Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Calman Commission - No 10's "helpful" response

If you bear in mind the default position of Whitehall is that it wants nothing at all to change then the Westminster government's 126-page response to the Calman Commission is a triumph in the Machiavellian diplomatic art of appearing helpful.

In one of the lengthiest submissions to the devolution inquiry, no policy solutions on how the governance of Scotland could be developed are suggested. Instead, the paper spreads out a range of political weaponry with which to club over the head the idea of giving Holyrood more powers.

The commission, which is due to make its first report before Christmas, is not in danger of recommending independence but No 10 appears determined that it should not move too far from the status quo.The message is spiced with hints that devolution is a two-way street and that, in some cases, power ought to come back to Westminster.

The Calman Commission was born in the Scottish Parliament in opposition to the Scottish Government's "National Conversation", a rival consultation that hopes to nudge a nation towards independence.

The 15-member commission, with three nominees from the pro-union parties, is avowedly pro-devolution and does not consider independence. Gordon Brown quickly took over its reins by providing funding for the administrative backup.

The main thrust of the UK Government's response to Calman is "steady as she goes" on devolution. The introductory passage makes great effort to emphasis the shared interests, the shared citizens' rights and cultural heritage that the Scotland and the rest of the UK have in common.

This is the basic philosophy that underpins the Labour government's approach to devolution which it describes as "deep and wide-ranging", "benefiting the whole of the United Kingdom", and regarded as "maximalist settlement".

This glowing reference for its own creation is followed by submissions from government departments which serve as a guide to the way devolution is, and sometimes isn't, working across Whitehall. Between the lines, and sometimes right across them, the paper highlights the tensions and the unresolved issues of devolution and then invites Sir Kenneth and his commission to find a path through them.

"Why get a dog and bark yourself," quipped one senior government source yesterday when asked why the government did not come forward with its own solutions to some of the conundrums of devolution.

The most notable example of No 10 highlighting an issue and then backing off comes through in the passages on taxing and spending, the nub of financial and political power. The paper quotes from a Gordon Brown speech last September in which the Prime Minister hinted strongly that the Scottish Parliament needed to be more financially accountable for the money it receives and spends.

Many read that as an indication that Mr Brown was, at last, willing to consider a development of devolution that would mean replacing the current Barnett formula for funding which causes so much grief with little-Englanders in Labour and Tory ranks. But in its paper the government submits: "We do not seek here to provide detailed evidence on the options that might be available."

The same approach is taken on each policy area - emphasising what works and highlighting what needs to be changed. The exceptions are when Westminster sees the Scottish Government using powers devolved for one purpose to cut across reserved matters it gets quite uppity.

Referring to how the Scottish Parliament has threatened to use planning powers to stymy plans for new nuclear power plants in Scotland, the document states: "It was clearly not the intention of parliament in passing the Scotland Act that the use or threatened use of devolved powers should undermine the delivery of reserved policies.

"The government suggests that the commission may wish to consider how such problems might be avoided."

Could this be interpreted as a veiled threat to take the power to commission new nuclear power stations back to Westminster parliament level? "Not at all," says the government source, for which the SNP and many others read "absolutely, yes".

The same tension is evident when considering everything from broadcasting - no case for devolution, it concludes - to fisheries, where Westminster feels the Scottish Government's moratorium on the transfer of quota licences is quite possibly illegal.

Variations in tax collection or benefits (council tax rebate is the best example) are a bad idea according to the Treasury and the Department of Work and Pensions.

The Ministry of Defence states its duty to defend the nation, the economic benefits it brings to Scotland and reports it is "following developments" on Alex Salmond's "Scotland Without Nuclear Weapons Working Group".

The document may not bark itself but neither does it take a bite at what Calman is trying to achieve - how to make devolution work better.

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