Category Archives: alternativestoindependence

More powers evitable

The Scottish Parliament
The Scottish Parliament, a photo by viralbus on Flickr.
We see many headlines at the moment proclaiming that more powers for the Scottish Parliament are inevitable after a No vote.

I believe many of the people saying this are sincere, and it’s true, of course, that there is an overwhelming consensus in Scotland for many more powers. A referendum offering a system whereby the UK government makes decisions about defence and foreign affairs and the Scottish Parliament decides everything else would have been won by an overwhelming majority if independence hadn’t been an option.

However, if we listen to Scottish unionist politicians (for instance Gordon Brown and Ming Campbell who released their separate proposals today), they don’t agree on much. The common subset might consist of as little as devolving income tax, air passenger duty and the right of the Scottish Parliament to control its own elections. Hardly earth-shattering stuff, and much, much less than what a majority of Scots want.

At this point it’s important to remember that Scottish politicians cannot decide on extended devolution on their own. Whereas a nation such as Scotland arguably has the right to seek independence at any point, changing the devolution settlement can only be done by the Westminster (and rightly so — you cannot have a club where individual members can change the rules on their own).

So how likely is it that Westminster will accept the wishes of their Scottish colleagues after a No vote? In terms of realpolitik, this is what we’re likely to see:

  • No urgency: If the Yes side has just lost the referendum, it’ll take years before the SNP can feasibly try to call another one, so nothing bad will happen if further devolution doesn’t happen immediately. This means it won’t be urgent to do something, so it’ll be tempting simply to set up a commission and tell it to spend five years writing a report.
  • No consensus: Whereas there is consensus in Scotland for further devolution, that is definitely not the case in Westminster. For many different reasons, there is a lot of resistance, and many politicians there would probably call for reduced devolution in some areas as well as cuts to the Barnett formula for calculating the block grant.
  • Other priorities: Scottish independence has dominated the political debate in Scotland for the past two years, but that’s not at all the case in England, where topics such as immigration and the EU seem much more important. This means that it’ll be immensely difficult for the Scottish politicians to get their English counterparts to put anything meaty into the manifestos for the 2015 general election.

In other words, more powers are definitely not inevitable. I’m sure the Scottish unionist politicians will waffle for a long time about more powers, and it’s very likely a Calman II commission will be established, but I sincerely doubt anything more significant will happen after a No vote until such a time as a second independence referendum is about to be called. More powers are very much evitable.

Why is devo-max so popular?

Paul Rogers -- Iraq's Pressure Point
Paul Rogers — Iraq’s Pressure Point, a photo by openDemocracy on Flickr.
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”.

To a naïve observer, that sounds like many Scots aren’t too happy with Westminster’s social spending policies, but that they think their foreign-policy interests are handled well by the government in London.

However, very few Scots seem to love Trident (located very close to Glasgow), and most think the Iraq war was a disaster. Scots in general don’t seem to get excited by the thought of defending the Falklands, either. Furthermore, the instinctive hatred of the EU so common in England is quite unknown in Scotland.

In other words, it seems to me that Scots disagree more with the Westminster consensus with regard to defence and foreign affairs, not less. So why on Earth would a third of Scots want to retain these links?

Could it be that what they actually want is independence with a lifeline? Basically this group of Scots might desire full independence, but they don’t trust themselves and their compatriots not to make a mess of it, so they want the UK to stand ready to save them, in the same way a young adult can move back home with their parents if living alone doesn’t live up to expectations.

I guess that all these devo-max supporters really want is a guarantee by Westminster than the UK can always be recreated at Scotland’s behest. Of course London will never say this, because such a guarantee would be the surest way to ensure a Yes in September.

What we need to do instead is to reassure these voters that Scotland is in a better position than probably any other non-sovereign nation to be a successful independent country, and that an independent Scotland will thus never ever want to recreate the UK. We won’t need that lifeline.

Voting No for change doesn’t work

So I put a '1' against my first choice and a '2' against my second choice, right?
So I put a ‘1’ against my first choice and a ‘2’ against my second choice, right?, a photo by hugovk on Flickr.
The Alternative Vote was defeated because almost nobody really liked this voting system. The LibDems preferred the Single Transferable Vote, and other campaigners preferred proper proportional representation.

The Alternative Vote (AV) had been chosen as some sort of compromise during the Conservative-LibDem coalition negotiations, but the Tories campaigned against it regardless, and the LibDems were then forced to try and persuade the electorate to support a voting system they didn’t really like themselves.

So it’s likely many people voted No because they weren’t convinced by the merits of AV, not because they were against a reform per se.

However, the No victory buried all hope of another voting system for a generation, because it was interpreted as support for FPTP.

If the Yes side had won, it would have been possible to change AV into something better a few years later, but the No vote was effectively a vote for the status quo.

The lesson for the Scottish independence campaign is obvious.

Many No campaigners argue that all sorts of wonderful reforms will happen after a No vote, but in reality it’s very likely it will be interpreted as a vote to keep things as they are.

A Yes vote, on the other hand, will make it possible to discuss many other reforms in Scotland — such as abolishing the monarchy — that just aren’t on the agenda at the moment.

I actually feel sorry for the Devo-Max supporters out there. It’s a very popular vision for the future of Scotland, but by keeping it off the ballot paper the Westminster government has ensured that it will never happen. We’ll either get full independence or nothing at all.

All Devo-Max supporters must therefore face up to the reality that their preferred option won’t suddenly be resurrected after a No vote. They have to decide whether their favourite outcome is closer to the current devolution settlement or to independence.

The powers we need

Jam Tomorrow
‘Tomorrow’ Jam
The unionists sometimes talk about the extra powers Scotland will get if we vote No. Apart from the fact that it will probably just be a case of jam tomorrow (given that there won’t be any political necessity to increase devolution), nobody has so far put forward a case for devolving any further policy areas to Scotland, just making Scotland responsible for raising more revenue.

However, which powers would the Scottish public actually like to see devolved to Scotland? Let’s have a look at some of the reserved matters:

  1. Social security: The strong reaction to the bedroom tax makes it clear that Scots would prefer to see the majority of the responsibilities of the Department of Work and Pensions devolved to Scotland. However, it’s one of the few remaining areas where Westminster still plays a massive role in the life of ordinary Scots so I doubt any UK government would be happy to transfer these powers.
  2. EU representation: It’s constantly a problem that Scotland doesn’t always get as good a deal in the EU as independent countries because Westminster ministers do the negotiating for us, even in fully devolved areas. However, even if Westminster agreed to this, the EU would probably veto it.
  3. Military and foreign affairs: The Scottish reaction to the Iraq war and to having the UK’s nuclear weapons stationed just outside Glasgow makes it clear that most people would prefer to devolve these areas to Scotland. However, this is one of the hallmarks of an independent country, so it really won’t happen without independence.
  4. Postal services: Given that Westminster are constantly talking about privatising the Royal Mail, it would probably be very popular to keep it state-owned in Scotland, but exactly because it’d be popular, there’s no way it will happen.
  5. Broadcasting: Many Scots are reasonably happy with the BBC, but at the same time it would be great to get more dedicated Scottish programming (such as the “Scottish Six”), which would be more likely if some broadcasting powers were devolved. However, Westminster would be worried at the prospect of the BBC turning into a pro-independence channel, so there’s no way they’d do this.
  6. Air transport: Scottish politicians often complain that Scotland needs a lower air passenger duty than England to keep the Highlands and islands inhabitable, but I have a feeling London-based politicians would fear that some international airlines would start flying to Scotland instead of London to take advantage of this, so again I doubt this would happen.
  7. Immigration: Whereas English politicians (who can feel UKIP breathing down their necks) are getting very wary of immigration, Scotland is a much more welcoming place, and we need some immigration to keep the country going. It would be very useful if immigration was devolved. However, Westminster would be worried that immigrants would enter through Scotland and then move down to London, so this is a non-starter.

When you look at this list, two things strike me: Firstly there’s no chance in a lifetime that Westminster will actually consider devolving any of them, and secondly, most of them are attributes of an independent state.

The powers we need in Scotland are not those of a region with devolved powers, but those of an independent state.

Why we need to win this time

Victory Begins at Home
Victory Begins at Home, a photo by cliff1066™ on Flickr.
Recently former SNP leader Gordon Wilson proclaimed he was “laid back” about losing the 2014 referendum, because “Scots will back separation the second time round as Westminster will react to victory next year by scrapping the funding formula that gives them extra public spending”.

This is a sentiment I’ve encountered quite often. The thinking seems to be that it might take two tries to achieve independence, and that it doesn’t really matter in the long run exactly when independence happens.

However, I’m not laid back at all. Of course independence can happen later, but I fear the conditions will be much worse in twenty years’ time.

First of all, there is still a significant amount of oil left, but when you look at the CO2 emissions, I personally find it unlikely that it’ll still be legal and acceptable to burn oil twenty years from now. Of course it would have been even better if independence had happened thirty years ago, but there’s still a good chance of using oil money to pay for the inevitable costs associated with dismantling the British state and building up new institutions.

Secondly, all the Westminster parties want to extend austerity and continue to dismantle the welfare state. It’s also likely they’ll start to roll back Scottish devolution, or at least the financial settlement associated with it, once the threat of independence has been fought off. The consequence is that it will soon not just be a case of maintaining the British welfare state in Scotland after independence (at the same time as it gets dismantled in England), but if independence doesn’t happen till 2036, Scotland will have to reinvent the wheel because the UK then will be a neoliberal third-world country.

Finally, there’s no guarantee it’ll be as easy to be allowed to hold a referendum two decades from now. If the result is close, Westminster will probably think it was a close encounter with death and make sure that another referendum will never take place.

Because of all this, we need to win this time!


Closed Sign in Yellowstone
Closed Sign in Yellowstone, a photo by bmills on Flickr.
On 19th September 2014, a very large group of Scots will have to come to terms with the fact that their side lost.

If it’s a Yes, I expect most people from the No campaign to start fighting Scotland’s corner relatively quickly. This is because I don’t know of many countries that after independence have had a large group of people trying to undo the divorce. As far as I know, nobody is campaigning for reunification with the UK in the Republic of Ireland, the Slovaks don’t pine for the good old Czechoslovakian days, the Norwegians like their independence and have no desire to reunify with either Sweden or Denmark, etc., etc. I think there might be some people in Belarus who want to reunify with Russia, but that’s the only exception I can think of, and I do think Scotland is more like Ireland, Slovakia and Norway than Belarus.

One of the results of a Yes will be a complete realignment of Scotland’s political system: The SNP will most likely break up (or at least lose many members to other parties), and the unionist parties will shed their links to the mother parties in London and reposition themselves to respond to the political views of the Scottish voters without any need to appeal to English swing voters. This realignment will mean that soon after independence, Scotland’s political parties will be as different from the rUK’s as Ireland’s currently are.

If the referendum ends in a No, I’m not so sure. Of course we’ll all accept the result and try to make the best of it at first, but having talked about how much Scotland will be able to achieve as an independent country, it will be very difficult to abandon the dream completely. The SNP might lose a few disillusioned voters, but on the whole I expect the party to survive and keep the flame alive. Also, given likely subsequent developments in the UK, such as leaving the EU and getting a Tory government supported by UKIP, I wouldn’t be surprised if large groups of Scots would soon bitterly regret their No vote in the referendum.

In other words, a Yes vote will bring closure to the independence questions and allow the nation to move forward together. I fear that a No vote will just lead to stagnation, confusion and regret.