Scotch Myths 3 – Devo Max

This wasn’t originally going to be the third in this series, but I felt the need to put it out there now, so here it is – Myth #3: The majority of Scots want Devolution Max.

I know what you’re thinking – “all the opinion polls say it’s the most popular option” – but it isn’t; not really, anyway, and that’s why it’s a myth. Present people with two options out of the blue, and they’ll go for the one that is closest to the status quo. Present them with three, and they’ll go for the one in the middle. Staunch unionists vote to stay in the union, just as staunch nationalists vote for independence. Everyone else, who doesn’t think that strongly either way, plumps for the middle option. I’m deliberately calling it “the middle option” rather than “devo max”, because it isn’t devo max they’re voting for. How could it? We don’t know what it is yet. Perhaps we never will. But it sounds nice and cuddly, so that’s why people go for it – a bit of change, but not  too much.

So is this me laying down my guns (well, laptop) already? No chance. Independence will win, because we have more passion than those who wish for the status quo, but also because there will be no third option on the referendum. We won’t know this for sure until later though, and this is the genius of the SNP’s campaign. Yes, they’re leaving the door open to people to get an intermediate option on the paper, but it’s also ensuring that the debate doesn’t get polarised too soon between independence versus the union. We would still win if this was the case, but it would be more difficult. However, the next few months (maybe a year or so?) will see civic Scotland debating not if we want change, but how much change we want. The idea of being responsible for both revenue and expenditure, and whatever else devo max will entail, will be planted in the minds of people, and as anyone who has watched Inception as many times as me knows, once that idea is planted in your head, it’s impossible to get out. Therefore, by the time devo max is ruled out of appearing on the referendum, people will be in the mood for change, and there will be only one option offering that – independence.

Now, this isn’t as Machiavellian as it sounds. I’m not saying the SNP are going to go “aha! We were lying all along about putting devo max on the paper!” But as has already been quite well established – and I’m amazed it isn’t pointed out more often – the SNP does not have the authority to deliver devo max. Devo max can only be delivered by the government in Westminster, so the Scottish Government can hold a referendum, get a vote for Devo Max, and then get told to “do one” by Westminster (in which case the SNP will win an even bigger majority in the 2016 election, hold a straight yes/no referendum quickly, and get a resounding “yes” vote, thus delaying independence by a mere two years). This is why the option can only be put on the referendum with the backing of one of the other three parties. But none of them are prepared to do so because they fear a) it is another step on the road to independence and b) Scottish MPs will have so little Scottish matters to vote on that they’ll have to go part-time to avoid the West Lothian question becoming unanswerable within the union. So instead they will ignore it completely, thinking it is the only way to save the union (as well as their jobs and future peerages), completely oblivious to the fact that the union is already dead – it’s just on a life support machine and nationalists, cruel beings that we are, just want to stop putting off the inevitable and pull the plug, for everyone’s sake.

This is even supposing a coherent vision of devo max comes out of the consultation process. Once people start debating what should and shouldn’t be handled by the Scottish Government, it’s going to be pretty difficult to think of anything that should be left at Westminster:


“Yeah, but what about Trident? Whatever the result of the referendum, the removal of Trident from Scottish waters has to be one of the outcomes.”

“Pensions and benefits?”

“But look at what the Tory-Lib Dem coalition are doing to them, and Labour have just confirmed that they won’t reverse any of their changes. If there’s one thing we need to control, it’s our welfare system.”
“Foreign affairs?”
“Dunno like, Salmond and co have done a far better job of representing Scotland on the world stage than Cameron recently. What about the EU? Can we really afford to leave that in Tory hands?”
“But we can’t devolve that, it would require full independence to get control of that. Hmmm…. Actually, this is looking remarkably like full independence anyway…”

“What about the DVLA?”
(Cue collective *facepalm* from everyone round the negotiating table.)

So the polls that indicate devo max is the most popular choice do not really mean people want devo max – it just means they want some sort of change, they’re just not sure what yet. They know the status quo no longer works, but they’re not sure how to replace it and devo max sounds like a safe alternative. But we have a two and a half year campaign in front of us, a campaign that will finally banish the ridiculous myths being highlighted in Bella (and elsewhere), and with them, banishing the fear of the unknown. We’re already seeing it with unionists backtracking on so many things already (“You can’t have the pound!” “Yes we can.” “Well okay, we can’t actually stop you, but, but, but…”), and it’s only a week and a half since the apostrophe-deficient #itsstarting hashtag turned into the apostrophe-deficient #itsstarted hashtag. In 2014, the “unknown” will be the chances of the UK economy ever recovering, whereas the future under independence will look like a veritable sure thing, to the extent that people will quite literally bet their house on it.

And with this bet, everyone’s a winner.

Comments (23)

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  1. Albalha says:

    I agree …… the following is an extract from the Reform Scotland press release on Devolution Plus they issued last year and while I don’t claim to be a an expert in tax issues I think the average person would read it and think it rather confused, I don’t understand the thinking but perhaps someone can explain it. I believe the debate now is between Devo max/plus/secure autonomy and independence/full control.

    Devolution Plus would leave Westminster responsible primarily for VAT and National Insurance, with most other taxes devolved to Holyrood.

    Reform Scotland suggests control of major welfare benefits needs to be transferred to the Scottish Parliament, with Westminster maintaining responsibility for State pensions and sickness/maternity pay.

    Of the £19.9 billion spent on social protection in Scotland in 2009/10, £15 billion was spent by Westminster, £4.7 billion by local authorities and only £113 million by the Scottish Government. Under Reform Scotland’s proposals, £7.2 billion of the £15 billion would be devolved to Holyrood. Westminster would be left with responsibility for £7.8 billion, £5.75 billion of which is spent on state pensions.

    ‘The reasoning behind this is to achieve a more coherent and effective approach to alleviating poverty,’ said Reform Scotland chairman Ben Thomson who is expected to give oral evidence to the Scotland Bill Committee at Holyrood later this month.

    ‘Many areas associated with this goal are already devolved to the Scottish Parliament, such as housing and social inclusion, yet the Scottish Government can make no concerted attempt to address poverty without the necessary tools and that requires welfare provision to be devolved.’

  2. David McCann says:

    Excellent analysis. You have hit the nail on the head.

  3. Siôn Jones says:

    The unionists have another problem – which they haven’t even addressed yet – defining the status quo. Most unionists still have a sort of rosy, sentimental view of Britain,cast in stone in the post war period of austerity, pulling together and optimism. No longer relevant to the modern world.

    As far as Scotland is concerned, with the Scotland bill going through Westminster, an likely to be much amended before Holyrood accept it, nobody knows what the Status quo will look like in 2 years.

    1. Doug Daniel says:

      Exactly. And as I allude to in the article, nationalists are always being asked to explain how Scotland will survive post-independence, but this is based on the false premise that staying in the UK is risk free. This is most certainly not the case. The Tories are an absolute disaster, going from bad to worse. Remaining in the UK with a clueless government – and another clueless government waiting in the wings – is the real risk. Who is more likely to get Scotland out of trouble – John Swinney or Gideon Osborne?

  4. Dave Garvie says:

    Its an interesting discussion. I tend to the view that Devo Max is a crap idea but that, in fairness, it should probably be on the ballot paper, although I take the point that it rather depends on what the status quo actually is in two years time.

    Its a crap idea mainly because it leaves Scotland’s defence and foreign affairs in the hands of a Westminster establishment with a ludicrously overblown sense of their role in the world, hence disasters like Iraq and Afghanistan.

    An independent Scotland would be a country of 5 million people. We should make an international military contribution proportionate to a country of that size.

    1. Doug Daniel says:

      Exactly. If the first responsibility of a government is to ensure the defence of its people, then surely we cannot entrust such a thing to a government in Westminster who, thanks to having no access to our vast oil funds and other goodies, will not give a toss about us. The UK gains nothing by keeping us on under Devo Max, and as already said in the article, it is just completely unworkable anyway. No, it’s independence or nothing. It has to be. It can’t be anything else.

  5. Brian Ritchie says:

    Excellent article – puts it in a nutshell and helps clarify in the mind what a lot of us feel deep down anyway.

  6. Dave McEwan Hill says:

    Excellent analysis. The unionists are in meltdown on this and this will become more and more apparent as they struggle to developa coherent postion on it. Independence will steadilyemerge as the practical, sensible and uncomplicated objective.

    1. Doug Daniel says:

      Indeed. James Maxwell’s piece in the New Statesman today shows that the media (or the print media at least) are already cottoning on to the fact that they can’t just let unionists fire shots at nationalists with impunity, thinking that no one is going to remember to ask them what the risks of staying in the union are.

      We’ve been waiting for this for decades. We have the right arguments, we have facts on our side, and most importantly, we have the passion. Meanwhile, the unionist parties thought they could just wade in to the debate and kick the ball into an empty net. They’re already being proved wrong, and we’ve got another two and a half years to go yet. It doesn’t help that all six leaders (Westminster and Holyrood versions) are rubbish. Johann Lamont and 5 PR politicians. Oh, and Lord Forsythe in the background utilising his vast experience of losing elections in Scotland.

      A year ago, I thought we’d maybe manage to squeeze in a 51% yes vote. Now I know that as long as we keep it up, we can’t lose.

      1. bellacaledonia says:

        We’ve added a feed from the NS on back of James writing.

      2. Siôn Jones says:

        “Now I know that as long as we keep it up, we can’t lose” – don’t you mean “As long as THEY keep it up they can’t win”?

      3. Doug Daniel says:

        Nah, I’m talking about us keeping the positive message going and not letting the debate go quiet. Sooner or later, that’s going to become the only hope the unionist have – that everything goes quiet and people forget all the good facts and arguments they’ve heard and rescind back into the “comfort” zone of the UK.

        1. Siôn Jones says:

          We are beginning to get a grasp on the positive advantages the Unionists ascribe to the Union. They are either completely intangible and emotive(Shared history, fought together, stronger together than apart . . . ) or they accrue only to that part of the union South of the border ( punching above our weight on the world stage, seat on the security council, the financial resources to withstand hard times . . . ) – the more you can get them to expand on these themes, which they will do as they have no inkling of how it will play in Scotland – the more YES voters you will recruit.

  7. Moujick says:

    I absolutely, fully agree with the fundamental point of this article that when the cohort of the electorate in Scotland are presented with a Devo Max vs Independence argument then Independence will win. My own thought ithough, is that for this to work most effectively Devo Max should be on the ballot (and if it happens because a Non Political bunch of civic society/voluntary groupings get it there then all the better…)

  8. mhairi says:

    I think you’re being terribly green.

    Dmax goes on the ballot paper. Labour facing meltdown back it, and paint Indy as extremism, Nats panic, some arguing for a gradualist approach (probably incl. salmond), some retaining independence, Labour continually waters down what dmax means – so Dmax turns to unionism lite. Tories sit back and let the battles commence as weird wee place where the natives are restless. Dmax goes through, gets watered down further by Westminister. Scotland gets hammered, peops lose faith in Nats to deliver independence, and anyway its been offered twice and people didnt want it, so no referendum for a generation, and successive legislation takes back all of the powers that we gained, and probably even some we have now as they eye up the commercial potential of the Scottish NHS and education service.

    We need to keep Dmax off the ballot.

    1. Holebender says:

      When has independence been offered to the electorate? You say it will have been offered twice and rejected. It will be offered in 2014, that’s once. When was it offered before 2014?

      1. 1979 or there abouts, when they stitched us up with the 40% rule

  9. M G says:

    Mhairi,I sincerely hope you are wrong and we become Independent but if your nightmare happens ,the pro Independence supporters are not just going to disappear.
    The form of’ ‘Devolution ‘ that was accepted until 2007,will not/cannot be returned to and one benefit of the last two elections has been the ‘shifting of plates’ in Scottish politics.
    The Labour Party will not be able to carry on ‘business as usual’,post referendum,whatever the outcome.
    There are too many people becoming aware of ‘what could be’ ,plus the internet allows more informed views than ever before AND we expect better.
    Re the NHS,there is a very good book ,(the name escapes me at the moment but I can dig it out ),which was published regarding Tony Blairs foray into privatising the NHS. Basically,he steered clear of Scotland because despite the temptation he was advised ‘too militant’ ,There would be a plague on his houses not seen before! I appreciate we are talking about a different Government but I would guess the sentiment of people in Scotland has’nt changed.
    I do appreciate all Govts have peaks and troughs but based on the number of elected representatives from the Tories and Libs in Holyrood,if people vote no, are they suddenly going to vote in numbers for those two and quite frankly, Labour are so reactive rather than proactive why would SNP aligned voters suddenly switch ? At some point the Unionists are going to have to wake up to reality.
    The parties can debate Devomax and guddle about as much as they like,meanwhile the pro Independence folk will just keep working hard ,putting forward the benefits and hopefully take the people of Scotland with them.
    If Devomax is not on the paper and we get Independence,who do you think the electorate in favour of Devomax will blame,considering Alex Salmond is taking the flack for introducing it at the moment ?
    Interesting times……
    Anyway,trust the Scottish people,they ain’t daft.

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