolution and independence are uncertain; but there is a big difference in the nature of this uncertainty. Although the exercise of devolved powers is within the Scottish Parliament (and Welsh Assembly), the nature of those powers and the funding for them lies with the UK government, outside any reasonable control or even influence from Scotland (or Wales). Independence for Scotland would give more control to the Scottish Government.

In 1997 the people of Scotland and Wales voted to brave the uncertainties of devolution and take up the challenge of both the risks and the opportunites that this might bring. Will the people of Scotland do the same for independence?

Remember: a ship in the harbour is safe; but that’s not what ships were built for.

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