The unicorn carrying the SaltireToday had a big red-pen circle round it in the SNP’s schedule when they were new to office – it’s the day the referendum would have been held if Parliament had let them Bring It On! Instead, it’s Westminster that’s making the running on more powers for Scotland, and today Michael Moore (with or without Nick Clegg) will come to Edinburgh to announce what we already know – there will a Scotland Bill to legislate most of the Calman recommendations into effect.

The SNP are palpably furious to have lost the initiative to London on the final St Andrew’s Day before the election, and today is indeed significant, although largely in news management terms. Like the National Conversation, Calman was set up to listen only to one side of the argument, and the end product has been suitably lacking in radicalism.

As an anorak, the title annoys me too. If it passes, The Scotland Bill will become The Scotland Act. We already have a Scotland Act, and it’s a pretty historic document wherever you stand on the constitutional question. It’s the only legislation where any proportion of the public might just know the first memorable line: “There shall be a Scottish Parliament”. Now we’ll have to distinguish them by date, which will aggravate the anorak quotient of these future discussions.

But I digress. The plans are to devolve an odd mix powers to Holyrood. Aside from the tax question, the newsworthy items seem to be regulation of airguns, drink drive limits and speed limits. For some reason the media aren’t exercised by the proposals to split Stage 3 consideration of legislation into Stage 3 and Stage 4, the first for amendments and the second for final approval.

Now, there’s a decent consensus against free access to airguns, against drink driving, and Parliament would probably back statutory 20 mile an hour residential zones. Once changes in those areas have been made, though, what remains to do? Where’s the radical change the Coalition tell us Calman will bring? What can we do differently?

Of course, the main thrust is those tax powers, even though the aggregates levy and air passenger duty are not coming to Scotland just yet. Central to those is the idea that the equivalent of 10p is lopped off all the income tax bands in Scotland, and Holyrood then has to take an active decision about how much to raise.

Personally, I don’t think there’s any political difference between simply letting the existing Scottish Variable Rate remain unused, were it still available for use, and a 2015 post-Calman Scottish Government simply sticking 10p on tax so the bands remain the same as the rest of the UK. The bands, allowances and thresholds won’t be subject to change, and the Commission claims “this is because income tax is a progressive tax”. If that was the real reason, Holyrood would simply have been forbidden from making the bands less progressive: given the way Scotland votes, the suspicion has to be that the Grand Coalition (in the case, including Labour) don’t want Holyrood to be able to make the tax system more progressive.

The fact that the upper rates can be changed in lock-step does mark a limited improvement on the Scottish Variable Rate. It would ensure that income tax increases continue to be progressive above the £44,875 level at which the top rate kicks in, unlike the tax powers voted for in 1997 which are progressive only up to that point. So here’s the open question to Scotland’s political parties. If you had the Calman powers now, would you consider using them to limit the cuts?

pic credit