The new coalition government has pursued an agenda of mutual respect with the devolved administrations since coming to power. We will continue to do so as we believe it is in the best interests of Scotland for its politicians to work together. Respect, however, does not mean we will always agree. The path of our country’s constitutional future is a topical and pressing case in point.
There is no escaping the fact the UK has to act decisively to meet the challenges of the financial crisis and the deficit legacy this government has inherited. That requires action which fits the task at hand. That is equally true of the Calman recommendations - they fit the time and purpose before them.
The Final Report of the Commission pulled off a remarkable feat. It balanced equity, efficiency and accountability and created a way forward for Scotland which provides the basis for a logical next step for devolution. That was what it was tasked to do and it delivered, accepting the continuing reservation of macroeconomic policy to Westminster in the context of the continuing social and economic union of the UK.
I have been clear since being appointed as Secretary of State that this government is pressing ahead with implementing the recommendations of the Calman Commission. It is not considering alternative fiscal models.
This has been stated in the coalition agreement, in the Queen’s Speech, by the Prime Minister, my own appearance at the Scottish Parliament and by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury in his historic visit to Holyrood’s finance committee.
There should not be any doubt about the direction in which the UK Government is moving but neither should anyone doubt the solid reasons behind that position. We have a Scotland Bill being drafted and the implementation groups getting underway: in short, the Calman process is already moving and has momentum, support and depth of thinking in its favour. Our process is about focus and delivery.
We will implement the Calman proposals to make them work as efficiently as possible and that means we are open to suggestions which address technical concerns. We have asked the Scottish Government to be a part of that process and they have already provided input.
But no one should interpret that flexibility as a sign Calman has been superseded by events. The Express article of last Thursday said the “Calman proposals are a halfway house and a messy fudge”. I do not believe that to be the case.
The Commission spent 13 months of intense consideration by the majority of political parties on how best to meet Scotland’s needs and introduce fiscal accountability to the Scottish Parliament. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to change our political landscape. We are dedicated to making it work as well as possible. Others have a prime opportunity to join us in that endeavour. The alternative is to sit out on the sidelines. I would prefer to see us work together.
All too often in recent weeks the arguments we have seen in for full fiscal autonomy have been heavy on assertion and light on detailed evidence. We must be precise when it comes to making calls for significant changes to the Scottish Parliament’s financial accountability.
We also need to be clear that there is not, as claimed in some quarters, an “overwhelming consensus” to move to fiscal autonomy at this time. We must not forget that the Calman Commission didn’t consist of 15 men and women meeting in secret: it involved an extensive process of engagement across Scotland. The Commission emphatically concluded that devolved government met the aspirations of the people of Scotland and worked well in practice. All three UK parties share this view and all three included it in their manifestos in May. A strong mandate was achieved for Calman at the election.
It is now over a year since Sir Kenneth Calman’s report and it has become embedded in our political discourse in Scotland.
Some may be blase about how radical the report’s findings are but it is viewed very differently by the rest of us. The Calman recommendations are a substantial and substantiated review of the devolution settlement. We are not talking about tweaking the existing settlement.
Calman will produce real-world change: it will ensure that existing political accountability at the ballot box will be enhanced by substantially increased financial accountability for the Scottish Parliament and the Government formed from it.
With this enhanced devolution, we will continue to benefit from being a fundamental part of the world’s sixth largest economy. We have the resilience associated with diversification across many economic sectors. Our tax system allows us totally unimpeded access to the world’s oldest free trade area. We spread the costs of nationhood across 60 million people rather than 5 million. The Calman proposals build on those undeniable strengths while strengthening financial accountability within Scotland and that is why we are taking them forward into a Scotland Bill this autumn.