Listen to this article
With its independence referendum only six weeks away, Scotland is on the brink of key changes in its relationship with the rest of the UK – even if voters decide to retain the 307-year-old political union with England.
Anxious to ensure a No vote on September 18, pro-union parties have promised speedy action to transfer more control over income tax and welfare to the Scottish parliament, in addition to new powers already quietly being devolved under legislation passed in 2012.
“A vote to say ‘No thanks’ to independence is not a vote for no change,” said Alistair Darling, leader of the pro-union Better Together campaign, this week in his debate with Alex Salmond, Scotland’s first minister.
That pledge – backed by a joint declaration from the three leaders of the big UK parties this week – is drawing increasing scrutiny amid growing expectations of a No victory after Mr Salmond’s underwhelming debate performance.
But the promise of new powers for Scotland opens wider questions about the UK’s constitutional status quo, amid calls for greater autonomy for Northern Ireland and Wales and for greater devolution within England.
The Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats all insist they will include devolution legislation in their first Queen's Speech after the 2015 election. But nationalists seized on hesitation by Mr Darling in Tuesday’s debate when he was challenged on the details of what powers Scotland could be sure to get.
Ben Thomson, chairman of Devo Plus, the pro-devolution group, frets that the issue could become stuck in the “treacle” of Westminster politics as the UK parties try to iron out their differences and English politicians switch to the issue of EU membership.
Mr Thomson says failure to deliver would cause real anger in Scotland, and Westminster politicians insist they have been too shaken by the SNP’s recent electoral success and by the referendum to risk reneging.
Lib Dems have been pushing for all three parties to agree details of new powers for Edinburgh, but Labour MPs are loath to share a platform with the Conservatives and are, anyway, themselves split on devolution.
Some Labour MPs feel past grants of power by Westminster have strengthened support for Scottish independence – a view that has led to the party adopting proposals considerably less radical than those of even the previously devolution-shy Tories.
Mr Thomson, who dubs the Labour proposals a “damp squib”, suggests even the Conservative and Lib Dem proposals do not go far enough. Both give Scotland control over the bands and rates of income tax, but not over how allowances are managed – limiting use of the system to pursue social or economic goals.
“To get the whole of income tax, but not the reliefs, doesn’t really make sense,” he said.
Whatever the details, devolution for Scotland will inevitably reignite debate over sensitive issues such as the scale of the UK government’s block grant to Edinburgh and how to manage England’s lack of a parliament of its own.
The UK coalition government set up an independent commission to look into whether MPs from Scottish constituencies should be able to help set laws that only affect England.
The commission recommended last year that laws only affecting England should not pass unless backed by a majority of English MPs. But any diminution of Scottish MPs’ role would be highly sensitive, and plans are on hold for the referendum.
"We've kicked this into the long grass until after the vote; we're not thinking about it right now,” said a coalition official.
A key fear for Scottish MPs is that top UK posts might become inaccessible. There is already some evidence for this: when Lib Dem officials were looking for a job for Jo Swinson, the highly regarded MP for East Dunbartonshire, they ruled out devolved departments such as health, education and justice.
But officials say there is no shortage of jobs available. “There are plenty of ways for MPs from Scotland to play a role at the highest levels of government: in the Foreign Office, for example, or defence, or the Treasury,” said one.
SNP MPs, who vote only on legislation that affects Scotland and have no aspiration to UK leadership, are of course untroubled by such issues. Analysts say the party will quickly shift to pushing for more powers if voters reject full independence.
Indeed, some observers say that, even likely defeat next month should not obscure the SNP’s success in setting a political agenda that will see authority transferred from London to regions and nations across the UK.
Pundits may have declared Mr Salmond the loser in Tuesday’s debate, wrote commentator Bill Jamieson in the Scotsman newspaper, but he should get credit for winning the battle against UK over-centralisation.
Others are less effusive. Greg Clark, Conservative minister for cities and for constitutional reform, says English cities are keen to get more powers, but he waves aside suggestions that the referendum has been a factor.
“I have not seen any greater appetite in England as a result of the debate in Scotland,” he said.
Parties outline ‘devo max’ proposals
The main political parties at Westminster have pledged to give extra powers to Scotland if it votes to stay in the UK – including control of income tax.
The Scottish government to receive a share of value added tax raised in Scotland. Devolution of taxes including air passenger duty to be considered along with transfer of elements of welfare policy, such as housing benefit and the attendance allowance for people requiring personal care.
A committee of all UK parliaments and assemblies to be created to consider how to make future constitutional arrangements “fair to all parts”. The government to look at changing the role of Scottish members of the UK parliament to reflect Scotland’s increased autonomy.
Scotland to have the power to vary the income tax rate to 15p in the pound above or below the rest of the UK. Scotland to be able to make rates more progressive, but not to cut them for the wealthier taxpayers. To retain the Barnett formula calculation for the block grant, which would be reduced in proportion to the new revenue stream.
No action on VAT or air passenger duty. Housing policy and attendance allowance to be devolved along with administration of employment tribunals and enforcement of equalities legislation. Work Programme and skills development implementation to be devolved to local councils.
Will legislate to ensure the Scottish parliament cannot be dissolved, and consider giving legal status to partnership arrangements between it, Westminster and national parliaments and assemblies.
Scotland to have control of income tax bands and rates as well as inheritance tax, capital gains tax and air passenger duty. Proceeds of corporation tax to be assigned to the Scottish parliament.
Move to a new “needs-based” system of fund transfers from Westminster, but Barnett formula to continue to operate until a new method agreed and no plans to replace it.
Devolution to include the transfer of powers over council tax and business rates to strengthened local authorities. Devolution to be a stepping stone to a fully federal UK.
The Lib Dems are also calling for the three big parties and other interested groups to attend a “constitutional conference” to drum up ideas and help agree a joint position.
Scotland to become an independent sovereign nation by 2016, but to remain in the EU and retain co-operation and integration with the rest of the UK in policy areas including finance, energy and defence procurement.
Scotland to continue to share use of the Bank of England and sterling under a fiscal responsibility pact that would leave Edinburgh in full control of taxes.
Corporation tax and air passenger duty to be cut. Other taxes to be simplified and reformed according to the decisions of future Scottish governments. Welfare policies to be reformed after a period of transition to separate administration systems from the UK.
Get alerts on Scottish Independence when a new story is published