Friday, 16 May 2014

Devo Much?

Yesterday evening the Blether Region attended a fascinating lecture by Alan Trench at the University of Ulster on what happens after the Scottish independence referendum. Professor Trench, who has his own Devolution Matters blog, has also been an adviser to Westminster Committees and is working with the Institute for Public Policy Research on its Devo More project.

Given the number of hats he wears, and the obvious political sensitivity of his field, Professor Trench's statements don't always go down well with everyone. Indeed, the Blether Region felt that some of his comments during the first half of the lecture, on what happens next if Scotland says "yes" in September, came close to betraying political opinions, particularly when discussing the UK Government's apparent ruling out of a currency union and the consequent prospect of Scotland refusing to accept a share of UK national debt (the UK has in fact guaranteed all such debt, so an independent Scotland would have no legal obligations in that regard unless it made a voluntary commitment).

Nevertheless, his talk included many interesting points:

If Scotland votes "yes" in September, Professor Trench does not believe that there is any realistic prospect of a second referendum being foisted on people on whatever deal is reached, as Scots will have clearly repudiated the UK.

If they vote, "no", on the other hand, he believes that it will have great democratic significance, as it will be the first time that they have explicitly endorsed the UK at the ballot box.

He envisages income tax rates, bands and reliefs being devolved following a "no" vote, but not corporation tax, which he apparently does not view as desirable, or baseline welfare rates, although the DAs are evidently to be granted a right to "supplement" them. Holyrood would also be assigned a share of VAT, which seemingly cannot be fully devolved because of EU law. When the Blether Region asked him about the impact of the West Lothian question on prospects for devolving income tax, his answer addressed English political concerns but not the personal ones of Labour's Scottish MPs.

Likewise, he refused to be drawn publicly on the role played by Westminster's creaking democracy in resurgent nationalism, although in conversation after the event it became clear that he had given some personal thought to moving the seat of the House of Lords — even if his own preference of Birmingham is surely not far enough north to fix Britain.

He spoke tantalisingly, and slightly condescendingly, of an oil-for-debt swap whereby Scotland might wish to divest itself of the tricky business of regulating the North Sea oil industry. Reading between the lines, the Blether Region suspects that the UK might offer a partial deal on the waters annexed in 1999, no doubt based on an underestimate of remaining reserves. As oil is but one asset in that part of the North Sea, and as there may well be a knock-on effect on where oil companies pay corporation tax, it hopes that Scotland refuses.

Finally, and perhaps surprisingly given his background, he came very close to saying that the question of an independent Scotland's continuing membership of the EU would have to be resolved by politicians rather than lawyers.

And would Professor Trench's post-referendum prescription be enough to save the Union?

In the long term, probably not.  

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