Letter from Westminster
Politics can sometimes be a slow burner. Three and a half years ago the Liberal Democrats started to call for a review of the powers of the Scottish Parliament and in particular what could be done to give it some control over the raising of its own budget.
That process reached a milestone on Thursday of last week when the House of Commons passed the second reading (the first stage of the debate) of the Scotland Bill. Since the election of its first members in 1999 the Scottish Parliament has done a lot to change Scotland. Like most Scots there was some of it that I liked and some of it that I disliked. By 2007, however, it was clear that the parliament was well-established and that only a handful would argue for a return to the situation pre-1999 of all government coming from Westminster.
The call that started in 2007 eventually led to cross-party talks between the Liberal Democrats, Labour and Conservatives which in turn led to the Calman Commission on the powers of the Scottish Parliament. By the time it reported in 2009 there was broad consensus that although the parliament had been a success the time had come for some measure of reform.
The way in which the parliament and the Scottish government is funded had produced a rather one-sided political debate. Politics at its most basic should be a two-sided equation – how you raise the money and how you spend it. It has not been healthy for Scottish politics to be dominated by arguments over how money is spent. The Bill will also allow for some further devolution in areas such as road traffic law although the flow of powers is not all in one direction. Control of Antarctica goes back from the parliament in Edinburgh to London. That we had any control of Antarctica came as a surprise to most of us and that we had devolved it to the Scottish Parliament surprised us even more. In among all the detail of tax law it is a welcome piece of light relief.
The process of implementing the Calman Commission proposals and actually changing that started in parliament last Thursday as the House of Commons debated the Scotland Bill. Listening to the debate in the chamber I was impressed by the extent to which the consensus which we built through 2007 until now has held strong and the Labour and Conservative Parties remain signed up to the deal that we collectively agreed.
The vote when it came was 252 to five. Only the nationalists voted against the parliament getting more power – talk about letting the best be the enemy of the good.
Change of this sort is best done, if possible, by consensus. The powers in the Bill will change politics north of the border for the better and ensure that discussions at Holyrood in future will be more rounded and substantial. This can only be good for democracy and will help the Scottish people hold their elected representatives to account.
Alistair Carmichael MP