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From The Socialist newspaper, 24 June 2009

Fight for a Scottish parliament with full powers

ON 1 July 1999, a Scottish parliament was convened for the first time since its controversial dissolution in 1707. In the run-up to the tenth anniversary of Scottish devolution, a report of the Calman commission - set up by Labour, the Tories, Lib Dems and supported by the Westminster government - has proposed extending the Scottish parliament's powers.

Philip Stott, International Socialists, Scotland

The Calman commission was widely seen as a response to the Scottish Nationalist Party's (SNP) election victory in May 2007 and the need to 'protect the Union.' It is a rival to the SNP government's so-called "national conversation" on Scotland's constitutional future and their demand for a referendum on independence.

Calman's proposals are to extend the powers of the Scottish parliament, including taking control of a potential 9 billion in tax revenues. The present annual budget for the parliament is 30 billion. The centrepiece of Calman is the power to set an element of the rate of income tax in Scotland.

The Westminster government would set a 10% rate of income tax for Scotland (the current base rate of income tax is 20%). The Scottish government would then be responsible for levying its own rate of income tax with the power to vary the rate by ten pence in the pound up or down.

Block grant cut

However, Calman's proposals would also involve a 5 billion cut in the block grant from Westminster to Scotland to compensate. To ensure the same budget for public spending the Scottish government would need to set the Scottish income tax element at 10% - making a total tax rate of 20%.

With an economic recession and rising unemployment, and therefore a falling tax take, there would be enormous pressure to slash public spending and raise taxes. Both New Labour and the Tories have said that public spending will be savaged whoever wins the next election and Scotland's block grant is certain to be squeezed dramatically.

Under Calman's proposals it would not be possible to only increase the higher rate of tax - currently 40%. Any tax rises or cuts in Scotland would need to apply to both the upper and standard rates simultaneously - removing the possibility of increased taxes on the rich without penalising ordinary workers at the same time.

Other proposed changes include the Scottish parliament having control of air passenger tax, stamp duty and landfill tax as well as law-making powers on airguns, drink driving, speed limits and more limited borrowing powers.

There are no proposals to allow any control over oil revenues or of corporation tax, social security, the powers to bring companies into public ownership or over the minimum wage.

These are the type of powers that the International Socialists would support - a Scottish parliament with full powers. Instead these changes - devolution-lite, rather than the devolution-max of full fiscal autonomy - have been carefully constructed to avoid increasing the proposed powers to such an extent that a new referendum would be required which would open up the clamour for a question on outright independence to be included.

The Calman commission report has been accepted by, in reality, all parties in the Scottish parliament. The SNP, led by Alex Salmond, long ago accepted a 'gradualist' approach towards their long-term goal of Scottish independence.

Without a majority in the Scottish parliament for the SNP's desired referendum on independence and with the SNP leadership happy to settle for incremental advances in powers, they have supported Calman with a few criticisms. At least a section, possibly a majority, of the SNP would settle for "full fiscal autonomy" within a modified or federal United Kingdom.

The pro big business SNP would prefer this to an out and out collision with the capitalist interests that at the moment overwhelmingly oppose a break-up of the union with England and Wales.

The SNP can also claim, with some justification, that their 2007 election victory forced the other parties' hand to set up Calman. In that sense we are seeing the end of the first phase of devolution in Scotland. There is a widespread understanding by the capitalist class and the political establishment that additional concessions must be made to Scotland to try to head off centrifugal forces that could destabilise the union even further and potentially pull it apart.

Economic crisis

Set against the current economic crisis and the inevitable social upheaval that it will provoke, the likely election of a Tory government could see a major resurgence in the national question in Scotland.

The lame duck prime minister, Gordon Brown, supports Calman's report and some parts of it are likely to be implemented before the next general election. But the prospect is that a David Cameron led Tory government will have to work with an SNP government in Scotland to agree the changes post-election. That raises the question, have the Tories changed?

Margaret Thatcher, then Tory prime minister, infamously declared in the 1980s: "We will fight to ensure that constitutional devolution for Scotland does not pass." For decades the Tory government of the 1980s and early 1990s ruled out any concessions to the Scottish people's national aspirations. The political consequences for the Tories were dramatic; due to this and their other policies they lost every Tory MP in Scotland by the 1997 general election.

Today, the Tory party leadership has been forced to adapt its position. Scotland's Tories have formed a sometimes on, sometimes off, bloc with the SNP in the Scottish parliament. Tory leader David Cameron made it clear that he welcomes devolving more powers to the Scottish parliament, while also supporting a reduction in the number of Scottish MPs at Westminster and restricting the issues that they can vote on - eg legislation that affects the NHS or education in England.

In this way he hopes to appeal to a broader constituency in Scotland with the message that the Tories have 'learned their lesson' while also reassuring a rising 'English nationalism' that the so-called "hand-outs" to Scotland will be reduced by making a Scottish parliament more "fiscally responsible."

However, the memory of Thatcherism, and its economic and social catastrophe, is still strong in Scotland. Despite Calman, any return of a Tory government, especially if the Tories fail to win more than one or two seats in Scotland, will be certain to increase national sentiment and probably support for independence as well - which currently stands at around 35%.

Ten years of devolution, including two years of an SNP government that is being increasingly exposed as hostile to the interests of working-class people, has failed to provide an answer for working class communities in Scotland. With an economic crisis wreaking carnage in its wake, none of the establishment parties, including the SNP, have any answers.

They all support the capitalist market and the logic of 'slash and burn' policies that go with it when the system enters a crisis. That's why the building of a mass party to represent working-class people is so desperately needed. Such a party can play a vital role in opposing the onslaught on jobs and working conditions and help lead the struggle for a socialist Scotland.

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In The Socialist 24 June 2009:

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