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The 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum - Pro-independence movement since September 2014

Updated Monday 2nd March 2015

How as the pro-independence movement fared since September 2014?

The initial feelings of depression, despair and rage that characterised the immediate post-September 18 aftermath, soon gave way to a new round of rallies, packed meetings and a determination to ‘do something’. As with the SNP, the other pro-Independence parties and organisations have also grown in the months following the Referendum. The Scottish Greens by over 5,500 and the Scottish Socialist Party by over 1,000 new members within a month of the Referendum.
 
The socialist-leaning Radical Independence Campaign held a conference in Glasgow in mid-November 2014 which attracted an audience of 3,000. Women for Independence have also drawn large numbers to events and 1,000 attended a Woman for Independence conference in Perth in early October 2014. The big question was however, to do what?
 
Clearly the Labour Party’s key role in securing the union has put it in the front of the firing line as far as the pro-Independence movement is concerned – as well as with a good number of Labour’s more traditional supporters – and among Party members and affiliated unions. The site of Labour politicians celebrating victory in the early hours of Friday September 19 with Tories did not go down at all well and not surprisingly is among the more potent weapons being used by its opponents in the build-up to the 2015 General Election.
 
That 45% of voters voted for Independence gave rise initially to ideas that a movement of ‘the ‘45’ could generate a party that would stand in opposition to Labour in May 2015. However, that has only opened-up conflicting views in the YES movement as has the idea that all those who supported Independence should subsequently rally around and give support to the SNP – at least for the 2015 General Election. While this has found favour among some on the Scottish left, for others it is a step too far and represents a pandering to nationalism and a dilution of the traditional radical message of the left.
 
Elsewhere among the various left parties and groups in Scotland, there is also uncertainty if they can be brought together to fight on a united platform either.
 
The other controversy surrounds the question of support for devolution-max, that is the maximum devolution of additional powers to Scotland, while it remains as part of the Union. The SNP have clearly nailed their colours to the mast of devolution-max. In some respects their vision of Independence for Scotland wasn’t too far removed from devo-max ideas. But among the Scottish left, while devo-max may be supported as a way of challenging the main parties, it does not involve anything approaching the radical transformation of Scottish society that it was argued that full Scottish Independence would potentially lead to. For them Scottish Independence was a means to an end, not an end in itself.
 
However, the devo-max issue and the provision of additional powers for Scotland has become the main battleground in the post-Referendum aftermath and this will also help to shape the political climate surrounding the 2015 General Election in Scotland.

The Smith Commission and Controversies around Further Devolution for Scotland

In some ways the outcome of the Independence Referendum reflects the long-held favoured political position of the majority of voters in Scotland – for what has over recent years been termed ‘Devolution-max’. ‘Devo-max’ is a somewhat flexible and vague notion but which nonetheless suggests the maximum devolution of powers to Scotland while it remains within the UK. This usually means all powers would come to Scotland expect for those relating to defence, foreign affairs, trade and citizenship / immigration legislation.
 
There was no option for this in the Independence Referendum, which was a straightforward choice between YES and NO to Independence for Scotland. The outcome of the Referendum then reflects what had been a majority view, that is for 'more devolution'. Around 70% of Scottish voters were in favour of this pre the Independence Referendum being announced in early 2012 – but this was largely sidelined in the Referendum itself and by the rise of the pro-Independence vote.
 
Prior to the Referendum, Labour, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats were in favour of more devolution to Scotland (to varying degrees), with the Liberals also favouring a federalist UK. It was the decision of the Conservative-dominated UK Coalition Government not to have an option for this on the Independence Ballot Paper but only one question. For Cameron this represented the best bet in terms of providing the hoped for decisive defeat of Scottish nationalism, and this was confirmed in the October 2012 Edinburgh Agreement.
 

Devo-max

However, the question of devo-max has returned to the top of the political agenda following the Independence Referendum. On the morning of Friday September 19, David Cameron announced the establishment of a commission under Lord Smith of Kelvin, to report by the end of November 2014, on additional powers for Scotland. This appeared initially to be fully in line with the promise made in the ‘vow’ only 4 days earlier of more powers if Scotland voted NO. However, the question of future powers for Scotland was immediately tied to the provision of additional powers for all the devolvedcountries of the UK, and in particular on the question of devolution and powers for England. Since then the idea of English Votes for English Laws (EVEL) has become common currency in political debate about the future constitutional settlements of the UK as a whole.
 
However a commitment to move towards new legislation for extended powers for the Scottish Parliament by 2015 was a clear outcome of the referendum process. It was evident that both YES, as well as NO voters were voting, not for the status quo, but for substantial change – indeed for powers that approximate to something close to ‘devo-max’. According to Lord Ashcroft’s on the day post-result poll, 25% of NO voters voted that way because they believed that Scotland would receive significant devolved powers while remaining as part of the UK more than enough to have secured a clear victory for the YES vote had they been persuaded by the pro-Independence campaign that the main UK parties would not deliver on such.
 
One difficulty facing the three main UK parties is that the outcome of the Independence Referendum, and the promise of additional powers for Scotland, has raised expectations that exceed the proposals which have subsequently emerged in the report of the Smith Commission at the end of November 2014. 
 
Further, none of the main UK parties is advocating anything that comes remotely close to devo-max ideas. In turn, of course, plays directly into the hands of the SNP who have become the party, not of Independence, at least in the short term, but the party now campaigning to ensure that the promises made in the September 16 ‘vow’ are fully implemented – that is, something approaching devolution max. Alex Salmond commented in terms that have been widely quoted that the SNP will ensure that Scotland ‘holds Westminster’s feet to the fire’ to obtain all the additional powers due to Scotland.
 
Prior to the September Referendum the main Westminster parties had put forward alternative and contrasting proposals for further devolution to Scotland. The Conservatives, surprisingly given their historic antipathy to devolution, appeared to be the most ambitious. Its Strathclyde Commission report of May 2014 proposed that the Scottish Government would be responsible for setting the rates and bands of income tax in Scotland. This shows the importance of welfare issues in the entire Scottish Independence debate.
 
However, whilst on the one hand the suggestion that income tax should be devolved to Scotland looks very positive, on the other, it accounts for only one third of total ‘tax-take’ and corporation tax and other large income generating taxes were not to be devolved. Thus Scotland’s future finances are entirely dependent on the vagaries of the Scottish tax base. Labour’s proposals, set out in the Labour Devolution Commission report were more limited in relation to the devolving of elements of income taxation, but one common theme of both commissions is a commitment to a UK wide social welfare system, with social security and benefits remaining as reserved powers. Labour did argue for some areas of welfare to be devolved, including attendance allowance and housing benefits, also supported by the Scottish Tories.
 
The promise of additional powers for Scotland had raised expectations among a considerable proportion of the Scottish public that the proposals to subsequently emerge from the Smith Commission would be something approaching devo-max. It is the debate that has surrounded the Smith Commission proposals and the future of more powers for Scotland which is now shaping Scottish politics, and is now the central fault line between the pro-union and pro-Independence parties in the post-Referendum landscape.
 
Central to the Smith Commissions proposals was that Scotland will get some additional powers over taxation, in particular it has recommended the devolution of all income tax rates and bandings. The Labour Party's backing for this plan, which goes well beyond its original position for further devolution provides some indication that it was aware  that it would not be forgiven by voters if it emerged from this entire process having acted as a brake on progress. The Scottish Government is also to be allocated a substantial proportion of VAT revenues gathered in Scotland, control over Air Passenger Duty and control over Crown Estate assets.
 
On welfare the Commission recommended that a range of benefits be fully devolved, including those supporting older people, carers, the sick and disabled. Holyrood's capacity to bring in new benefits in existing devolved areas and to make discretionary welfare payments in others are important additional powers. While some charities and campaigning organisations in Scotland hoped that Holyrood would be given complete control over benefits such as Universal Credit, instead of powers to vary elements of it, taken together, these measures do give the Scottish Government some more influence over policies affecting the poor and vulnerable.
 
For the Labour Party in particular, that the proposals did not involve the full devolution of welfare was particularly welcomed, given its support for a UK-wide welfare system, which it argued throughout the Referendum debate was best able to support all of those in the greatest need while guaranteeing minimum standards for all across the entire UK, building on solidarity and the pooling of resources across the UK nations and regions.
 
On the vexed issue of the extent to which the Scottish Parliament should be responsible for raising the majority of money it spends, it soon became clear that he Smith Commission proposals would fail to satisfy all sides of the debate. Much of this has also revolved around the degree of public expenditure and resources that would come under the control of the Scottish Government. Devolved taxes and assigned tax revenues under Smith amount to £20 billion; the SNP says that comes to 48 per cent of Scottish Government spending, while the pro-UK parties say that is more than 60 per cent. The discrepancy arises because the UK parties' figure is calculated as a percentage of the budget ministers directly control, while the SNP adds to that discretionary spending on matters such as public sector pensions that Scottish ministers do not control.
 
In truth, even the lower figure, at just short of half Scotland's overall spending, goes further than some predicted this settlement ever would. Further common sense measures include devolution of power over the Work Programme, licensing of onshore oil and gas extraction and control over Scottish parliament and local elections.
 
However, some commentators picked up on stories that proposals for further devolution, particularly in relation to welfare, were watered down at the last minute. See links below:
 
 
Others claimed that the new powers were ‘thrilling’ and would see Scotland move ‘inexorably towards social democracy’, leaving English politics as ‘more reactionary than ever’.
 
It was of course entirely predictable that the proposals from the Smith Commission would not meet with universal acclaim and there is evidence that they fall well below the expectation of the majority of those contributing to the Commission. According to the breakdown of submissions received in terms of what additional powers were being asked for, the highest recorded was for devolution-max, followed by full fiscal autonomy, then the devolution of welfare benefits, and home rule.
 
New Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has claimed that the Smith proposals fall seriously short of the promises made by the three main UK parties in the days before the Independence Referendum. Those parties' use of language that was open to interpretation, such as Home Rule, may have been expedient for them at the time, but has been turned against them by pro-Independence campaigners, including the SNP, who have naturally placed the most radical definition on the terminology. The stress on the devolution of areas of income tax means that Scottish Government would not have any control over key areas such as corporation tax and other large tax generating policies, such as national insurance and land taxation. This has led to claims that the proposals of the Smith Commission amount to the devolution of ‘responsibility without power’.
In their submission on behalf of the Jimmy Reid Foundation to the Smith Commission, Jim and Margaret Cuthbert, see this as a particular problem.

Extra powers

There are other aspects to this. The promise of extra powers for Scotland may not necessarily be a good thing. This may at first seem a strange comment, but extra powers without additional control over resources could be problematic. As a result Scotland could actually be worse off with additional powers. If we take social welfare, for instance, we can see that the devolution of housing benefit may look positive, but without adequate resourcing it could become an even more limited benefit with more conditions attached – and therefore in some ways making that benefit more restricted. While it is the three main pro-union parties which claimed that Scottish Independence would lead to a significant deterioration in public services, social welfare, wages etc. Ironically, then, social welfare in Scotland may become more convergent with the general policy landscape that prevails in England if powers over resources and all types of taxation are not devolved to Scotland.
 
Writing in The Herald in late September 2014 and in advance of the publication of the proposals of the Smith Commission, Iain Macwhirter argued that the main UK parties, but particularly the Tories, in advocating income tax devolution, were laying a trap for Scotland.
 
(Conservative) Scottish party leader Ruth Davidson isn't proposing income tax devolution because she wants to see Scotland become a more socialist place, or because the Tories are somehow committed to a federal Britain. It is about hard politics. If income tax is devolved in isolation from other revenue raising taxes such as excise duties, corporation tax and oil revenues, the Scottish Parliament will be in a deep financial hole…. This is because Scottish public spending levels cannot be financed by income taxes alone. …..
 
If you throw all or most of the cost of Scottish spending onto income tax you are looking at around £4bn in cuts. What the Tories hope is this: the financial squeeze will force radical service cuts that will damage the SNP fatally, because they will have to implement them, and will undermine Labour by reducing its public sector client base. Most public sector workers vote Labour….
 
The Tories will argue instead for a tax freeze and go to the country promising to cut income taxes in Scotland at some future date. Hard-pressed middle class voters will then have a direct incentive to vote for their "natural" party which Tories believe are the Conservatives. From the Herald. 
 
The Smith Commission recommendations have not quelled in any way the ongoing debates about Scotland’s constitutional future – nor indeed of controversies around the implications of additional powers for Scotland for other parts of the UK. The Smith Commission proposals will have to secure the agreement of the UK Government, and given the growing opposition to further powers for Scotland among many backbench Conservative MPs in particular, it is not guaranteed a smooth ride into the statute books.
In Scotland it has further fuelled the widespread feeling that the promises made by the main pro-union (that is pro-UK union) party leaders have been reneged upon. Even though the package contains proposals that would have been unthinkable in 1999 when the Scottish Parliament was re-established, reminding us once more that devolution is a continuing process.
 
Not surprisingly there have been markedly different reactions to the Smith Commission from the different sides on the Independence debate. However, it has also become evident that draft proposals to devolve more powers to Scotland – and promises that the Barnett funding formula which it is claimed is unfairly generous towards Scotland at the expense of Wales, for instance, would be secure – has UK wide implications and is fuelling demands for devolution for England and further powers for other countries within the UK.
 
This article is part of a series of articles on the 2014 Scottish Referendum.

 

 

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