Five reasons Scottish devolution plans are doomed to failure

‘We both knew that wouldn’t fly, Dave.’ Robert Perry/EPA

When David Cameron met with Nicola Sturgeon to consider further devolution for Scotland, it became obvious that the Conservative party’s plans to implement the Smith Commission report would cut no ice.

Indeed, with the benefit of hindsight, you can see that the Smith report was doomed to failure. It represented a quick fix, which contributed to the success of the Scottish National Party (SNP) in the recent UK election. But even I was surprised that it proved so inadequate, so quickly. If you look back at the history of Scottish devolution, it’s easy to see where plans for the Smith report went wrong.

1. Devolution didn’t kill nationalism

The idea behind devolution was that it would satisfy most people in Scotland. At the time of the 1997 referendum, most people felt primarily Scottish but also British. Devolution represented the “best of both worlds” – a chance to remain part of the UK, while being able to elect a Scottish government responsible for key decisions in areas such as health, education, housing and justice. Further, George Robertson’s famous suggestion that devolution would “kill nationalism stone dead” symbolised the hope that it would expose supporters of independence as a small minority.

In fact, Scottish devolution actually gave the SNP a platform; the chance to develop an image as a non-extreme and competent party, trusted in government and impossible to side-line.

2. Previous attempts proved inadequate

The 2007 Scottish parliament elections saw a narrow SNP victory, and the party went on to form a minority government. The response of the UK parties was to block a referendum on Scottish independence, and help establish the Calman Commission to “secure the position of Scotland within the United Kingdom”.

Calman proposed a modest amount of devolved powers, including the ability to vary income taxes by 10 pence in the pound. These proposals were established, eventually, in the Scotland Act 2012. This allowed the UK parties to guarantee further powers to Scotland during the referendum debate, given that much of the Act would be implemented after the referendum.

Daily Record

And yet, those same parties seemed to recognise that the 2012 Act was inadequate. Indeed, as soon as one published poll (and perhaps several private polls) suggested that a majority of people might vote Yes to independence, they reacted with the now famous “Vow”, on the front of the Daily Record, which promised “extensive new powers” while maintaining Scotland’s financial settlement. The parties also seemed to defer to Gordon Brown’s suggestion that the Vow would be delivered remarkably quickly. And so, the Smith Commission was set up almost immediately, and its report translated into draft legislation before the UK general election.

3. They did it the wrong way

Although the Smith Commission could have delivered the new devolved settlement, it was produced too quickly to give any sense that the proposals were well thought-out, or based on meaningful negotiations between the Yes/No parties. It was also produced with too little “civil society” input to give anyone the sense that it was supported by key parts of the Scottish population.

Although Calman made some effort to include a large number and wide range of people in its deliberations, the Smith process was laughably short. To all intents and purposes, it served as a vehicle for the UK parties to agree among themselves. This further-devolution line only held when the SNP was not in the position to secure something more.

4. UK parties were wiped out in Scotland

The Smith report became damaged goods as soon as those UK parties were almost wiped out in Scotland, where the SNP won 56 of 59 seats while Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats won one each. The UK parties had promised in their manifestos to implement Smith (or perhaps go further), while the SNP argued that the Smith Commission’s proposals were inadequate, and not in keeping with the promise of “extensive new powers”.

In turn, a huge win for the SNP in 2015 gave it a mandate of sorts to push for further devolution (rather than a second vote on independence, which is not what this election was about).

5. They may not get it right this time, either

Consequently, Nicola Sturgeon has a reasonable “hand” in the further devolution talks, albeit in the context of a No vote in September 2014 and a commitment not to push for a second referendum unless there is some radical change in political circumstances. And I don’t think the implementation of Smith plus a few more powers would produce such a change. Indeed, David Cameron is correct to keep open the possibility that more devolution may be yet to come.

Yet, Cameron’s initial interview suggests that this is a vague promise, and that more devolution beyond the margins of Smith is not on offer. Nor is there an offer for a more fundamental review of Scottish devolution, in the form of a constitutional convention. To me, this seems like a mistake, but it is not one that will prove costly to Cameron in the short term. Instead, it may help produce a far longer term opportunity for the SNP, if the party negotiates in good faith, reports that the settlement was inadequate, and waits long enough for the majority of the public to agree.