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Stepping Stone or Stonewalling?

Scotland in a Post-FFA Future?

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.

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  1. LJS says:

    Ssh Doug don’t say that you’ll scar the Unionist.

    Also let’s not forget it isn’t just intelligent decent members of the Labour party that are coming around to FFA but also Lord Foulkes, he’s so desperate for FFA he’s even trying to speed up the process in the Lords!

    For what it’s worth though I have no idea if your right or wrong however I don’t think it would be a good idea for the SNP to spout your line but rather if the view was to develop naturally in a post FFA Scotland that would be grand. The one thing I would say against the idea though is look at the parts of Spain and Canada that have what is akin to FFA it’s no happen there was it?

    1. Doug Daniel says:

      Oh I’m certainly not saying this should be adopted as some sort of official party line – “don’t worry independentistas, even if the result is FFA, we’ll just declare independence a few years later!” – I’m just wondering if FFA would leave so little of the union that the public would generally think “why bother us with another referendum? Just go and do it.” As I say, there will surely be some sort of Holyrood defence and foreign affairs minister(s), and people might just feel they already speak for us far more than the UK ones do.

      But you’re quite right, Spain and Canada show the other side of the coin – that perhaps the difference between FFA and independence will be so slim that people just won’t see the point in going any further. It’s a possibility. However, I suspect that Scotland has momentum on our side, whereas places like Quebec, Catalunya and the Basque Country have had time to settle with their current structures.

      Also, I suspect there are enough genuine reasons for wanting separate defence and foreign affairs policies from rUK that there is a higher likelihood of Scotland becoming independent than those places. After all, Spain and Canada don’t follow the US into wars like a lapdog, unlike the UK, and both countries are already free of WMDs.

  2. James Davidson says:

    FFA is probably a non starter as it will rely to a degree on cooperation from Westminster
    whose track record in that respect is not good to say the least.
    I can’t see them agreeing to anything which takes revenues away from HM Treasury,especially in these straitened times.
    However,theoretically,all that should be required post FFA would be a vote in Holyrood to
    abolish the treaty of Union.
    This could be done now by Holyrood but would lay us open to accusations of not having a legitimate democratic mandate.
    However,for the “Fearties” in our communities,FFA may well have to be an option in a
    future referendum on independence.
    The only way to get out of this very unequal business partnership is for a quick clean break.
    Unionists will try,as they have in the past,to present independence as a divorce or in some other emotional connetation when the reality is that nation states (and their people) always act in terms of self interest and being part of this unequal partnership is no longer in Scotland’s interest.
    A difficult thing for a Scot to say but Don’t let your heart rule your head.

    1. Doug Daniel says:

      I suspect the treasury is going to be the main obstacle for FFA. When you consider that they can’t even tax people properly without having to send out tax rebates or demands for underpaid tax, as well as the fact it was going to cost millions to keep their system ready to use SVR, then it’s clear their IT system is barely fit for use, and as such, will probably require a complete rewrite to accommodate the massive changes FFA would entail. It certainly won’t be robust enough to just require a database update (DELETE * FROM UKTaxPayers WHERE Region=’North Britain’). Who will pay for that? We already know from the SVR debacle that Westminster will say “okay, we’ll do it, but you’re paying for it” and so when bloggers like Aidan Skinner claim that independence is a “costly and complicated process”, they’ve no idea what the alternatives will entail.

      As for divorce, yes, the continuous use of negative emotional language is disappointing, but so predictable. It’s almost laughable when you see Labour politicians on Newsnicht refusing to refer to independence by anything other than “separation”. They’ve clearly been briefed to call it this at all times, because I’ve noticed a sudden blanket use of the term over the past few months. It’s pathetic. However, divorce is actually quite apt – two parties which used to get along so well that they joined each other in a union, realise there are irreconcilable differences, and make the sensible decision that dragging things on does no good for either of them. After all, there are many couples whose relationships with each other improve dramatically once they are no longer chained to each other – which is great, as long as they don’t make the mistake of trying to strike up that union again.

  3. DougtheDug says:

    Doug,
    “When all is said and done, perhaps FFA will prove just too cumbersome to even bother with.”

    I have a problem with the idea of an FFA choice in the coming referendum because the problem with FFA is that the SNP do not have the power to implement it. Independence can be taken but FFA has to be begged for. As you say, the only way it could be implemented is if all the British parties not only agree to all the powers defined for the FFA option in the ballot paper but also to implement it if it is chosen. Strangely enough it’s a Labour man who’s probably in most agreement with me about the problem of FFA as an option in the referendum though he’s approaching it from the viewpoint that the SNP will write that FFA option. Ian Smart says,

    “Indeed, the more you consider it, the more you see the difficulty in putting two different, and ultimately inconsistent, propositions on the same ballot paper. But that’s not the only problem. It’s difficult to see who is going to frame the non-independence option. Presumably, the SNP Government, even though it’s not their desired outcome. The problem with this is that any settlement short of full independence is not a matter for the Scottish people alone. So what happens, in advance of a referendum, if the rest of the UK says that what the SNP want (as their fall back position) is not on offer? That it’s independence or bust. What’s the point of then asking the “other” question? The question becomes redundant whether or not the full independence question is won or lost. If the referendum produces a yes vote to independence the “other” question is redundant per se and if the Scots have rejected the nuclear option of “full” independence then why should the rest of the UK make any further constitutional concessions in the aftermath of that? After all, the SNP could hardly hold another referendum but this time with a single question. That would be silly.”

    FFA is not a valid option for a referendum which contains a question on independence especially when FFA is not wanted by the parties who hold the power to implement FFA within the UK.

    1. Doug Daniel says:

      I must admit Doug (great name), a few years ago I was accepting to the idea of a devo max/whatever proposal on the referendum, if only because I wasn’t convinced there was enough support for independence to get a majority, whereas a middle option would almost certainly win, and some independence is better than none. However, it would always have been a sop to the Lib Dems to get them to back the referendum, and after Tavish Scott’s irresponsible approach to dealing with the SNP and the way the Lib Dems completely abandoned Scotland, I quite like the idea of leaving it off, purely as a snub to the Lib Dems – “well, you had your chance, but we’re going to hold OUR referendum now…”

      But it’s more than that. As every unionist with a keyboard, internet connection and Twitter account was at pains to tell us after the election, not everyone who voted for the SNP in May was voting for independence. But it showed the power of the SNP campaign machine and its ability to present a positive vision of the future to the electorate, and it’s also a well-known fact that there is a significant portion of Labour’s vote who still believe in the idea of Home Rule, even if the party itself abandoned it decades ago. The polls just now seem to be going in the right direction, and it just feels like the unionists are doing everything they possibly can to push people away from the union.

      I still think that if there is clearly a large appetite for FFA by the time the referendum comes round, then it should be included as an option. But that is only if the work has been done beforehand to thrash out EXACTLY how it would work. If it’s just put there as some airy-fairy idea that the UK government will happily hand over a chunk of powers to Holyrood, then it will be irresponsible to include it, and the onus will be on all those involved to say to the public “we know you like the idea of FFA, but here’s why it can’t work. Sorry.”

      Or of course, the independence campaign may prove so popular that the appetite for FFA will just dissipate naturally.

  4. James Morton says:

    The more responsibility you devolve, the less important the Union will seem. The less important it is, the more likely a vote for independence would follow. Not immediately, and not all at once to be sure, but it would end up happening. The decision by some Unionist parties to opt for this is the hope that it will pacify the Scots and keep their precious Union together. The other half (the more belligerent and imbecilic half imho) don’t want to go down that route because deep down they fear it won’t be enough. They fear what it means for them and their traditional roles, the expectations and sense of entitlement that they have. To survive they would have to abandon any notions they have of being UK parties and become Scottish parties, not just in name but in policies. It’s not such a fearful leap for the SNP, because they have always been a Scottish party – not a Scottish annex of an Westminster party. The SNPs problem is that they can’t create a strong case for independence. They may end up going for the long play and starting with FFA or Devo max first – prove that Scotland can go it alone and then make the case for independence.

    1. Doug Daniel says:

      Being a politics junkie, I’m fascinated by the idea of what the unionist parties will look like post-independence. Will we still have Labour, Tories and Lib Dems, or would we have brand new parties? Would the unionist members of Labour and the Tories band together to form a “rejoin the union” party? You just wonder if those that oppose independence would continue saying Scotland can’t survive on its own afterwards, or if they would hold up their hands and admit they were talking rubbish.

      1. James Morton says:

        I would imagine that some would fragment, with one half seeking to re-invent themselves, the other refusing to accept what happened transforming into a sort of UKIP type organisation, which is nothing more than a magnet for nutters of all stripes. I would expect Alan Cochrane of the telepgraph to spontaneously combust from sheer exasperation. Other black hearted unionists and tories would pack their bags and look for a more appreciative audience down south.
        The unionists are caught in the horns of dilemma – To attack Scottish Independence means to the attack the competence of the Scots to govern themselves – which they can’t do, so they try and make it seem scary and expensive instead, which is just as damaging. The do this because they have no real idea of what positive Unionism is. On the other hand if they defend Scotland from the nonsense spouted from the increasingly hostile English press, then they risk undermining their own arguments for Union. So infuriatingly they stay quiet – hoping for the best? I am finding it increasingly difficult to follow their logic.

      2. Doug Daniel says:

        James, I would suggest there is a very simple reason why you can’t follow their logic: because they don’t have a logical position in the first place!

  5. Ard Righ says:

    All it takes is for one hundred natives of Scotland to collectively declare full sovereign independence, lets face it half of the folk here are not native, the rest have been bludgeoned with the most horrific 400 years of colonial abuse and are slowly waking to the fact we need to become independent, again, so lets rally around and get names on a bit of paper and let the chips fall where they may. I have some considered caveats….

    1. Doug Daniel says:

      I’d love to believe you’re right about just needing 100 natives. However, unless the numbers at the SNP conferences have never risen above 99, I’m somewhat sceptical! I’d love to see what your reasoning behind that is though.

      I’m not sure I like the talk of “natives” though – we’re talking civic nationalism here, and bear in mind that there is a large support for independence amongst second-generation Asian settlers, as well as many English residents. Sometimes I wonder if it is actually the natives who are the problem!

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