Consensus and customary snarl

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies. It was not quite a new planet swimming into my ken but it was certainly a novel experience. Keats would have approved.

The session of questions to the first minister ended with smiles and an outbreak of consensus, in place of the customary snarl and whimper.

It happened like this. Liz Smith of the Tories repeated her oft-stated demand for more support to be given to voluntary groups working with children. In response, the first minister announced new money for such support - predicting, with a wry grin, that his Tory inquisitor would claim the credit.

No let-down there. The bold Liz - grinning in equal measure - said she was entirely happy to do so. Contentment all round as the presiding officer, silent upon a peak in Darien, brought the session to a close.

Tax powers

Willie Rennie of the Liberal Democrats plainly caught the bug. He suggested that Mr Salmond, fresh from his liberality towards Scotland's youth, should similarly smile upon plans emerging from within Labour ranks for new tax powers to be afforded to the Scottish Parliament.

I fear Mr Rennie is destined to fail in this endeavour. For one thing, it strikes me that the "growing consensus" of which he talks has some way yet to grow. There is not even, at this stage, consensus within the Labour Party.

For another, the SNP - and this may astonish some - do not want merely to enhance the powers of the Scottish Parliament. They want independence.

But back to Labour. As ever in politics, there is a combination of pragmatism and principle at play here.

The pragmatism comes on two fronts. Polling tells Labour - and, presumably, other pro-Union parties - that they need a new offer on the constitution to counter independence in the run-up to the referendum. It is not enough to say No. They must be seen to say No, but……

Secondly, on the pragmatic scene, Scottish Labour is aware of potential disquiet in one sector of the party; a rather influential sector. MPs. It is implicit within the Labour package that there would be no reduction in the numbers - and thus the influence - of Scotland's representatives at Westminster.

But of course that pragmatic consideration veers over into principle. This is, after all, devolution, not independence. The commission report seeks to reclaim control of the self-government agenda for Labour, arguing that the party's support for Home Rule predates the existence of the SNP.

'True Home Rule'

While that might seem a touch reactive, the tone of the report is clear. To quote, "devolution is not a journey that leads to independence - it is a journey towards true Home Rule."

In sum, the commission suggests devolving air passenger duty, vehicle excise duty - and all of income tax. More precisely, on that latter point, it says the commission members are "minded" to back such devolution.

Also in sum, the commission is agin the devolution of corporation tax (cross-border tax dodging), oil revenues (too volatile to help) - and control of welfare which it would retain at the UK level, arguing that resources are better shared across a wide polity, while noting that there might be scope to examine some devolved variation.

The SNP has pounced upon that latter point in particular, arguing that it is bizarre to defend the UK remit in welfare while a debate rages over benefit curbs and the "bedroom tax".

But the overall tone in the Labour report is cautious. Fiscal autonomy, it says, equates to independence. And reaction has varied.

Some senior Labour insiders predict that the party will go for full devolution of income tax - as a neat, big answer - provided there can be assurances on recalibrating the block grant to ensure that Scotland does not lose funding as a consequence.

Others forecast that the caveats will win out, that the party may end up arguing, for example, that Holyrood should be granted the power to vary the gap between upper and lower rates.

The LibDems, of course, have their own, substantive plans for tax devolution. Ruth Davidson of the Tories is talking about fiscal devolution - but her version, unlike Labour's, would be linked to scrapping the Barnett Formula which currently determines the annual variation in Scotland's budget, linked to comparable Whitehall spending.

This has some way to go.