Scottish devolution timetable: Can Westminster keep its promises?

Gordon Brown anticipates the number of broken timetable promises...
Gordon Brown anticipates the number of broken timetable promises...
Alex Stevenson By

Gordon Brown surprised the world at the start of September by coming up with a detailed timetable for Scottish devolution. The Westminster leaders, panicked by that now notorious YouGov poll, were quick to sign on the dotted line committing to it. But is it actually feasible? And what is the timetable, anyway?

September 19th 2014 - motion to be presented to the Commons

This has technically, er, not happened yet. Gordon Brown originally promised that the motion would be tabled last Friday. In his post-referendum speech in Dalgety Bay in Fife on Saturday, he moved the goalposts again. "Published yesterday, the resolution to Parliament will be laid formally when it opens its doors on Monday," Brown declared.

I've just called up the Table Office in Westminster and they have confirmed that nothing's been printed yet. Nothing's actually even been received. The problem is that motions can't be formally 'laid' or 'moved' or 'tabled' until the Commons starts sitting again. This isn't scheduled to happen until the middle of October.


Does it matter? The SNP seem to think it does. Its MSP David Torrance moaned that this was a "promise which has already been broken". Alex Salmond made a big deal of it in his resignation statement last Friday, too.

The reality is that this is the sort of minor detail which is likely to get lost in the wash. The text of the resolution has been published and agreed to - it's actually what the bulk of the remaining timetable is based on...

October 16th 2014 - Commons debate

MPs will spend the day picking over the terms of the process. It probably won't be the first or last time they do so, either. This fixture isn't likely to be moved.

October 30th 2014 - command paper

Civil servants will be required to lay before parliament a command paper including the proposals of all three UK political parties by this date. This sounds marvellous, doesn't it? But there is wriggle-room here. Labour may insist that its calls for a constitutional convention are included in this. The three parties don't have to actually agree by this stage.

St Andrew's Day, November 30th 2014 - white paper

This is the real date when the actual concrete proposals have to be agreed upon. It's an official government paper, a statement of intent, which the opposition will have to accept if they want to avoid being the ones ruining the process. There's nothing to stop Miliband kicking up trouble, here, apart from it will turn his reputation to mud.

Burns Day, January 25th 2015 - the draft Scotland bill is published

The real problem with the November date is that it allows only two measly months to do a decent consultation before the actual publication of the legislation. It's nowhere near enough time for such a major constitutional change, experts are arguing. One privately told me "it's completely insane".

There are all sorts of issues to work out. Where will the due diligence be on completely transforming the UK's tax system? How can the implications of these reforms be assessed in terms of their impact on tax avoidance? Will it increase the tax yield? How will it affect the Barnett formula's allocation of funding for Scotland, which - contrary to Scottish expectations - is going to result in less money heading north of the border?

March 27th 2015 - second reading of the Scotland bill

This was an odd one which I spotted had made its way into Salmond's resignation statement last Friday. He said:

"I spoke to the prime minister today and, although he reiterated his intention to proceed as he has outlined, he would not commit to a second reading vote by March 27th on a Scotland bill. That was a clear promise laid out by Gordon Brown during the campaign. The prime minister says such a vote would be meaningless. I suspect he cannot guarantee the support of his party."

I couldn't find any trace of this promise online, despite much frantic Googling, so I called up one of Salmond's advisers and asked what was meant by this. It turns out Salmond had worked out this date based on Brown's pledge of a second reading by Easter. And sure enough, on Saturday Brown was playing down this commitment.

Yes, the ex-prime minister admitted, a fortnight ago he had indeed said he "would like to see a second reading of the bill by Easter". But he then pointed out he had added: "but we will seek to ensure that it is brought in at the latest in the first legislative week of the new parliament in June".

This was the briefest allusion to what is undoubtedly a setback for Brown. It is the biggest failure of the timetable so far - a clear rejection of an idea that those in power aren't actually interested in getting the legislative ball rolling before the next general election. It is pointless, Cameron argues. And in practical terms he may be right, because there's not a chance of the bill actually getting through parliament before the election. In political terms, though, its symbolism is important. It represents a broken promise already being exploited by the nationalists.

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The timetable may not even get that far. Cameron might have stepped back from the brink of insisting that the West Lothian question be settled "in tandem" with the Scottish devolution issue. But Miliband remains resistant and there's a chance the various regions of the rest of the UK may not be happy with what they're eventually offered.

 

 

There is real danger here. In Quebec, a similar promise of more powers prevented a 'Yes' vote. But in the talks which followed agreement proved impossible and the result was a second referendum. It's what Scottish nationalists are secretly hoping happens now. The party leaders in Westminster need to be careful: they have set themselves a tough timetable, here. It is far from guaranteed they will stick to it. And if they fail, they should expect the calls for another independence referendum to become deafening.

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