As the Chancellor George Osborne delivered his final Autumn Statement of this parliament before next May’s General Election, few commentators would have predicted at the time of his first statement back in 2010 that there would be such momentum behind greater autonomy from Westminster to the regions of the UK.
The momentum is largely due to the recent ‘No vote’ in the Scottish Independence referendum that paved the way for increased devolution following promises made to voters by the three leading parties. The buzz around Scotland stirred interest from the rest of the UK, with Prime Minister David Cameron using the day after the referendum to immediately take up the cause of “English votes for English laws”. The referendum, coupled with the long-term popularity of an elected Mayor in London, has galvanised the enthusiasm of voters and politicians alike and devolution is here to stay.
The recommendations made by the Smith Commission, setup in the wake of the ‘No vote’ to establish what further Scottish devolution should actually constitute, looks set to largely become a reality with the end of January set as the strict deadline for proposals to be enshrined in law. The headline recommendation for Scotland to set and receive its own level of income tax would constitute significant change and would mean the Scottish parliament would collect over 60% of its spending, up from the current rate of 10%.
The prospect of ‘devo met’ (devolution metropolitan) to northern English cities has also been put firmly on the agenda through the recent report by the City Growth Commission, and placed within the context of the Scottish vote, the political will now exists to transfer more economic decision-making powers to the northern regions.
In addition, George Osborne used his Autumn Statement yesterday, to even pave the way for greater tax raising powers for Northern Ireland. In talk unthinkable before the Scottish vote, the Chancellor will propose legislation for corporation tax to be devolved to Stormont, the Northern Ireland assembly, if the North Irish Government can prove it could manage the financial implications.
With another hung parliament likely after the UK general election, expect devolution to feature prominently in the power-broking negotiation plans of all parties come next May. Whoever occupies Number 10 Downing Street after that, will not only have the task of implementing current plans, but also ensuring political and economic unity in the face of ever increasing regional interests.