Devo Shsh

After months of demanding a referendum that is simple, clear and transparent. David Cameron has suggested a process that is top secret. You’ve heard of Devo Max and Devo Plus, welcome to Devo Shsh…

David Cameron’s sudden (apparent) conversion into a devout “devolutionist” brings up many interesting questions, none of which he or any other unionist will want to answer.

The obvious one is what powers he actually thinks should be devolved, and as has been pointed out by the First Minister and others, it would be grossly irresponsible to tell Scots that if they vote “no” in the referendum, they will get more powers, without even telling them which ones, never mind putting in place a guarantee that this “jam tomorrow” will indeed be forthcoming. Unionists often claim that the SNP have not fleshed out what exactly “independence” means, but generally they can only refer to how things will be implemented, rather than what will be implemented – there’s no question we will have a separate defence force, for example, but they ask how this will work in practice, although even this has been explained by Salmond. By contrast, we quite simply do not know which powers Cameron et al would like to devolve to Scotland. In a manner of speaking, independence is nothing more than the full devolution of powers to Scotland, so that there are no more reserved powers at Westminster, and as a result, anything less than that requires spelling out so people know which powers are included and which aren’t.
But this leads onto the next question: if Cameron is already acknowledging that Scotland needs more powers devolved, then isn’t this a tacit admission that the Scotland Bill which is currently going through Westminster is not good enough? After all, if it was good enough, he would be telling us that we’re getting all the devolution we need in that bill. So if it’s a dud bill, why not scrap it? This then leads onto the next question – why wait until after the referendum to hand these powers to Scotland? If there is acknowledgment that we need these powers, then why not replace the Scotland Bill with one that puts these powers in place? If Cameron was serious about wanting to devolve these powers, then surely the easiest way to quell people’s appetite for independence is to give them the powers they seek, thus making the “no” vote a vote for this brand new set of powers. The unionist argument against having a devo max option on the referendum is that we don’t require a public plebiscite to devolve powers – the mechanism is there already. If devolution and independence are indeed two distinct processes – as people like Anas Sarwar are so fond of telling us – then there is no need to wait until after the referendum to hand these powers to Scotland.
Well, I’ll tell you the answers to these questions, although I think we all know the answers already. Cameron is not actually in favour of devolving more powers to Scotland, and he’s certainly not in favour of letting ordinary people have a say in deciding which ones they might be. Consider how the Scotland Bill was constructed – a group of people, including several unelected peers, were hand-picked by the unionist parties to come up with a range of proposals to fit the following remit: “To review the provisions of the Scotland Act 1998 in the light of experience and to recommend any changes to the present constitutional arrangements that would enable the Scottish Parliament to serve the people of Scotland better, improve the financial accountability of the Scottish Parliament “and continue to secure the position of Scotland within the United Kingdom.”
That last clause is perhaps the key phrase, and describes the unionist attitude towards devolution. Devolution it nothing more than a way of keeping Scotland within the union, as we’ve known ever since George Robertson said it would “kill nationalism stone dead.” It’s primary concern is not Scotland or the people of Scotland, but the union. Any powers which might benefit Scotland, but would put the union at risk, will never be devolved. It is for this reason that we can state, quite categorically, that devolution is only about preserving the union, and not about empowering Scots.
But there is another facet of this. As I said, the Calman Commission was an unelected body, hand-picked to come to a rough conclusion with unionist peers in there to ensure nothing too radical came out. This is how unionists like devolution to work, because it ensures they retain control of the process. However, allowing the wider public to discuss what powers they would like devolved, and then giving them a vote on it, removes that power from the hands of politicians completely. They are left with the option of saying “no”, and risking the wrath of the electorate, or giving in to the public’s demands. Politicians hate this, which is why the Tories and Lib Dems were so overjoyed at being able to throw their manifestos out the window and come up with a “coalition agreement”, safe in the knowledge that this new post-election “manifesto” would not have to get public consent. If you ask the public what they want devolved, there is no way of knowing for sure what they will want – the only certain thing is that they will not seek to reserve any powers back to Westminster, which the Scotland Bill does.
As I said in an earlier piece on devo max, giving people free reign to pontificate on which powers to devolve allows them to question why certain things are and aren’t devolved, and coming to conclusions that are dangerous for anyone hell-bent on keeping the union intact. There are very specific reasons why unionists do not want certain things devolved, as (Captain) Alistair Darling hinted at when talking about which powers he would like devolved. He mentions income tax as an “easy” one to devolve, since it’s a straightforward process to identify who is Scottish and who isn’t, but he also mentions other taxes as being more complicated, like corporation tax. Now, apart from the question this raises in regards to Northern Ireland (“if it’s so complicated to devolve, how come it’s being considered for Northern Ireland?”), this highlights the fact that there is more to consider when devolving powers than simply “is it in Scotland’s best interests to have this power?” Letting us, the great unwashed, decide which powers should be devolved would not only entail saying “no” a lot, but also having to explain why. It would soon become apparent just how much of a hindrance the union is, to all but the most ardent unionists, and independence suddenly becomes not just attractive, but essential.
This is why unionists want to stifle debate. In order to save the union, they need to have the notion of discussing further powers pushed into the long grass until after the referendum. If they succeed in this, then all they need to do to win the referendum is convince people that what they want is not independence, but some unidentified “further devolution” – then they can worry about how to skirt past doing it. But if they are forced to spell out what this further devolution would consist of, then the referendum becomes independence vs further powers, and they have to make “further powers” attractive enough for people to vote for (which is a whole other problem in itself), and then deliver on it afterwards. It’s also not entirely clear whether it would be easier to defeat independence using further powers as a “spoiler”, or if it would then make people more open to the idea, with the rationale being: “we’re devolving all these powers anyway, why not just go the whole way?” So they will try to counteract this by avoiding proper debate, instead choosing to claim that any good ideas the SNP have for independence “can be devolved later” and hoping people fall for it.
It’s not going to wash, though. We’re not stupid, and even those who say we were fooled before by the last Tory who offered “better devolution” seem to forget that we actually weren’t, as the 1979 referendum was actually a 52% vote in favour of devolution. A non-binding promise to consider jam tomorrow, of an unidentified flavour and unspecified size of jar, will not work. It’s just another unionist trick, and people can already see right through it.
Mr Cameron will not devolve any more powers, it is all spin. To paraphrase Alan Partridge in I’m Alan Partridge series 1 episode 1: “Revolution, not devolution. I mean, that is me. I revolve, but I don’t… Devolve…”

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  1. Siôn Jones says:

    Cameron, in raising this, has not only nixed the ‘status quo’ as an option,which is what most unionists thought they were defending, but he has taken the burden upon himself of explaining the details of his proposals. Alex Salmond and the SNP have done a very good job of answering the question ‘what will an independent Scotland look like’ – but of course, they can only answer for the first few years – perhaps the first independent parliament, because what happens after that will be entirely up to the people of Scotland, whereas the shape of ‘further devolution’ will be entirely up to largely English, or at least Anglicised politicians in London. A tough sell for Unionists, I think.

    And even the Scottish unionists of any political stripe must be rather miffed at the way Cameron left his Scottish leader, la Davidson, out to dry with his sudden change of direction. I almost felt sorry for her, but then I remembered she is a Tory.

    1. Doug Daniel says:

      Her performance on Newsnicht tonight was woeful. I wasn’t sure if it was a ballsy move to go and show she wasn’t scared to confront the media, or if she’s just grossly over-confident in her media skills; but either way, she was so poor she made Glen Campbell look like Isobel Fraser. As Mike said to me on Twitter, that’s her honeymoon period over.

      She’s blatantly in well over her head, and seems to be doing nothing but backtrack at the moment, be it pretending “a line in the sand” is the same message as “maybe we’ll someday possibly look at perhaps giving you more powers, if you do what we say”, or having to spin her way out of admitting that the referendum question is fair and concise, effectively showing the world what cards she had in her hand.

      Electing a 32 year old with less than 6 months parliamentary experience was always going to be a disaster, I’m just surprised it’s turned out as such so quickly. Maybe they should have been a bit more respectful of the parliament, rather than electing a “n00b” as their leader…

      1. Albalha says:

        Maybe this was already obvious but Davidson said last night the Scotland Bill would not see the light of day until 2015, after the referendum. Was there not a different timetable before the Holyrood elections?

  2. John Souter says:

    It is the union dividend – high on style, low on substance.

    Cameron visits Edinburgh and offers a script low on Braveheart and high on Mary Poppins.

    How else do you defend the indefensible?

  3. Scott says:

    Excellent piece. The most bizarre thing about this strategy is that it makes the parties arguing for the status quo sound like the ones with a secret and possibly devious vision of the future. It also places the onus on Cameron to explain why the ‘actually existing devolution’ isn’t good enough.

    1. James Morton says:

      I would agree with that – this intervention has placed the unionist camp firmly between a rock and a hard place. They can no longer simply “hold the line” offering nothing more than the status quo. Now the onus is on them to define what they mean by devo-max and if they support it. If they go against it, then they will seem to be out of touch and not serious about the issues at hand. If they go with it, then they have to define it to avoid the exercise looking like John Majors’ ill fated “taking stock” exercise. I think they will also face greater pressure to put the question on the referendum paper itself – they won’t be able to make a convincing case for “not at the moment and we won’t say what it is yet either, you’ll just have to trust us on that” – like that will work!

      A lot of unionists thought Cameron played a blinder, but I am not so sure. Cameron and the quad were opposed to the idea of more devolution, and so this line was parroted by Ruth Davidson and the others. To avoid the issue being dominated by Salmond and fearful that the scare tactics simply would not work, he intervened with his surprise announcement. Instead of preventing the devolution train heading towards full independence, he has simply turned the lights to green. His Intervention will be a conduit not a brake.

      As for labour, they are mostly likely deeply fearful of being seen to be too closely aligned with the tories, so I would not expect anything from them that makes the slightest bit of sense from now to the day of the vote.

      The Lib-dems are all, poltically speaking of course, dead men walking – they just don’t see it yet. I think they will be heading for a defeat equal to the one the tories suffered in 97.

  4. Dorothy Bruce says:

    Were Cameron to be forced into a situation where tomorrow’s jam had to be described, even in the broadest of terms, then he has another problem. People in England and Wales will suddenly realise low fat spread is a bit tasteless, and hanker after some of the sweet stuff, some of the jam that is being waved on a teaspoon before the Scots. Demand for an English parliament will grow, as might demand for some sort of devolution within England. Cameron will find his jam turning into a can of worms, threatening the whole of the UK he and his fellow unionists are so desperate to preserve in vinegar.

    1. Doug Daniel says:

      Quite simply, the union is finished. There are just too many democratic deficits caused by the bloody-minded determination to keep the union at all costs. If people would start saying “what’s the best solution to these problems?” instead of “how can we solve these problems within the union?” then they would soon come to the conclusion those of us who support independence came to long ago.

      How else do we explain the world’s biggest glory-hunting, smut-peddling, Antipodean media mogul suddenly declaring his support for Scottish independence? Unless he’s more self-aware than any of us thought and realises his unpopularity is likely to do us more harm than good!

      (Incidentally, rather than jam or low-fat spread, I’m much more partial to a bit of Silver Spoon’s golden syrup on a slice of loaf or a bap…)

  5. Scottish republic says:

    “”””””””(“if it’s so complicated to devolve, how come it’s being considered for Northern Ireland?”), this highlights the fact that there is more to consider when devolving powers than simply “is it in Scotland’s best interests to have this power?” “”””””””””””

    Thanks for this — it will be added to the discussion

    1. Angus McLellan says:

      Yes, but Doug is confusing “talking about” with “considering”. Yes, there’s talk about devolving corporation tax to Northern Ireland. But consideration?

      As Alan Trench wrote recently, there’s no Treasury estimate of the value of corporation tax to Northern Ireland might be. And even if the Treasury didn’t care what it was worth to Northern Ireland, they surely would care how much they were going to be losing. Even if it’s only half a billion or so today, the Treasury would have to assume that any company that could do so would switch their nameplate from London to Northern Ireland. So it might end up being a billion. Or more. And a billion here and a billion there and soon you’re talking about amounts that even the Treasury might see as significant.

      So, no, definitely not consideration. Just talk.

      1. Doug Daniel says:

        Oh I know that’s the reality, but I like to use their own words against them 😉

  6. jjim says:

    Read a comment a while back left on a blog about what will a devolved independent Scotland be like, under a S.N.P. GOVERNMENT.’instead of a crown being on the letterhead of your eviction notice,it will be a thistle.I though that funny at the time, and appropriate to the dealings that are going on now.

    The road to Scotlands independence has been a long one as we all know,and this present, how when what will debate, is just another tactic of slowing the vehicle.I say f— devolution and its bullshit.Lets toss the caber and get down to the real business of full blown scottish independence,independent from British rule and sovereignty and a redundant social order who!s rules and laws have no place in the 21st century.

  7. Doug Daniel says:

    Something I’ve suddenly realised while commenting on an article on Better Nation – when Cameron and Darling say we have to wait until after the referendum, what they really mean is we have to wait until Scotland stops voting for the SNP. The union depends on the government in Holyrood making sure it doesn’t highlight the failures of Westminster, and that can only be guaranteed with a complicit Scottish Government, namely Labour.

  8. gavin says:

    I would like to suggest that Murdochs sudden interest in Scotland has more to do with leverage against those who would humiliate him for his newspapers conduct. I have no doubt that he will have dirt on those who abased themselves to him over the years but he now cannot use this ( questions would be asked how he obtained it ). So now he can threaten to use his press power ( yes, it still works to an extent ) to back Salmond IF his reputation gets trashed.

    1. richardcain2 says:

      I think Murdoch, or News International in general, got their fingers burnt recently, what with all this phone-tapping etc. Suddenly, all those Westminster MPs who had been in his pocket started to grow a pair and speak out against him.

      Could it be that this “consideration” of Scottish Independence is a way of smacking them back into line?

      I never trust anything that comes out of Westminster, but somehow I trust Rupert Murdoch even less!

  9. Pingback: Devo Plus What? |

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