14 September 2014

Scotland: Vote YES For A Better World

A fundamental power of an independent state is control over its taxes.

The UK is one of the most centralised states in the world. With nearly all taxation controlled from Westminster.

If there is a No vote next week then that is unlikely to change.

Constitutional powers such as voting systems and at what level of government control over taxation are set, are portrayed in the media as secondary issues that don't really excite the public.

But something has happened in Scotland over the last 2 years in the build up to their independence referendum. The public have got excited over the constitution.

This is great for geeks like me, who have always been primarily interested in the constitutional arrangements and less so in the daily practical challenges of running public services (important though that is). For me, before we can really improve government, we have to get the constitution right.

At least until the referendum vote is cast next week, Scotland has leverage over Westminster. Whether they have leverage after that or are reliant on promises is up to them. A No vote will let Westminster off the hook. (Remember the power to hold any future referendum and the terms of that referendum will be with Westminster. It could be a very long wait before Scots get this chance again).

The last minute promises of devolution from Westminster propose Scotland the ability to set the level of 18% of its taxes, but not to vary their design. The design of taxes is just as, if not more important than the level they are set at.

A good example is council tax. Councils know it is a regressive tax. But they have no power to change that. So their choice is fund public services better and raise taxes for those least able to afford it. Or cut public services and hurt the vulnerable who depend on them. Not the nicest of choices, but power to change this resides only in Westminster.

The same applies to other taxes. Given a crude power to alter the basic rate of income tax but without the ability to change thresholds or higher rates is a very limited power.

One of the strongest reasons for supporting a Yes is accountability. It is very difficult for the public to influence specific policies at a national level, and the bigger the electorate, the more remote this accountability can be. Power needs to be devolved down, to make it easier for people to have a say.

When we vote, we weigh up all the policies on offer from each party, plus a general feel of trust, competency etc. This makes it very difficult to make known what our feelings are on specific policies.

It is natural for any governing body to want as much power as possible. So these two issues collide. An electorate's inability to highlight which policies are important and Westminster's ability to easily dodge the issues, especially when it comes to devolving power. Over the last 30 years power has been going the other way as central government hoovers it up. (This is why it is important to have a written constitution protecting local government powers).

Westminster will only devolve powers if it feels threatened and even then only as little as it can get away with. This referendum has threatened Westminster but they are still trying to get out of it on the cheap. They are not promising enough devolved powers to Scotland and not promising any to the rest of the UK. Next week if there is a No vote, even these weak promises will feel less important to Westminster as it returns to business as usual. They are bound to be watered down even more.

And any more lopsidedness in the union in terms of devolution will just prolong the agony as the union tears itself apart.

Scotland wants a different political direction to Westminster and is too small a part of the union to be heard properly.

A Yes vote is right for Scotland and will inspire the rest of the UK and other people's around the world to demand more power closer to them locally.

Westminster has shown it is not serious about devolution. Scotland cannot afford to waste another generation hoping to be heard. Vote Yes to a new constitution on Thursday.

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