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Maximum devolution, maximum advantage

The review of Scottish Labour will be considered at a special conference this weekend. Malcolm Chisholm MSP argues that Scottish Labour will not be able to shape Scotland in its own image unless it is willing to move on to define and embrace Devolution Max.

Many of us may not be in any doubt about what Scottish Labour stands for, but many people  are genuinely unsure. A corrosive negativity has characterised so much of our opposition in the Scottish Parliament since 2007.  The result is that – even when we have a legitimate critique of an aspect of Scottish Government policy – our arguments can be brushed aside as Labour opposing for opposition’s sake. It is high time we were occasionally and strategically negative but consistently and substantially positive.

We need to be positive about the values and principles that underpin our politics but also in proposing specific policies and budgetary choices. The values are perhaps the easy bit — a more equal society and the need to enhance the position and the opportunities of those who are most disadvantaged. That will lead to specific budgetary choices and it should no longer be acceptable to call for more spending in a whole range of areas without saying where the money is to come from.

One area I have championed for a long time is investment in social rented housing, but I know it means taking money from other capital spending. I have therefore said that housing should be our number one priority for capital expenditure, and that the transport budget, particularly the roads bit of it, should be reduced to pay for it.

The SNP will say that these choices are only necessary because we have a fixed budget from Westminster. I would say choices will always be necessary but that they are particularly stark in a Parliament that has spending powers but very few opportunities to raise finance. That takes us right to the heart of current constitutional debates.

Wendy Alexander – to her credit – saw this lack of financial power and accountability as the great weakness of the original devolution settlement, but unfortunately the Calman Commission failed to address it in any significant way. Scottish Labour is currently caught on the Calman hook and needs to get off it fast if we are to create a Parliament with meaningful financial powers. The Scottish Government is finding life easy not just because of our failings but because the current constitutional arrangements are ironically ideal for enhancing its popularity. All problems can be blamed on Westminster, with a great deal of justification in many cases, while the Scottish Government can claim credit for any improvements that do take place. The situation is particularly urgent because a Westminster government making big cuts was always going to be the best opportunity for the SNP to secure its ultimate goal.

Scottish Labour must respond by developing a Devo Max position. To be pedantic, that does not have to mean the greatest possible devolution but certainly means very great devolution. We should therefore not just look at what has come to be called Devo Max – that is, the devolution of all taxes and revenues to Scotland – but also at intermediate positions such as the Devolution Plus advocated by Reform Scotland. That organisation is too right wing in its general policy positions for most of us but it talks a great deal of sense when it comes to the constitution. Reform Scotland believes that since the Scottish Parliament is responsible for about 60 per cent of Scottish public expenditure then the Scottish Parliament should have access to a range of taxes that covers about 60 per cent of Scottish tax revenues. We should certainly explore that position and variants of it as well as the ultimate Devo Max option. A key part of our consideration must be how much of social security expenditure should be devolved, but we should be in no doubt that demands for that will grow as the massive social security cuts from Westminster kick in.

I believe that Devo Max in some form is the right position for the good governance of Scotland and the best way of ensuring that Scottish priorities are to the fore in all domestic policy areas. Those who are not convinced of that should perhaps reflect that nailing our colours to Calman and the Scotland Bill will boost the independence vote in the forthcoming referendum, as evidenced a few weeks ago when two well-known Labour figures told me they would vote for independence if the alternative was Calman. We need a three question referendum and Labour has to define what Devo Max means as a matter of urgency.

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