The Labour, Conservative and Lib-Dem parties’ joint strategy is clear as all of them want a single question referendum. In or out, yes or no. A binary choice for Scots with no middle way of devo-max to distract them.
The SNP want to keep that devo-max option open. What they say is that they don’t want to write its definition but they are happy for someone else to do that and to have devo-max as an option on the ballot paper.
Since as far as the polls are concerned devo-max is the preferred option for Scots it seems a strange inversion of the positions one would expect from the unionist and nationalist sides. The unionist parties don’t want to include a unionist option on the ballot paper which is apparently preferred by Scots to independence and the SNP who want independence are fighting to keep that slot open for someone to write in a devo-max option. What is going on?
The explanation is probably along these lines.
For devo-max to be a viable option on the ballot paper and not just a wish list item it has to be endorsed by either Labour or the Tories or both. (With the Lib-Dems in there somewhere). It probably has to have a Labour endorsement at minimum for it to have any chance to succeed as most Scots will regard a Tory endorsement alone as a poisoned chalice.
To endorse the devo-max option means that Labour, (or the Tories or the Lib-Dems or all), have to ensure that the legislative, executive and financial powers attached to devo-max are both defined and acceptable to the Westminster parliament because that’s the place that devo-max will be passed into legislation. Only Westminster as the UK parliament can enact legislation to create devo-max for Scotland.
That means work for those putting together a devo-max solution which can then be presented as a bill to parliament. It means work to define what devo-max will entail in terms of legislative, executive and financial powers. It means work to get a commitment from MP’s in the party creating the devo-max bill to vote for it, it means more work talking to the other parties in Westminster to get their agreement to get it through parliament as it will be a contentious measure, it means work talking to the Treasury, to the Civil Service and to HMRC in order to work out how to deliver devo-max within the existing departments and bureaucracies and at the heart of it all none of the three unionist UK parties wants devo-max for Scotland.
Devo-max is not a solution that any of the three UK parties would even contemplate if it was not for the SNP and they have all decided that rather than put in a lot of work to move towards a system of government which they don’t want for Scotland and which may make it easier for Scotland to leave the Union at some time in the future they will instead go for the risky hail-mary pass of a binary in/out referendum in the hope the SNP lose and that the threat of independence for Scotland is removed once and for all from the UK.
So where are the SNP in this. The SNP are certain that devo-max isn’t going to be an option on the ballot paper in an independence referendum because it has no unionist support and therefore will get no endorsement from Labour, the Tories or the Lib-Dems but it does not want to switch off the devo-max option without a fight. As the apparently preferred option of the Scots electorate the SNP want devo-max to disappear from the ballot paper because devo-max has failed to get an endorsement from any of the three unionist parties not because it has been removed from the ballot paper by agreement. That way they have clean hands when devo-max bites the dust and it also shows that none of the three unionist parties have any devo-max on offer and that the only option for change left on the ballot paper is independence.
“Civic Scotland”, in the shape of Canon Kenyon Wright and the STUC has now come out in favour of devo-max but the idea that, “Civic Scotland”, is going to define devo-max is as deluded as Nick Clegg’s idea that he’s a devolutionist not a unionist.
This is where I find myself in odd waters because I find myself agreeing with Willie Rennie who believes that devo-max is a matter for the entire UK. He even goes as far as saying that it should be put to a UK wide referendum.
Under devo-max Scotland will still be a region within the UK and for Scotland to try and unilaterally decide how it’s going to arrange its finances, resources and legislative and executive powers without the agreement of the rest of the UK is simply not viable. It’s like sharing a flat and declaring that you’re going to stay in your room and keep the television there. Your other flatmates will point out that if you want to stay in their flat then you have to share and share-alike as they do. If you want to keep the television for yourself then you should find your own flat.
Which brings me to my final point. In the improbable case that devo-max ever makes it to the stage where it is presented as a bill in Westminster then the boundaries of devo-max for Scotland will be defined in England and not by Scots, civic or otherwise. This is simple parliamentary arithmetic. To pass a devo-max bill through Westminster it will need the support of a large number of English based MP’s.
If England defines devo-max then it is clear that the boundaries which will be imposed on devo-max by the English based MP’s will be much more restrictive than the boundaries Scotland applies to its definition of devo-max. The English based MP’s will examine the impact that the proposals for devo-max will have on their own constituents and constituencies and therefore the boundaries of devo-max will be defined by these MP’s to ensure that there is a minimal economic and social impact on their own electorate. They will ensure that nothing which is given to Scotland will have any detrimental effect on England either economically or otherwise.
So in the unlikely case of devo-max ever being defined in a form which will pass through Westminster what would be a consequence of at least one of these tighter boundaries?
Simple really. At the very minimum, devo-max means we don’t get the oil.