Just back from Edinburgh where I attended the launch of the Calman Commission's Final Report - a very hefty document which outlines the Commission on Scottish Devolution's findings from a year of investigation and debate on the future of devolution.
I have to say that it was a slightly underwhelming event. As has been covered in the media, the main proposals are devolution of aspects of taxation (a section of income tax, along with four other areas such as Stamp Duty), devolution of certain legislative areas such as air gun control and drink driving levels, and a certain level of reform of the intra-governmental workings of Holyrood and Westminster.
The key aspect of the launch was the fact that there is every chance that this will not go anywhere. The Commission was launched as reaction to the Scottish Government's National Conversation rather than necessarily from a belief that the time for re-evaluating devolution was upon us. As such, it lacks an immediate impetus to its recommendations, particularly since the SNP's referendum is essentially dead in the water. The Commission's findings were, to me at least, also reduced in impact by the repeated assertion that they were a) unanimous and b) had considered all options. The idea that a panel composed of members of the Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems, trade unions, the CBI Scotland and other disparate opinions implies that they must have therefore made pretty weak recommendations in order to create unity. In addition, the Commission did not consider all options as they excluded discussion of independence - this is not in itself a problem, but they should be upfront about the agenda behind their work.
The idea of devolving the income tax powers to Scotland (building upon the Scottish Variable Tax powers which already exist but haven't ever been used) is certainly an interesting one. There is a problem just now as the Scottish Government (regardless of political colour) exists to spend money without accountability for raising their own funds. However the fact that the Government would be able to vary the actual amount of income tax without being able to increase or decrease the gaps between the tax bands (or indeed alter the tax bands themselves) limits the ability of the Scottish Government to use income tax to fully pursue ideological measures (i.e. tax cutting to a flat tax or raising the top band to fund spending). If taxation is going to be devolved enough to allow variation between Scotland and the rest of the UK, then it should surely be devolved enough to allow a distinct Scottish Government to pursue its own stated political aims as fully as possible.
The devolution of certain further powers to Holyrood will be supported across the board, as the SNP have already been arguing for many of them - indeed the SNP will probably be quite satisfied with the outcome of the Commission. Needless to say oil tax revenue was excluded from devolution - I don't think anyone expected anything else!
I think that the Commission has explored some interesting issues, but I think that the nature of the process (it was quite stuffy and formal, which excluded lots of 'normal' people from the debate) has somewhat limited the impact of its recommendations. I am sure that it will provoke continued debate on Scotland's constitutional future but I think that, like the National Conversation it set out to compete with, it has failed to answer the questions.
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