Category Archives: devo-max

That’s not federalism!

England
England.
So Kezia Dugdale has been talking about introducing federalism again. I must admit that I stopped reading as soon as I got to this bit:

[A] federal solution where "every nation and the regions of England could take more responsibility for what happens in their communities".

Most instances of federalism are quite symmetric, which means that specific powers belong to specific levels of government, and that the same levels exist everywhere. (There are some instances of asymmetric federalism, but they're much rarer.) What that means is that if Scotland is responsible for criminal law, health, education and agriculture, one would expect the same powers to be devolved to the other constituent parts of the UK. That's fine with Wales and Northern Ireland, but what about England?

Does Kezia want to devolve criminal law, health, education and agriculture to the English regions (completely removing these areas from Westminster), or does she want to create an English Parliament to devolve them to?

I rather suspect she doesn't want to do either of these things, and she really wants to keep a system where Westminster is the parliament for both the UK and for England, devolving only a couple of insignificant areas to the English regions in order to look like she doing something.

That's not federalism!

Home rule if we let the dream die

Driving into Scotland after 2014
Driving into Scotland after 2014.

Alun Evans, the former director of the Scotland Office, has used the upcoming anniversary of the referendum to issue a call for home rule:

The time has come for the United Kingdom to make a big, bold, generous and mature offer to the people of Scotland. That offer needs to be – whatever people choose to call it, full fiscal autonomy or devo max plus – “home rule within the United Kingdom”, to use the language of Charles Parnell and William Gladstone.

What would that look like? It could be: full devolution of tax and spending to the Scottish parliament and government, except for reserved areas; full responsibility for domestic policy and spending; full responsibility for energy policy and activity on and offshore; agreement on certain shared responsibilities within the UK; a framework of the continuance of the UK as a constitutional monarchy; a shared economic area with monetary policy set by the UK central bank’s monetary policy committee on which Scotland’s views should be represented; defence and the overall conduct of foreign policy to be run by the UK but with full consultation.

Well, that's cool -- exactly what the SNP has asked for every day since the No vote. However, Mr. Evans has three conditions:

But there would need to be three broad conditions. First: economic. This arrangement would, by definition, spell the end of the Barnett formula for public spending as it is applied to Scotland – needing a new and fairer formula to apply to Wales and Northern Ireland.

That's fine, so long as the price agreed for shared UK services (such as the military) is fair.

Second: political. Giving a far greater degree of independence within the UK to Scotland – home rule – should have a quid pro quo in terms of reduced political power for Scotland within the Westminster parliament. The best, and fairest, answer to the West Lothian question is that home rule should coincide with a reduction in the number of Scottish MPs in return for home rule. That would imply a cut of perhaps 50% in the number of Scottish MPs.

That, on the other hand, is ridiculous. I'd be very happy for Westminster to split into two parliaments -- an English one and a federal one -- and of course Scotland should only have seats in the latter. However, in the federal parliament Scotland should count for more, not less. As I've argued before, the Penrose formula should be used, which would give Scotland roughly 1/6 of the seats in the UK Parliament, rather than the 1/20 that Alun Evans seems to be advocating. Otherwise Scotland simply wouldn't have as much influence on the international stage as it would as an independent country.

Third: constitutional. This issue has to be put to bed for a generation, not for a year or for five years. There may be something to be learned from the experience of Canada with Quebec. After its second referendum in 1995 – when the separatist movement failed to gain independence by only 1% – the government reached out to Quebec and sold the benefits of remaining within Canada much more strongly and passionately, to the extent that the pressure for separatism has subsided.

Those who believe in Scotland remaining a part of the UK now need to do the same to ensure that agreement on home rule is not immediately unpicked. And so a long-term agreement must stipulate that it is for the long term – even if that needs to be enshrined in a new treaty of union.

It might be a good idea for the SNP to agree to a decade-long referendum moratorium in return for home rule, but I don't like the sound of Mr. Evans's last sentence at all. It sounds a lot like he would make it illegal to call another referendum, and that simply wouldn't be acceptable. Some people might have swallowed this on 19th September last year when everything was dreich and thrawn, but now that most people feel that another referendum is just a few years away, I don't see why anybody would accept these terms and conditions.

Home rule is fine, but only if it's a stepping-stone towards full independence for Scotland.

The power of signs

IMG_1868
IMG_1868 by Bobby Hidy, on Flickr.

One of the most ridiculed new powers proposed in the Smith Commission's report today is about road traffic signs::

66. Remaining powers to change speed limits will be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. Powers over all road traffic signs in Scotland will also be devolved.

However, if this really devolves everything to do with road signs to Scotland, it actually is much more significant than most people think.

Firstly, as anybody who has driven through continental Europe in a car knows, nothing signals that you're in a new country more than when the road signs change. Of course there are international standards these days that prevent them from becoming completely unrecognisable, but the layout, the font and the colours together provide a powerful subliminal message that tells you which country you're in. So if Scotland for instance changed the typeface from Transport (as used in Cyprus, Denmark, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Portugal and the rUK) to DIN 1451 (as used in Germany, the Czech Republic and Latvia) or SNV (as used in Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Kosovo, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, Slovenia and Serbia), it would make a difference to drivers crossing the border -- as James Kelly put it, ‘nothing says "London rule" quite like that font.’ (See an overview of road sign typefaces here.) At the same time, Scotland could also swap the use of blue and green backgrounds to mirror the usage in Sweden, Finland, Italy and other countries.

Secondly, I presume metrification could be completed, too, using both the powers to change speed limits and the signage powers. All speed limits and distances could simply be given in kilometres instead of miles. This would make Scotland stand out very strongly as a modern, European country, compared to the rUK.

Finally, these new powers could also be used to introduce signs in Scots, not just in English and Gaelic. However, this would probably be best done as part of an overall strengthening of the support of Scotland's biggest minority language.

It's clear that if this new power is used in full, it might actually turn out to have been one of the most important proposals made by the Smith Commission.

Winning the argument forever

escher
escher by matt smith, on Flickr.
I'm confident the outcome of the referendum will be a clear Yes, but if it ends up a No, it clearly won't be because Better Together won the argument.

If they win, it'll be because many voters got trapped in the quagmire of worries and vague promises of the No campaign, e.g.: "I'm a bit worried about the plans for X after independence", "I'm worried my job might be at risk if we vote Yes", "Perhaps the English will get angry at us after a Yes vote" or "Those new powers the talked about sounded quite nice, let's try them out first". Very few people -- and certainly no more than before the referendum campaign started -- will feel that the UK is working well for Scotland.

This is why a No vote won't be the end of the story. Of course the Yes side will respect the result -- nobody would even dream of declaring independence after a No vote without holding a new referendum -- but the Yes activists will still believe in independence. Nobody will have been convinced of the impossibility of independence like this: "I liked the idea of independence, but they clearly demonstrated that a country the size of Norway or Denmark isn't viable", "It's a shame Scotland would get invaded by Russia as soon as we declared independence" or "I used to think Scotland could go it alone, but we're clearly too wee, too poor and too stupid".

The No side keeps talking about avoiding a 'neverendum', but the only way to achieve that is by winning the argument. So long as a large part of the population still believes that independence is best for Scotland, of course the issue won't go away.

A Yes victory will be forever. Independent nations don't ever want to give up on their independence again. (Independent countries that aren't nations -- such as East Germany -- might, but that's a completely different story.) Once you're independent, you'll get used to it, and you'll never want to give it up again. Did the banking crash cause Ireland to beg for reunification with the UK? Or Iceland to ask Denmark to be readmitted into the Danish Realm? Of course not!

A Yes vote will bring an end to the current discussions about devolution and independence and make us focus on building the best Scotland possible. That in its own right is an important reason to vote Yes.

Real home rule

Tory anti-Home Rule poster
Tory anti-Home Rule poster by Plashing Vole, on Flickr.
I've been wondering for a while whether modern Scottish Labour Unionists are right when they invoke the struggle for home rule by the founders of Labour in Scotland as an argument in favour of devolution and against independence, so I read George Kerevan's article about Gordon Brown and James Maxton in The Scotsman with great interest:

Here is the authentic James Maxton speaking at a rally in Glasgow in support of the 1924 Scottish Home Rule Bill. Maxton declared that he asked “for no greater task in life than to make the English-ridden, capitalist-ridden, landowner-ridden Scotland into a free Scottish Socialist Commonwealth”. He went on to say that “with Scottish brains and courage … we could do more in five years in a Scottish parliament than would be produced by 25 or 30 years heartbreaking working in the British House of Commons”.

Just try referring to “English-ridden” Scotland today and you will be rightly ticked off. But James Maxton was an angry man. [...] His anger was understandable to everyone in Glasgow. It expressed not an anti-Englishness, but a hatred of a class system run from London.

The Home Rule espoused by Maxton has nothing in common with the drip-feed of powers by London Labour. [...] The Red Clydesiders [...] wanted Home Rule in the sense of the full, de facto autonomy already enjoyed by Australia and New Zealand.

At the time, it made good sense to aspire to home rule like in Canada, Australia or New Zealand. These places had been running their own affairs for a while already. For instance, the modern-day Parliament of Canada came into existence in 1867 (and full legislative autonomy would be granted in 1931), and Australia's Commonwealth Parliament was opened in 1901.

To a large extent, the British Empire consisted of countries that had a lot of independence (notable exceptions being foreign affairs, defence and international shipping). In other words, they had significantly more independence than Scotland has at the moment.

One could argue that the British Empire was the equivalent of EU and NATO of that era, maintaining an internal market with free movement of goods and people while providing a reciprocal security guarantee.

It made sense to want independence within the Empire. It wasn't easy being a fully independent small country in the 19th and early 20th centuries. To take but one example, Denmark got her capital bombarded and the fleet confiscated in 1807, went bankrupt in 1813, lost Norway in 1814, lost Schleswig-Holstein in 1864 and was occupied by Nazi Germany from 1940 to 1945 without being able to liberate herself. If Scotland had remained an independent country instead of forming a political union with England in 1707, it's quite possible similar national disasters would have occurred.

To return to the present, it's still the case that most Scots want the Scottish Parliament to handle everything with the possible exception of defence and foreign affairs. (According to the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey (PDF), 32% of Scots agree that “the UK government should make decisions about defence and foreign affairs; the Scottish Parliament should decide everything else”, and another 31% want all decisions to be made in Scotland.)

The various devolution plans put forward by the three main Unionist parties don't go nearly far enough. They're mainly concerned with letting the Scottish Parliament collect a few more taxes, but they're not even close to offering Devo Max along the lines outlined by the SSAS.

To be honest, I'm not sure many Scots really want Westminster to make decisions about defence and foreign affairs (gauging from the Scottish reaction to the Iraq War and all that). What people want is to make sure Scotland won't get attacked by foreign countries and that we can continue to trade and travel freely.

In fact, a large majority of the Scottish population agrees with Keir Hardie, James Maxton and other early Scottish Labour politicians. We want real home rule, meaning independence with free international trade, the ability to travel and work abroad and a security guarantee. That's what we'll get by voting Yes.

The inherent volatility of devolution

The Scottish Parliament
The Scottish Parliament, a photo by Bernt Rostad on Flickr.
Pre-1999, the creation of a devolved Scottish Parliament seemed like a great idea. Scotland hadn't had a way to express its identity for nearly three centuries, and creating a forum for developing genuinely Scottish solutions seemed like a good way forward.

However, as times goes by, it's becoming increasingly clear that asymmetrical devolution (the construction we have in the UK, where there is no English Parliament and Westminster consequently has to act as the parliament for the UK and for England at the same time) is fundamentally flawed.

Proper federal systems (good examples are the US and Germany) work well and seem to be stable. No matter where you live, the local state handles specific issues (e.g., education) and other things are dealt with by the federal government. You don't feel any less American just because you live in Wisconsin instead of New York.

Centralised states (where there is only one parliament with law-making powers) can also work well (especially when the country isn't too big). Again all citizens are equal no matter where they live.

However, in the UK there are huge differences. If you're Scottish, your elected representatives have a say in both the education policies of Scotland and England. On the other hand, your Scottish fisheries minister cannot deal directly with the EU but has to use their English counterpart as an intermediary.

If you feel Scotland is different from the other nations of the UK, why wouldn't you want to opt for full independence and get the powers to control everything? And if you feel Scotland is just a region of the UK and not really any more different than Yorkshire, why do you need a Scottish Parliament making laws that gradually make Scotland more and more different from the rest of the UK?

When I look at Scottish Labour's hopelessly unambitious Devo Nano proposal (PDF), I really don't understand what it is they want to achieve. They probably thought the Scottish Parliament would be a great way to kill the SNP stone dead and keep Scottish Labour in power when the Tories ruled Westminster, but they now know they were wrong.

In their heart of hearts, I suspect Scottish Labour would like to roll back devolution and implement a proper One Nation vision for the UK. However, they know that would be political suicide in Scotland, so they opt for the smallest possible incremental change to devolution in the hope that the Scottish people will reject independence.

At the end of the day, devolution is probably inherently volatile and unstable. It will either lead to full independence sooner or later, or it will somehow get abolished again. Unless you believe Scotland is just another British region, you might as take the plunge in six months' time and vote Yes.

What devo-max really means

It seems to have become a popular Unionist pastime to devise schemes for slight changes to the devolution settlement, thinking that Scots will mistake them for devo-max and vote No to independence as a consequence.

However, according to the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey (PDF), 32% of Scots agree that "the UK government should make decisions about defence and foreign affairs; the Scottish Parliament should decide everything else" (in addition to the 31% who want all decisions to be made in Scotland). A few cosmetic changes to the status quo are clearly not enough to create a viable alternative to independence.

Public spending Scotland.
Public spending Scotland (from this report [PDF]).
If we look at public spending in Scotland (the graph on the right), it's clear that more is already spent by Holyrood (the blue bits) than by Westminster (the red bits). To achieve devo-max, the remainder of the "social protection" spending would have to be moved from London to Edinburgh.

Interestingly, the rest of the non-devolved public spending adds up to peanuts (about £8bn), which means that it could all be paid for by VAT (which raised £9347m in 2012-13). As a consequence, all taxation apart from VAT could be devolved to Scotland, and all block grants and other fiscal transfers could be abolished.

There would obviously need to be a federal parliament to deal with foreign affairs, defence and VAT. Because it would have so little to deal with, it could be much smaller than the current House of Commons, and the seats should be allocated according to Penrose's square-root formula, giving Scotland about 18% of the seats, ensuring that Scotland wouldn't get less influence than it would have as an independent country.

In addition to the changes above, we'd need a proper constitution, preventing Westminster from ever rolling back devolution against the wishes of Scotland, and enshrining Scotland's eternal right to self-determination.

There's no reason why all of the above couldn't be signed into law before the referendum to ensure that the Unionists don't suddenly change their mind afterwards.

Sadly, it's probably more likely that pigs will fly. Unionist politicians are showing absolutely no signs that they'll ever agree to something as simple and reasonable as this.