Scotland Bill overshadowed by independence referendum Not that long ago, the prospect of Scotland setting separate rates of income tax and gaining borrowing powers of £5bn would have been considered a landmark moment in the devolution settlement.
But, against the backdrop of an eagerly awaited referendum on independence, the Scotland Bill debate came and went at the Scottish Parliament last week without much conflict and for those taking part, it was clear that thoughts are fixed on a much bigger prize.
MSPs endorsed the legislation for new income tax and borrowing powers for Holyrood as part of the UK Government’s Scotland Bill, which is nearing its final stages in the Lords and has been described as the largest transfer of financial powers to Scotland since the creation of the UK.
The Scottish Government supported it, even although it said the Bill had been “bypassed by events”.
Opposition parties said the new powers were significant, and that the SNP had been forced into a climbdown over the contents of the legislation.
The Scottish budget is currently wholly funded by a Treasury grant, and backers of the Scotland Bill say Holyrood will soon be more accountable for the cash it spends.
The legislation will also devolve powers over air guns, drink-driving and speed limits.
Bruce Crawford, the Scottish Government’s minister for strategy, said: “The Scotland Bill has now been bypassed by history and events – its promoters are already looking past it, although so far they’re reluctant to say what they can see.
“This Government has a clear view – independence is the only state that allows Scotland to flourish.” Prime Minister David Cameron, on a visit to Dumfries the day after the Scotland Bill was debated at Parliament, said the legislation will pass through Westminster this week.
He said: “This is an important fortnight for devolution. Last night (18 April), the Scottish Parliament agreed that the Scotland Bill should proceed. We’ve seen all four main parties working together for Scotland.
“I promised that I would deliver on devolution and next week should see the Bill pass through Westminster.
“This is a major milestone in the constitution of Scotland, with more responsibility and accountability handed to Scots.” He added: “Just as I believe in transferring power to Scotland, I also believe in transferring power in Scotland.
“That means real devolution – handing power to people and communities. That is what Ruth Davidson and the Scottish Conservatives offer in these elections.
“So I have delivered on devolution to Scotland.
Now it’s time for local devolution in Scotland.” The independence debate was ignited earlier in the week when it was said the SNP is considering a change to the party policy over Nato membership.
The party has been opposed to membership of the military alliance for more than 30 years, but it was reported that at the next meeting of its National Council in June there may be a change.
Professor James Mitchell of Strathclyde University said: “The majority of members would support Scottish membership of Nato, but it has to be said that it is a bare majority and the strength of feeling on this is not great.
“In other words, very few of the SNP’s members feel that this is a matter of great urgency and great importance.
If a policy change was to be adopted, defence experts have claimed it will impact the SNP’s longstanding commitment to ditch nuclear weapons.
Former Nato secretary general Lord Robertson of Port Ellen told the Daily Telegraph all members must sign up to its new “Strategic Concept” that confirms they “will remain a nuclear alliance”.
And Sir Menzies Campbell, the former Liberal Democrat leader, said First Minister Alex Salmond could not benefit from the protection of the organisation’s “nuclear umbrella” without agreeing that Scotland would remain part of it.
But it has been argued the SNP will appease party members by arguing that Nato membership does not put their anti-nuclear stance in jeopardy or the demand that Trident submarines be removed from Scotland.
Ewan Crawford, a former special advisor to the SNP leadership, said a proposal to change the party’s policy on Nato was likely to be looked on more favourably by members than anything that would threaten its staunch anti-nuclear stance, which he said was “part of the SNP’s DNA”.
He told the BBC: “Even although clearly this is a discussion that the leadership is having, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that if this in any way compromised the SNP’s anti-nuclear stance it wouldn’t even be countenanced.
“The other point of course is that although the SNP is hostile to nuclear weapons, it wants to be international, it wants to join things.
“Therefore if they can join international communities, if they can engage in international cooperation without doing anything to overturn the SNP’s anti-nuclear stance, then clearly that’s something they are at the very least going to consider.” For onlookers, this has been a welcome development in the independence debate as criticism has been rife that, so far, there has been a serious lack of policy discussion.