By Andrew Tickell
I coughed. I sputtered. I spat my Earl Gray down the wall. In awed silence, I goggled, caught between astonishment and incredulity.
Last night on the BBC's Scotland 2014 programme, Alistair Carmichael dumped a clanger. Around four and a half minutes into the broadcast, the following exchange occurred between the host, Sarah Smith, and the Secretary of State for Scotland.
Smith: "The Lib Dems have been talking for a long time about a federal Britain. But Labour and the Tories only came up with plans for more devolution very, very recently. They could have done this - they've both been in government since the Holyrood parliament was opened. They could've legislated for this easily by now if they wanted to. Do you trust the other leaders, that they'll actually deliver on this if there's a No vote in September?"
Carmichael: "Well, there has never been a time, Sarah, since we started this devolution project, where part of the United Kingdom has asked for powers for a parliament or an assembly where this has been denied. We have twice delivered powers for the Scottish Parliament. The Labour government set it up in 1997, we within the coalition government, then added to these powers, following the Calman Commission - so that was, eh, a project started under the last Labour government, that was completed by the coalition this time around-"
Which is. Er. Demonstrably untrue. To say that you have devolved some additional powers since 1998 - and that's beyond dispute - cannot substantiate Carmichael's much more extravagant claim that no devolved parliament's demands for additional powers has ever been disappointed. The point went unchallenged in the interview, but it's 24 carat poppycock. But don't take my word for it. Ponder the recent record.
Scrutinising the Scotland Bill in 2011, the majority of the Scottish parliamentary committee urged Westminster to (1) give Holyrood power to vary income tax thresholds and banding (2) to raise excise duty on alcohol (no doubt with one eye to the 1725 malt tax riots) (3) air passenger duty (4) corporation tax (5) regulation of firearms (6) more authority over the Crown Estate - and so on, and so on. Indeed, the Scottish Government, backed by the parliamentary majority, generated this helpful list of their proposed amendments to the Scotland Bill for the Westminster government just a few years ago, in 2011.
In the starry parallel reality in which Carmichael appears to dwell, every single one of these demands has been met and devolved by the responsive and yielding government in Westminster. Because after all, "there has never been a time, Sarah, since we started this devolution project, where part of the United Kingdom has asked for powers for a parliament or an assembly where this has been denied."
But gosh darn it - I can't seem to find any of the powers we know the Scottish Government demanded in the final text of the Scotland Act 1998, or in the 2012 Act, or in any other order or statute. Are Her Majesty's ministers discreetly concealing all of the tax powers they've given us in the chancellor's Downing Street water-closet? Are the relevant papers, putting the Crown Estate in Scotland under Holyrood control, bundled in Michael Gove's drinks cabinet? Or does Eric Pickles' tupperwear hold all the secret, promised authority over guns and pills?
Good things come to those who wait, as some liquor-peddlar once said. I'm sure they'll turn up eventually. Because the Secretary of State is an honourable man, and he assures us that "there has never been a time, Sarah, since we started this devolution project, where part of the United Kingdom has asked for powers for a parliament or an assembly where this has been denied."
One or two of the Scottish Government's demands did make it into the final cut: boozing and speeding. But almost all of the tax and monetary powers petitioned for, over and above the Calman proposals, were turned down by Westminster as recently as 2012. The process of extending devolution in Wales has been marked by similar marches and countermarches and demands going unmet.
Still, Carmichael's grand proclamation that everything is up for grabs will no doubt be welcomed by the popping of corks in Northern Ireland, which is still waiting for Whitehall's decision on whether or not to give Stormont authority to vary the tax rates levied on businesses to make the six counties more competitive with their southern neighbours. Presumably, Carmichael's colleagues would have a similar open door policy to Scottish ministers, tripping south to petition for powers to match those which will, in the Secretary of State's fantastical parallel reality, inevitably come Belfast's way.
There's an important point to all of this. The best reason to be sceptical about the promises from the Tories and Labour on further devolution is not 1979, but 2012. From experience, we know that both parties are capable, with prodding, of devolving some additional powers. The record speaks for itself in that respect. But we also know that as recently as 2012, both political outfits were dead set against introducing the very schemes which they now array juveniles with purple placards across incomplete monuments to "guarantee".
They had a golden opportunity to introduce this flexibility into the devolution system less than two years ago. They declined to do so. The Liberal Democrats, the Tories, the Labour Party: all. Just two years ago. The question I'd like to hear credibly answered is, what has changed since the spring of 2012, to convince Johann Lamont, Ruth Davidson and their colleagues that the proposals they blocked less than two years ago are now grand ideas, "guaranteed" to the Plain People of Scotland if they have the douce good sense to say "No thanks"? If these ideas are wizard, what was so wrong with them in 2012?
We also know, all three of the Better Together parties having reported, that none of their devolution wheezes remotely approaches a vision of "devo-max", whatever their more breathless proponents might claim. All three plans will continue to reserve a whole tranche of critical decision-making to Westminster, on everything from renewable energy, to taxation -- and critically, social security and welfare.
We've a snowball's chance in hell of seeing any of these powers accrue to Scotland if the opportunity of independence is forgone in September. Even if we batter on Mr Carmichael's door, send a flurry of letters to his office, despatch tender scones to woo him to the advantages of devolving these powers - the Labour and Tory reports make clear that the door is firmly shut to all such petitioners, be they bearing scones or sconeless.
But never fear. Don't let our recent past behaviour or our current policy trouble you, because "there has never been a time, Sarah, since we started this devolution project, where part of the United Kingdom has asked for powers for a parliament or an assembly where this has been denied."
I coughed. I sputtered. I goggled. 24 carat poppycock.
Courtesy of Lallands Peat Worrier