If there was any question as to whether the Scottish referendum had put to bed the issue of independence, the election result on May 7th was a clear indicator; the answer was a resounding ‘no’.
The SNP, who had been expected to make considerable gains, went further than anyone would have dared to imagine, claiming all but three of the seats up for grabs. An impressive 56 out of 59 potential representatives, by far and away the largest contingent of Scottish Nationalists to ever be sent to the House of Commons.
I reflect on this recent result as I sit in the waiting room of Dover House, the home of the Scotland Office in London. On a coffee table in front of me is a brochure of upcoming cultural events in Scotland, which I duly flick through before turning to my iPhone to browse the news – the customary way to pass the time in 21st Century Britain.
I am here to speak with Lord Dunlop, Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, who finds himself in the Scotland Office at a challenging, but pivotal, moment. With post-referendum devolution already promised the job would have been hard enough but now, with a higher than expected influx of SNP MPs, noise and parliamentary scrutiny around these issues will be greater than ever before.
As I am escorted to the minister’s office, I have a brief moment to take in the sheer beauty of the building that is Dover House. According to the minister’s aide, it is joked that if the referendum had gone the other way the SNP wanted the building to become the Scottish Embassy in London. Thankfully, that was not the case but I would challenge any ardent Scottish Nationalist to walk through this building without it even slightly damaging their often-heard battle cry that ‘Westminster doesn’t care about Scotland’. It is certainly the grandest departmental building that I’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting!
Anyhow, I soon arrive at Lord Dunlop’s office and express my initial reflections on the recent election result north of the border. Rather than conflating the momentum for a ‘Yes’ vote in the run-up to the 2014 referendum and the SNP surge in the general election, Lord Dunlop views these outcomes as “two very different things”. Whilst viewing the referendum result as a “phenomenal number of people voting for and supporting the United Kingdom”, the former Thatcher aide sees the election result as a vote on representation not secession. He states, “I think it was people having voted to stay in the United Kingdom…saying ‘what is going to produce the strongest voice for Scotland in the Westminster parliament?'” Obviously the Scottish people deemed this to be the SNP, whether the minister “likes it or not”.
Regardless of the election result, the government was committed to a programme of further devolution following the successful campaign to keep Scotland within the United Kingdom. This promise of further devolved powers has taken shape in the Scotland Bill, which is currently going through the House of Lords. According to Lord Dunlop, one of the architects of this piece of legislation, the Scotland Bill “will make the Scottish Parliament one of the most powerful devolved parliaments anywhere in the world.”
In terms of taxation, the Scotland Bill represents a conscious effort to address the “great imbalance” between the Scottish parliaments spending powers (over 60% of public expenditure) and the regional tax revenues that fund this. According to Lord Dunlop, “the big change of this next package of powers is that over 50% of the Scottish parliament’s budget will come from funding from taxes raised in Scotland” – a long way from 1998 when the figure was around 10%. And it is this change that evidences the claims by legislators that this Bill will make the Scottish Parliament more powerful than the majority of devolved legislatures on Earth. With the OECD average of approximately 30% of devolved public spending financed by 20% of local taxation, the new arrangement for Scotland “will be double what the OECD average is”.
The minister was also keen to stress the issues surrounding the SNP’s proposal of full fiscal autonomy. According to Lord Dunlop, the Scottish people in choosing to remain in the Union “[voted] for…keeping the social union where we pool risks and resources, they voted for the single domestic, UK market, they voted for that strong, single currency backed by the Bank of England. So, all of that would have been put at risk with full fiscal autonomy.” As well as this, independent analysis has described how full fiscal autonomy “would mean a fiscal black hole of 10 billion GBP by the end of the parliament and that means that either the Scottish parliament would have to increase taxes or cut public expenditure.”
So the Scotland Bill will not only secure stronger taxation powers for the Scottish parliament but also “tremendous scope for local decision making without giving up the security and the benefits of being part of the larger United Kingdom”, which would be put at risk if full fiscal autonomy were pursued. For Lord Dunlop this gives Scotland “the best of both worlds” and, from his assessment, “fundamentally is what people voted for just over a year ago”.
Before winding down our discussion, I put the idea of a future referendum to the Under-Secretary of State. He reiterated the position that both Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon’s promise that this would be “a once in a generation” vote was a promise taken “very seriously” by both him and the government. Instead of fixating on a future referendum, Lord Dunlop stressed the government’s attempts to secure a devolution programme for the benefit of all Scots: “We’re saying to the Scottish government, ‘come on, we want to work with you to advance the interests of the Scottish people’, which is about creating that strong economy and generating an increasing number of jobs and raising the prosperity and living standards of people in Scotland” adding “I think that’s what most people in Scotland would expect us to do.” While making clear the government’s opposition to a second referendum, the minister stated that this was also the position of most everyday Scots: “They don’t want a ‘neverendum’, they want to get on with their lives.”
As I get up to leave, the minister kindly offers to show me the view from his balcony that overlooks Horse Guards Parade. On this unseasonably sunny day, one can easily make out the Union flags being blown by the breeze. As I watch on, I think how this must be a constant reminder of the challenges that those in Dover House are attempting to overcome in order to hold our glorious Union of nations together for posterity. After the discussion I’ve just had, it certainly appears that Lord Dunlop and his colleagues are the people most equipped and able to do that.