I do not doubt the SNP administration’s commitment to creating a welfare system fit for a modern civilised nation. I know that the determination to guide us away from the corrosive austerity of British politics and back to being a humane society is absolutely genuine. I know also that there is some cool-headed calculation involved in the plan to remove the stigma from benefits and put the ‘security’ back into ‘social security’. The potential advantages that flow from this are evident to all but the most unthinking adherents to neo-liberal orthodoxy.
What I doubt is the extent to which any of this can be achieved within the constraints being imposed by the UK Government. Because, while it suits the British parties to talk up the shiny ‘new powers’ being so ungraciously granted to the Scottish Parliament, the reality is that the latest round of constitutional tinkering is no less about withholding real and necessary powers from the Scottish Parliament than any of its failed predecessors.
Lesley Riddoch takes an optimistic view of the situation. She chooses to suppose that John Swinney will be able to contrive ways to work around the fiscal traps embedded in the new Scotland Bill so as to make the ‘new powers’ work in ways that the British government certainly didn’t intend.
Let there be no mistake about this! The intent of the latest Scotland Bill is malicious. It’s purpose is to force the SNP administration into doing things that will make it unpopular with voters. Devolution was never about addressing the aspirations and priorities of Scotland’s people. It was always about securing the structures of power, privilege and patronage which define the British state. But the latest legislation goes beyond this. It seeks to turn devolution into a political weapon against a party seen as representing a threat to the established order. A weapon wielded with absolutely no regard for any ‘collateral damage’ that might be done to Scotland’s economy and democratic institutions.
To hope, as Lesley Riddoch appears to do, that this sword might be beaten into a ploughshare by the Scottish Government may well represent and unjustified raising of expectations.
Ms Riddoch’s motives are not in question. But we must be mindful that others will similarly seek to raise expectations whose motives are very far from benign. British Labour in Scotland has already started to demand that the SNP work all manner of miracles with these ‘new powers’. In an alliance with the Tories which is only marginally less formal than Better Together, British Labour in Scotland will continue to insist that the Scottish Government is choosing not to use powers that it actually doesn’t have. Or poweers whose use would have implications that Kezia’s Kiddies choose to pretend don’t exist. We need to be aware that British Labour and the Tories are working hand-in-hand to harrass the Scottish Government and force it into the various fiscal and political traps that have been laid.
We need to be aware that everything the British parties say and do has but one objective – the return of Scotland to British control and the eradication of Scotland’s distinctive political culture.
Like most people in Scotland, I trust Nicola Sturgeon and her team. I have confidence in them. But I do not underestimate the forces that ranged against them. If they are to succeed in turning the ‘new powers’ to our advantage, they will need our support. And our understanding of just how difficult this will be.