“What have the Romans ever done for us?” – The question that was famously posed by the Judeans in the Monty Python film Life of Brian. You may recall that there then followed in answer a list of things such as roads, heating, sewage etc. It was the sort of performance that I was half expecting to take part in as I turned up on Monday to take part in the Calman Commission’s travelling consultation session.
The Calman Commission was set up last spring by a motion of the Scottish Parliament, but supported by the Government and opposition parties in Westminster, to look at the future of the devolution settlement, 10 years after the parliament was first established. The northern isles have been well represented in the Calman Commission since day one. I was involved in the drafting of the motion that set it up and its membership includes both Jim (Lord) Wallace and Audrey Findlay. Audrey was for many years the leader of Aberdeenshire Council but was born and brought up in Tankerness. Despite having lived south for many years you realise in the first two or three words of meeting her that you are in the presence of an Orcadian – and quite a formidable one at that!
In fact, the session was a remarkably positive one. There was a genuine understanding of the fact that the creation of a Scottish Parliament had made politics and government much more accessible to people in the isles. The point was made that local farmers had never had such good access to the farming minister in the days pre-devolution. As a consequence when the discussion moved on from looking at those areas where devolution had made a difference to looking at those areas where it might take on extra powers there was a satisfying degree of confidence and willingness to look at the options.
The most contentious aspects of the debate on new powers centre on giving the parliament more control over its own budget. In my view this is the next logical step. Politics is a two-sided equation (and yes, I know, all equations have two sides). On the one side you have the debate on how to raise money and on the other you have the debate on how to spend it. Hitherto the Scottish Parliament has really only focused on one side of that debate – how the money is spent. As a consequence the debate has suffered. If the parliament is to continue to grow and to mature then giving it more power to tax and to borrow in its own right is the next logical and necessary step.
The remit of the Calman Commission included the need to strengthen the union between Scotland and the rest of the UK. The final question posed in Monday night’s session was how that might be achieved. The answer there is more difficult as it lies not just within control of the Scots or the Scottish Parliament. If the union is to be made stronger then Westminster must now come up to the mark in terms of its accessibility and accountability.
Alistair Carmichael MP