Friday, September 19, 2014

Vows, Powers and Federalism: Post-Referendum

So that’s a No vote in the referendum and I hear people from both sides of the debate already looking to the future, a future in which the Scottish Parliament is to be given greater powers. People in England too are talking about change. Everyone remarks on how the turnout was a great thing for democracy and involvement (I agree) and on how change is now inevitable. I suspect radical change is inevitable but these may not constitute the change voters in Scotland wanted or expected.

I think we have a massive problem. David Cameron, far craftier than he often appears, has immediately shifted talk of (unidentified) powers for Scotland to talk of federalism in England and to deny votes for Scottish MPs on English matters. Initially this sounds reasonable. It will form part of a populist agenda, delivering on those rather oblique ‘vows’ (isn’t it easy to deliver something when no one really understands what was promised in the first place?) and making out that the Scottish vote has galvanised support for radical change in England. However, this is a right-wing Conservative government, propped up by the dead-men-walking Liberal Democrats, and their sudden enthusiasm for constitutional change should be ringing alarm bells in our heads. Loudly. Conservatives do not tend to put power in the hands of the people. Naturally, they tend to consolidate the status quo and strengthen power in the hands of those who already have it i.e. people like themselves.

Let’s imagine the scenario of the next election being won by Labour with a small majority. However, they are unable to pass any laws on health, education etc because Scottish MPs cannot vote on these issues, which are devolved to the Scottish Parliament. Despite the Labour majority, the Conservatives would have enough MPs to pass a law effectively destroying what’s left of the NHS. This would slash state health funding throughout the UK. The Barnett formula, or whatever disadvantageous variation remains, would allocate a now much smaller sum to the Scottish Parliament health budget, and the NHS would therefore become unsustainable in Scotland even though Scottish MPs had no say in the matter at Westminster. Labour would find themselves unable to pass laws on all kinds of vital services. Only a very big majority for Labour could guarantee a stable Labour government. Whether New Labour would protect the health service even with a large majority is (shockingly!) open to question in any case.

Federalism in England may also give Conservative-held councils the ability to slash social services, while councils presiding over areas of significant deprivation will see their budgets proving even more inadequate than at present.

Many people in Scotland are suspicious that Westminster will not deliver the ‘powers’ they promised. I think they will deliver alright, with gusto, at terrible cost both for Scotland and for the cause of social justice in the rest of the UK. In Scotland, we will complain, of course, but we have no legs left to stand on. It’s what a majority of people voted for in the referendum, whether they realised they were voting for it or not.

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