Category Archives: devo-max

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.

You cannot step into the same river twice

River Crossing
River Crossing, a photo by Tom Olliver on Flickr.

There was a rather downbeat article by Iain Macwhirter in The Herald today:

Scots voted for the SNP by a landslide, not because they wanted independence but because they were sick of Labour and wanted better devolution. […] [P]artly as a result of that 2011 vote and the referendum it triggered the status quo may no longer be an option. As this column has argued before, the new arrangements for funding the Scottish Parliament under the 2012 Scotland Act will end the fixed formula era and turn every budget round into a struggle. Like the residents of Benefits Street, Scots are going to be forced to get by on less, one way or another.
But, if the Social Attitudes Survey is any guide, it is going to be a grumpy campaign with a disenchanted electorate facing a choice of unacceptable alternatives and wishing that the referendum would just go away. Unfortunately, it won’t.

I don’t agree with the tone here — I think the referendum is a great opportunity for Scotland, and it’s clear that the campaign is energising and inspiring lots of people who weren’t engaged in politics before.

However, I do think Iain Macwhirter has a point. Many voters would probably just like to retain the status quo in spite of all its shortcomings.

What they need to understand is that the independence campaign is changing Scottish and UK politics forever. As Heraclitus said, “you cannot step into the same river twice”. There will be no returning to the exact devolution settlement that existed before if Scotland votes No in September, even if the legislation doesn’t get changed.

From a UK point of view, the Scottish lion will have been declawed, because the threat of independence will have gone for a while. Until now, there’s always been a fear that the Scots would leave the Union if we got too bad a deal. After a No vote, there will be a unique opportunity to get rid of the Barnett formula and such things. I wouldn’t be surprised if Westminster also acted to make it much harder to hold another independence referendum in the future.

From a Scottish point of view, many voters will now for the first time be aware that Scotland is subsidising England rather than the other way round. There will also be a lot of anger if Devo-Max never materialises (and I expect it won’t because of the declawing of the lion, as discussed above).

I can sympathise with those voters who just wish the sleeping lion had never been woken up from its 300-year sleep. However, it’s now awake again, and on 18 September it will either break out of its cage or pull back, whimpering with fear, waiting for the declawing to happen.

Everything flows, nothing will ever be the same again, and we need to decide on the lion’s future. Brave or feart?

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.

Thatcher on Scottish independence

Baroness Thatcher portrait
Baroness Thatcher portrait, a photo by Downing Street on Flickr.
In Margaret Thatcher’s “The Downing Street Years”, she has this to say about Scottish independence:

If [the Tory Party] sometimes seems English to some Scots that is because the Union is inevitably dominated by England by reason of its greater population. The Scots, being an historic nation with a proud past, will inevitably resent some expressions of this fact from time to time. As a nation, they have an undoubted right to national self-determination; thus far they have exercised that right by joining and remaining in the Union. Should they determine on independence no English party or politician would stand in their way, however much we might regret their departure. What the Scots (not indeed the English) cannot do, however, is to insist upon their own terms for remaining in the Union, regardless of the views of the others.

Until I read this, I had been puzzled about why David Cameron agreed to a referendum so readily (to the extent that I’ve been known to joke that Cameron surely must be an undercover agent for the independence movement); however, it’s now clear to me that he’s just following his bible to the letter.

Apart from explaining Cameron’s behaviour, what I find interesting about this paragraph is that I don’t think many people in the pro-independence camp will find much to disagree with. We are in favour of independence exactly because we don’t believe we can insist on our own terms for remaining in the Union, so we want to move to a situation where we are in charge of our own destiny. On the other hand, I think many Scottish Labour politicians will have problems with this Thatcher quote — the way they think they can promise more devolution after a No vote without prior approval from all major UK parties seems to imply they believe Scotland can pick and choose freely from the devolution shelf while remaining in the UK.

More devolution will never happen

The Scottish Parliament
Originally uploaded by mariancraig

Sometimes you find interesting articles in unexpected places. For instance, The Sun carried a piece yesterday called “Why promise more devolution when it will never happen?

In it, Andrew Nicoll argues that Scotland has only ever got more devolution to fend off the SNP, so after a No vote to independence there’s no chance anybody will give Scotland any more powers:

[I]t seems to me that every step along the way of devolution has been fired and driven by the threat of the SNP and a drift towards independence.

Take that threat away and there really is no reason to concede anything else.

Let’s look at the history books. Harold Wilson talked about devolution but nothing happened. Ted Heath promised it but nothing happened.

Then the SNP won a third of the vote in Scotland and, all of a sudden Jim Callaghan’s Labour government was determined to deliver.

But Mrs Thatcher said we should vote No and she would offer something better. The 1978 referendum failed, the SNP vote collapsed and Mrs Thatcher changed her mind — not a thing she did often.

Then Labour lost three elections on the trot. Scotland kept voting Labour and kept getting a Tory government. One more heave looked less and less attractive. Suddenly devolution was back on the cards.

And, when devolution finally came, nothing much happened until the SNP ended up as the biggest party in 2007.

Then, suddenly, we had the Calman Commission offering new tax powers to Scotland.


Why would the Tories give Scotland more devolution powers after [a No vote]? Is it because we will stop voting for the Tories if they don’t? It’s too late, we’ve already stopped.

Why would the Lib Dems give us more powers? Is it because they said they would, like they did over university tuition fees? Do you think there is a single thing the Lib Dems would not give up if it meant they could find themselves in government again?

Why would Labour give us more powers? Is it because we might stop voting Labour?

Well, who else are you going to vote for? Vote for who you like, but you won’t be voting for independence any more.

There won’t be more devolution because there is no need. Just like there will be no need to keep giving Scotland more cash than the rest of the UK.

I must say I agree with this. If Labour, the Tories and the LibDems are serious about giving Scotland further powers after a No vote, they need to pass a law before the autumn of 2014 that gives Scotland those extra powers starting from 2016 or so. If we vote Yes, the law will just never have any effect, but it’s the only way to guarantee that a No vote won’t become the beginning of the end of Scottish devolution.