Devolution: A Decade On - Justice Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 280-285)


26 FEBRUARY 2008

  Q280  Chairman: That prompts a question in my mind that Scottish governments and Scottish parties in every case have so far excluded the use of their limited existing tax raising powers. Are you envisaging a situation in which the Barnett Formula starts to work in reverse, and if you do not know anything about it that is to say if UK public expenditure starts to be reduced because of economic circumstances, then the expenditure of the Scottish Government at that point has to be reduced, not because the Scottish Government has decided to do it but because it is working to a formula. At that point is any Scottish Government going to have the courage to use its limited tax raising powers?

  Professor Mitchell: It may have no choice given the commitments that were made in the early days of devolution. As was predicted by civil servants in the 1970s, in the first few years of devolution there would be all sorts of great policies invented and such like and it would be costly, and I think that is what we did in Scotland with tuition fees and care for the elderly. At some stage I think we are going to have to pay for these and unless we reduce our spending then we will need to find ways of paying for them. As I say, in a sense that is likely to happen anyway at some stage in the future and it will encourage a politics of responsibility which, though devolution has addressed to some extent, I do not think has been addressed sufficiently.

  Q281  Mr Turner: Could I just remind you in a way that you are talking about concerns in the south as well as in the north, in the Isle of Wight, in Devon, in Dorset and so on.

  Professor Mitchell: I do not think it has taken off to quite the same extent there yet. The other part of the UK where it has become a big issue is London. In each of the elections for the London Mayor the Barnett Formula has been raised. That is not to say it has been raised in an intelligent way or with full understanding of it, but that is part of the problem, Barnett is one of these things that is misunderstood and sections of the media misunderstand and so on and so forth, and the Daily Mail will play it up in a particular way. It is something we cannot stop but it does need to be addressed. While some of the media coverage has grossly exaggerated and distorted the operation of Barnett, there is a grain of truth in what they say.

  Q282  Julie Morgan: I just wanted to go on to the issue of public opinion and independence. What evidence do you see for any greater appetite for independence since the new SNP Government has come into place?

  Professor Mitchell: I do not think there is any at all that I am aware of. At the moment the evidence would appear to point to support the greater powers but not independence. I have not seen any evidence that shows support for independence has increased; indeed, there is evidence that it has reduced over the last few months. That is no great surprise, the SNP has hardly been making a great deal of its commitment to independence since it came to office or, indeed, during the election. The SNP has transformed itself. Although it has independence as its long-term objective, and I am sure that others and if Nicola Sturgeon is around will challenge this, but in a sense I think the SNP has put it on to the backburner for the moment and have adopted a more pragmatic approach, a gradualist approach. One of the reasons they have done so is because that was the only way they had any hope of succeeding in becoming Scotland's first party. That has transformed politics. We often say that politics corrupt but, in fact, electoral politics tends to moderate politicians and mature politicians, and I think that is exactly what we have seen. It is the pursuit of the median voter, as it were, that has forced the SNP to moderate its position on that without entirely abandoning support for independence, but even when the SNP talks about independence it is not the independence that the SNP talked about in the 1970s, for example. As often as you hear a senior SNP politician talking about independence, he or she will talk about interdependence and different meanings of independence and so on, and that is all part of the changed nature of Scottish politics.

  Q283  Julie Morgan: If the SNP has moderated its view on this sort of key defining issue, do you see there being less dividing lines between some of the parties in Scotland?

  Professor Mitchell: Yes, I think so. I am not convinced these days that nationalist, unionist terms are terribly helpful, frankly. Look at the non-SNP main parties, they are nationalist with a small "n", almost all of them now, and even SNP politicians. One member of the Government produced a book at the end of last year in which he talked about the need for a new union. A new union used to be the language that was used by people who were hostile to devolution, far less independence. Things are beginning to change. We do need a new language in Scotland in order to understand our politics and certainly the divisions between the parties are less. It is very difficult for the politicians to articulate that, they have to keep their party members happy and so on, but that is beginning to happen. One of the most interesting politicians around, or former politicians, is Henry McLeish. He has articulated some of the points I am making much more cogently than I can and he is in the luxurious position now of being a retired politician and Mr McLeish has probably seen the way Scottish politics is going better than most.

  Q284  Chairman: Is there any emerging clarity about what greater powers might constitute that middle option which is much talked about but I do not have a clear picture of what the additional powers might be?

  Professor Mitchell: There is no consensus on that. Talking about the public first, I do not think the public can be expected to have a very clear view on that and within the parties there are different views. At this stage I do not think we are anywhere near identifying clearly those matters which might be devolved. I do think the issue of finance and some measure of fiscal autonomy, not full fiscal autonomy, may be emerging as a runner and there are certain people in each of the parties who now advocate something like that but they do not all agree. That debate is just beginning, frankly. There is certainly no agreement on a range of other possible matters that could be devolved.

  Chairman: Professor Mitchell, thank you very much indeed. It has been extremely helpful to have your evidence.

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