Scotland's nationalists still flying the flag

Scotland's nationalists still flying the flag

For the first time, the flag of Scotland flew over all public buildings in London this week in honour of St Andrew's Day, Scotland's official holiday.

This was part of the British government's efforts to reassure the Scots that, despite the failure of their independence referendum in September, Scotland's identity will be cherished by the rest of the United Kingdom.

But the Scottish National Party that rules Scotland at the moment brushed this gesture aside, for it is much more interested in two political developments that could still deliver independence to Scotland through the back door - and do so in just a few years.

One key development that favours Scotland's separation is the recent proposal by a British government-appointed commission to grant its regional government the powers to tax people.

Until now, taxation was uniform throughout the United Kingdom, and the British government allocated parts of the money for spending by Scotland under a complicated formula which took into account the territory's population size and welfare needs.

But under the new system, it will be up to the Scottish government to make decisions on both taxes and spending.

The powers are limited: the Scottish government will only be able to vary the overall rates of income tax, as well as change a few other specified taxes, such as the levy on the sale of airline tickets.

But it will not be able to tinker with the personal tax allowance - the amount of income people can earn before they pay any tax - for that remains within the exclusive powers of the UK government in London.

Still, the proposals, once approved by the British Parliament early next year, will give Scotland control over an estimated £11.5 billion (S$23.5 billion) worth of tax revenues which it can spend more or less as it wishes.

Mr Robert Smith, the House of Lords member who led the commission, hailed the move as "the biggest transfer of powers" from London in recent memory.

British politicians claim that this fulfils the promises they made to Scottish voters during the independence referendum campaign that, should they opt to stay in the UK, they will get more autonomy. "This is a good day for the UK," said Prime Minister David Cameron.

But senior members of Mr Cameron's Cabinet are privately expressing disquiet over the implications.

One reason for their gloom is that, predictably, the offer to transfer taxation powers was greeted by Scottish nationalists with demands for more.

"The proposed changes fall well short of the proposals from the Scottish government," said Ms Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland's First Minister, as the head of the regional government is known.

More importantly, far from simplifying the way Britain is governed, the tax changes merely add further legal complications.

Scottish members of the British Parliament will continue to have the right to vote on all legal measures that apply to England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the other constituent parts of the UK. But English MPs will not have the right to vote on laws and spending measures that apply to Scotland.

Mr Cameron has promised to abolish this anomaly, but it is difficult to see how without another round of painful constitutional disputes.

To make matters worse, there are clear signs that the dominance that Britain's biggest political parties used to enjoy in Scotland is rapidly waning.

The ruling Conservatives have long ago been wiped out in Scotland: they hold only one of Scotland's 59 seats in the British Parliament. But the opposition Labour Party, which currently has 41 Scottish seats and was always seen as the "natural" party of government in Scotland, is rapidly losing support there.

Current opinion polls project that at the British election scheduled to take place by May next year, Labour may lose up to 20 of its Scottish seats to the nationalists.

Were that to happen, Scotland's nationalists may find themselves in the unusual position of not only dominating Scottish politics, but also deciding on the shape of the next British government.

And there is no guessing what they will do: impose political conditions that would cause the break-up of the UK.

Either way, a mere two months after losing an independence referendum, Scotland's separatists remain unrepentant. "Our cause remains un-won, but, friends, it will be won, and Scotland will be an independent country," boasted nationalist leader Ms Sturgeon.

Jonathan.eyal@gmail.com


This article was first published on Dec 3, 2014.
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