When is a power not a power? When you are the President of the USA it seems.
Barack Obama was meant to be different. Not being in the pocket of vested interests when first elected was meant to give him a free hand to sweep the same away. But the inertia of office soon kicked in and any hope of radical change was quickly extinguished. In many ways, this might have been just as well for, had expectations not been reset so early, his re-election might not have been so straightforward and who knows what course the US would be embarking on now.
Already being taken to the brink in his efforts to change course as the US hurtles towards the fiscal cliff, President Obama now has to deal with the aftermath of the Newtown tragedy in Connecticut. Gun control is well and truly back on the agenda.
Whatever Mr Obama’s instincts, like the Republicans facing him down on the nation’s finances and despite its initial consensual response, the pro-gun lobby will not make it easy for change to be made. At least Mr Obama does not have to concern himself with his own re-election anymore and, if he can find the strength, he could take advantage of this and lead his country to a new relationship with firearms for, let’s be clear, that destination is not somewhere the country will go of its own accord.
Personally, one hopes that Mr Obama takes advantage of his newly won position and starts to take some bold steps on taxation, firearms and foreign relations and it is certainly to be hoped that, one way or another, the US finds a way to stem the tide of senseless carnage being visited upon its communities.
It was a tragic irony that on the very day of the Newtown incident, our own Justice Secretary announced a consultation on how to make use of newly transferred powers over air weapons. This is simply the latest move in controlling dangerous weapons since our own tragedy in Dunblane all those years ago. There are many across all parties that are to be commended for their work in this area. It was long ago now but if one thinks back to the aftermath of Dunblane, one will recall a very vocal gun lobby which was only overcome through a huge campaign boasting cross-party support.
It is to be hoped that this consultation will result in the Scottish Government making the most of very limited powers for the benefit of the communities it serves.
…or Not to Act
So, while Scotland might be able to show the US how to harness powers over weapons to protect our communities, the same cannot be said in relation to fiscal powers.
Available at the outset of the devolution/independence process, no Scottish Government has ever contemplated altering the basic rate of income tax as a means to deliver an alternative fiscal environment compared to the rest of the UK. Indeed, the SNP manifesto in 1999 is the only one where a party with a genuine prospect of winning control of the Scottish Parliament ever proposed such a change; in this case a 1p increase to offset a 1p reduction to UK wide taxation.
The proposal failed to win support, leaving Labour with a comfortable victory and ever since no party that aspires to government in Scotland has ever proposed any change to the tax regime imposed by the UK Government. It is difficult to see the circumstances where such a power would ever be used now; even without the formal checks and balances built in to the US system of federal government, we have reached a political deadlock in Scotland where any radical change to taxation policy, such as the proposed shift to a Local Income Tax to finance local government, is shouted down by opportunistic opponents.
Use It or Lose It
To have the power to act is only part of the story. It must be accompanied by political will which might be described as the courage of conviction allied with the strength to fight opportunistic naysayers.
Nobody since 1999 has had the courage to propose altering income tax in Scotland. As a result, that power is all but beyond use – it has been made toxic by the terms in which it has been debated.
On the other hand, look at some of the brave steps that have been taken in terms of social policy. The ban on smoking in public places, the abolition of the right to buy and minimum pricing of alcohol. Showing the Scottish Parliament at its best; taking on powerful interests to deliver better policy for society. Were it not for these initiatives, the Scottish Parliament would surely have a less valued place in our nation’s psyche.
And there are wider political dangers in not making the most of the powers at your disposal. Witness the parable of the Labour Party in Scotland; thrown out of power at Holyrood because they very quickly ran out of policy areas where they had the courage to take a distinctively Scottish approach. There was quite simply no real point to Labour being in control of the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish people learned pretty quickly that a devolved government run by a party which was not itself devolved was not devolution.
Winning the Power to Act
Which brings us, admittedly torturously, to the Independence Referendum.
The debate is still mired in claim and counter-claim about process. It is clear that the Better Together tactic is to extend this phase for as long as possible to avoid discussing the important issues and to cause as much uncertainty as possible. None of the talk about process actually matters except for the boredom and confusion it submerges the debate in. The real debate is about the powers we seek.
And in making the case for more powers, we must be able to demonstrate how they could be wielded differently to deliver outcomes that would benefit Scotland relative to what we might expect under the current arrangements.
Dare we paint a picture that can be interpreted as simply transferring powers from Westminster to Holyrood in the hope that they can be managed better? As described above, we’ve seen this tried before and it is unlikely the Scottish electorate will buy again.
In this debate of all debates, our imagination must not be constrained by managerialism. The selection of policy is for another post-referendum day. From now until the Referendum, we must be inspiring our nation with visions of what COULD be. Vision is what will lift the debate from its current turgid state and ultimately what will carry the day.
So let’s use the Christmas break wisely and reflect on how we want our society to look and then start talking to our friends, family and workmates about how things should be. There is no right or wrong answer; so long as we can credibly demonstrate it is possible, every vision will inspire a currently undecided Scot to vote Yes.
Have a merry and imaginative Christmas.