Stepping Stone or Stonewalling?
Let’s suppose the unionists (or “devolutionists” as some of them are now calling themselves) realise they’re heading down the wrong path for keeping the union and start embracing Full Fiscal Autonomy for Scotland. Suppose that this leads Scots to vote for FFA instead of independence in the coming referendum. Scotland will be one step closer to independence. But how big a step? What would it then take to go that extra step? You might think “well, there would be another referendum of course,” and perhaps you would be right. But who says it would actually be needed?
In this FFA future for Scotland, I imagine we’re talking about Scotland raising its own taxes, being able to borrow money on its own, funding its own welfare and pensions systems, and generally spending its income as it sees fit. The current situation is that we pay all our money to the UK treasury, and it gives a fraction back to Holyrood. Under FFA, we would presumably pay all our money to a Scottish treasury, and Holyrood would then send a proportion of this to Westminster with which to contribute towards our share of UK defence and the foreign office. Now, straight away you can perhaps see a problem. Yes, they would be reserved powers, so the Westminster Defence and Foreign secretaries would still speak for the whole UK. But surely, if the Scottish Government is now giving money to Westminster, it would need to have a better say in how the Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence spend that money? Surely it would only be prudent, then, for the Scottish Government to have some sort of Defence and Foreign Affairs ministers, lobbying to Westminster to make sure the money we give them isn’t being spent on illegal wars etc?
I could be wrong, but I imagine there would indeed be at least some sort of Scottish equivalent to the current Scottish Secretary in Westminster (note: FFA will surely finally lead to the abolition of this glorified soap box propaganda role?), because we couldn’t just send them our money and leave them to it. So what happens if the people of Scotland start feeling that FFA is still not enough? What if they feel that Scotland is proving so successful that they finally feel ready to cut the apron strings? Would it really be necessary to hold yet another referendum, just to claw back these last few remaining powers (defence, foreign affairs plus perhaps financial regulation and monetary policy), or could the Scottish Defence Minister just start looking into creating a Scottish defence force, and the Scottish Foreign Minister start pressing palms with international leaders, acting as Scotland’s de facto foreign policy representative? Would the First Minister just tell the UK Prime Minister “look, this is daft, we’re just going to go our own way, let’s split what’s remaining of the family silver that you haven’t managed to sell off yet,” and Scotland effectively become independent just like that?
I may be underestimating things here, but I feel like the step between FFA and full independence is so tiny that it mightn’t even be worth bothering the electorate with a referendum. Indeed, I feel it would be more akin to the latest Welsh Assembly referendum, which didn’t seem to raise a whole lot of excitement, mainly because it seemed a bit too much like clerical admin, dotting a few Is and crossing a few Ts. A referendum on independence in a post-FFA Scotland would seem like small fry compared to the one we’re going to be voting on in a few years’ time. Would anyone really care enough to even campaign against it? If the answer is “no”, then one has to wonder what is stopping people from just going the whole hog and supporting independence now anyway, rather than the halfway house of FFA. Perhaps once the difference between the two is made clearer, those polls suggesting mass support for further powers but less support for full independence will begin to close up a bit.
I’ve obviously made a lot of assumptions here, and it raises a few questions about how FFA will work in practice. After all, the only party that has come anywhere near to actually supporting something akin to FFA in the recent past is the Liberal Democrats (as well as a few Labour MSPs that sit very far from the front benches – Malcolm Chisholm and Eric Joyce possibly being the only two), so it’s going to take someone with a bit of credibility to lay out what exactly it would entail, and why it would be different enough from full independence to warrant people voting for it. Will there be a UK tax to fund reserved powers, paid directly to the treasury, or would it be the model I’ve set out which is effectively the status quo in reverse? Would the number of Scottish MPs be dramatically reduced? Michael Moore and his ilk tell us that the SNP need to provide answers about what independence will look like, but it will be far more straightforward than FFA, which will require the UK government to be in an extremely cooperative mood, far more so than it has been in the past. More so than independence, an FFA option will need to be fully detailed before people can vote for it, with cast-iron assurances from the UK government that they will indeed stick to whatever has been set out beforehand.
When all is said and done, perhaps FFA will prove just too cumbersome to even bother with. If so, let’s hope the electorate feel the referendum presented to them isn’t offering a false choice like the AV referendum did.