Policy Scotland’s Contribution to the Smith Commission Debate

by Ken Gibb

 The remarkable upsurge in political engagement during the referendum has been followed by a phase in which organisations and individuals across Scotland are preparing submissions to the Smith Commission. Smith is currently engaging in a wide consultation about what powers should be transferred to the Scottish Parliament, with the aim of obtaining a political consensus across all the main parties.

 Policy Scotland’s submission to Lord Smith raises a number of areas where more information and more thought is needed on the implications of changing tax raising and transferring welfare powers. Without this, the rush for a political fix for Scotland might result in an uneasy compromise that leads to instability. As we move forward to a devo-max or quasi federal solution for Scotland, the implications for the functioning of the Union as well as for the economic and social possibilities for communities, towns and cities, regions and nations across all of the UK need to be explored, bringing together the best research and leading thinkers.

 Our argument can be summarised as follows. In the past, ad hoc and asymmetric efforts at constitutional/structural reform have left the Westminster system largely intact, even as powers have been transferred. Despite devolution, the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is one of the most centralised systems amongst western democracies, with unresolved tensions between levels of government and an unwieldy system of making public choices that many people in Scotland and increasingly in other parts of the UK regard as lacking accountability.

 Arguments about ‘devolution’, ‘localism’ and ‘subsidiarity’ may have different origins and levels of support in different parts of the UK. But underlying them are the same imperatives: downward shifts of autonomy away from Whitehall and calls for a new governance of Britain focused not just on the devolved nations but also on local authorities, especially in the city-regions. The implications of the transfer of powers following the Scottish referendum are not confined to Scotland. The question for the UK as well as for Scotland is how can relations between different levels of government be shaped in a way that addresses economic and social objectives such as improving competitiveness and increasing fairness, both real and perceived, in a Union that works.

 We have submitted a working paper to the Smith Commission http://policyscotland.gla.ac.uk/new-ideas-new-time-scotlands-place-new-union/

written by Duncan Maclennan, Des McNulty and myself. We propose a programme of events and debates which will we hope produce something greater than the sum of its individual parts – a structured ideas network that will provide the space to start thinking coherently about a range of devolution and decentralisation issues that go well beyond the additional funding and spending powers of the Scottish Parliament but rather addresses the fiscal systems, decision-making and substantive choices that could operate in a more coherent decentralised and quasi-federal system of nations, regions and local government in the UK. 

This debate is about mechanisms for pooling and sharing, equalisation and autonomy; it is about recognising the responsibilities of greater financial autonomy and the consequences and choices that go with that. We live in austere times; more powers don’t necessarily mean a net increase in resources but they could deliver better processes for making choices and improving competitiveness, provided that the right choices are made and the system of distributing responsibilities between different levels of government is coherent. 

The timetable and the political focus of Smith might not give adequate time for a full investigation of the issues we think are central to this debate about greater real autonomy. But we would hope to inform Smith and what comes after – the legislative process for Scotland, the thinking about city deals and how to reform the Union by bringing together expertise from the University of Glasgow, from civic and academic Scotland, and from strong international connections to federal and decentralised governance and fiscal systems elsewhere in the world. 

We do not pretend we have the answers to all the questions about institutional design, fiscal structures and how to best promote the economic and social justice improvements we are raising. But what we will do is develop a series of debates focused on the key questions and we will publish the main findings in specific papers, audio-visual materials and in a final report in February 2015 setting a road map for further work and engaging directly with the Smith Commission outcomes. 

We will be working on a programme of events of different sizes and types. Some of these we will run ourselves and others we will co-badge with partners. We will embrace local community levels of interest, as well as local government and metropolitan regions (and we hope talking directly to the concerns of Strengthening Local Democracy), as well as the Scottish and UK nations. We will avowedly take an internationalist and evidence-based approach, building on academic and policy links to countries like Australia, Canada, the United States but also important federal models in places like India and Nigeria and decentralising initiatives underway in France. Reflecting on this evidence, setting it in context and learning lessons will be essential to the work we will undertake. 

We will publish on our Policy Scotland website details and dates for our programme of events as they emerge. If any of these discussions interest you, please do get in touch. We will also publish outcomes and other materials from each event as we go along. 

During the Referendum, Policy Scotland played a neutral role enabling debate and providing a platform for the campaigns and other voices to contribute to the independence debate. In this critical post referendum period where time is at a premium and there is so little space officially for a more thorough-going consideration of devo-max, federalism and decentralisation, especially in terms of its economic, financial design and governance implications, we believe we have the opportunity to facilitate and support such a process of knowledge sharing and development. But this will be a genuine ideas network – we do not know where the debate will take us or what the answers might be. All we are doing is honestly framing what we think are the key questions and facilitating debate with leading thinkers from civic and academic society. We think it will be both important to the future but also a rewarding experience.

Note: this post was also published on the Policy Scotland website.