Can new powers for Scotland really be delivered within promised timescale?

Malcolm Harvey looks at the task facing the Smith Commission

Lord Smith of Kelvin’s task of steering the commission for more Scottish devolution is set to a timescale that makes his job chairing the organising committee of the Glasgow Commonwealth Games look like child’s play.

It has made quick progress to date. Inside two weeks of the referendum result, the Smith commission was populated with members from each of the five parties represented at Holyrood (the SNP, Labour, the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens). By the time public proposals to the commission had closed on October 31, some 14,000 submissions had been made.

Now it has until St Andrew’s Day (November 30) to make sense of those submissions and the proposals submitted by the five represented parties to produce a set of workable proposals. Draft legislation is due by Burns’ Night (January 25) prior to the UK general election in May, after which a bill for legislation should be included in the Queen’s Speech.

Stopwatches and the big sell

The difficulties break into two strands. The first is the commitment itself – how to deliver a workable constitutional settlement within the timetable required. The second is the political issue: how to sell the outcome as desirable and in the public interest both inside Scotland and elsewhere. To add to the scale of the challenge, this is happening a time when the public is actively engaged in the political process, watching as the proposals unfold.

Constitutional change in the UK is usually a gradual process, occurring on an ad-hoc basis. It is commonly based on the whim and interest of the government of the day, seldom taking a view of the wider constitutional picture. Devolution is a case in point here: Labour provided devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and to London – but when the north-east of England voted against a regional assembly, the question of how to govern England remained unanswered.

The current process is not much different in that respect. Marrying the requirements for broad constitutional thinking and a workable settlement with a speedy resolution appears to be mission impossible. Allowing short-term political thinking to influence the outcome is simply going to exacerbate the constitutional issue.

So we have a timetable that is entirely political: a promise made in poetry during the tense final week of the referendum campaign requires delivery in prose in the cold light of a parliamentary process. Herein lies the bear-trap. The 45% who voted Yes to Scottish independence – as well as substantial numbers of the 55% who voted No – are eager for further powers to be devolved and for the timetable to be met. They will, as the outgoing first minister Alex Salmond suggested, “hold Westminster’s feet to the fire” on these promises.

Options, options …

Lord Smith has been placed in a bind here. Does he use the available time-frame to deliver a lean package, broadly in line with what the three main UK parties published in the months before the vote? Does he recommend that more substantial powers be devolved, considerably altering the constitutional make-up of the UK without the due diligence that a longer process would allow? Or does he say he needs more time to come up with a workable form of devolution, letting the timetable slip? Those appear to be the options, and none looks attractive.

Of course the SNP would make political hay out of either the timetable slipping or the powers delivered being less than expected or desired. The fact that it is involved in the Smith commission might take some of the sting out of this (which explains why former Scottish secretary Michael Moore kept making this point during the House of Commons debate on the issue, for example).


So what happens on November 30? A timetable slip has to be a real possibility. Even to read each of the public submissions during the month of November means that the commission must read more than 450 submissions each day – or 700 a day if you rule out weekends. And once they’ve been read, they of course need to be considered and presumably collated in some way.

Still, postponement would look terrible so it’s perhaps not the most likely outcome. More likely there will be proposals but with some kind of acknowledgement that not all the submissions could be considered – thereby undermining the democratic force of the process. Since the three main UK parties are in the majority, the most likely is a package along the lines of what they propose: more income tax devolution, some transfer of welfare powers, but nothing much more drastic.

Selling that to Scotland is probably not particularly difficult. Smith and the parties will be able to present it as being on a continuum of extra powers, following the creation of the parliament in 1999 and the Calman commission in 2012. You indicate to Yes voters that it’s another step to their end goal while telling No voters it strengthens the parliament and represents the will of the Scottish people. You have the advantage that the Yes side know it is not politically wise to call another referendum at this stage.

What looks much more problematic is the rest of the UK. Will Welsh or English MPs vote for the package unless they secure new powers too? Will Scottish MPs vote for it, knowing that it will remove some of their power in Westminster? If Labour wins next year’s general election, will they take the proposals forward as legislation? They know their ability to govern the UK could be badly damaged by the idea of English votes for English laws, so any package that attempted to force through that issue would be unlikely to pass muster.

Where does this leave the Smith commission? With a monumental task on its hands. It could save the union for generations, or we could be looking at another referendum within the next 10 years. We’ll only find out the answer, one suspects, once the ball lands with Westminster.

Malcolm Harvey is a Researcher at the University of Aberdeen. This article first featured on the Conversation. (

9 thoughts on “Can new powers for Scotland really be delivered within promised timescale?

  1. ‘The 45% who voted Yes to Scottish independence – as well as substantial numbers of the 55% who voted No – are eager for further powers to be devolved and for the timetable to be met.’

    Says who?

    This tells you all you need to know about the article. Subjective nonsense.

  2. Experts like Professor Micheal Keating say that sticking to the timescale will be impossible. The delays, and confusion, will inevitably boost the SNP, who can point the finger at the London Establishment and their continued failures. Wins all round for Scottish nationalism over British nationalism, one senses.

  3. Smith proposes, but Parliament at Westminster disposes. The only way Scotland will get more powers is if a substantial proportion of SNP MPs are returned in May and they are able to hold the balance of power in another hung parliament, which is not at all unlikely. In which case it matters little what Smith does or does not come up with. It should be obvious to everyone that this commission is simply a delaying tactic to give the impression that government is ‘doing something’ while what remains of the Yes campaign (they hope) disintegrates. Maybe the ploy will work, maybe not, we’ll just have to wait and see. Meanwhile Smith & Co. will cynically go through the motions and no doubt be handsomely rewarded for their trouble.

  4. AMC. No need for such cynicism. The Smith committee may try conscientiously to find a generally acceptable solution but it doesn’t matter. It is impossible to meet Scottish expectations within a sensibly organized Union. Either the Scots will get Danegeld and unfair privilege, leading to an English backlash, or they will be disappointed and the SNP will credibly cry foul. The Union is not safe by any means. The truth seems to be that a substantial proportion of the Scots are no longer emotionally attached to the Union and can be kept on board only with bribery. Such a Union is no union at all and will not persist unless there is a change of heart in Scotland.

  5. Jeff Vincent makes some good points. Timetable slips will play even further into the SNP’s hands. Friends in Scotland say that talk of independence is probably more widespread now than it was before the Referendum. It is remarkable how British nationalists keep messing up. Is it, one wonders, because a significant section now really want Scotland to secede in order to implement right-wing Euro-phobic policies across England (and Wales)?

  6. Tredwyn @
    Emotion? When did that ever have anything to do with business or politics? If two individuals or two firms or two nations benefit mutually from a union then well and good. If OTOH one or both are disadvantaged, and this appears to be more than a temporary situation, then clearly the union no longer has any purpose. I’d say this faux emotional appeal is the last refuge of English imperialism. Isn’t it time the English got used to the fact that their days as a world power are over? This attitude comes over as nothing short of insufferable arrogance elsewhere in Europe, and in practice only means supplying cannon fodder for whatever war the Americans are currently amusing themselves with. Devo-Max BTW is essentially what the Isle of Man has. If a tiny one horse place like that deserves such a status, why shouldn’t an historic nation like Scotland enjoy equal dignity? Unlike Wales remember, Scotland was never annexed and made part of England, its laws and constitution remain intact. It also has a successful and popular independence party. The referendum campaign finally opened the eyes of many Labour voters to the true nature of their local ‘branch office’. I wonder what it would take to wean the Welsh off their local pack of ‘red tories’.

  7. I am full of admiration about the way the Scots manage to maintain a sense of grievance when everyone is licking their backside and giving them favorable treatment. Of course Scotland cannot have devo max within a union. The Isle of Man is a rotten tax haven. If Scotland had that status no wealthy person or company would pay any tax at all in the UK. Extensive devolution yes but go beyond a certain point and it becomes a nonsense. If a sensible degree of devolution is not good enough, independence is the answer not special treatment within a union that disadvantages other members. You bottled your referendum so now accept the consequences.

  8. Scotland is on course for independence within 10 to 15 years whatever the proposals of the Smith Commission. On 18 September the Scots population under 50 voted Yes and it was only people of a certain age who saved the Union. However the Smith Commission could play a useful supporting role in mapping out the period of transition for Scotland and deciding whether the end game will be harmonious or otherwise. Who knows, it may be more relevant for Wales than for Scotland in setting us a benchmark for our devolution.

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