Certainty and Falsehood

081106-a-6851o-049John S Warren on Douglas Alexander’s asymptotic offer of further Scottish Devolution
Douglas Alexander claims in his speech (28th February) that Scotland already has the “best of both worlds”; a phrase that in political history deserves the same derision as Voltaire’s excoriation of Leibniz’s claim that he was living in “the best of all possible worlds”. In spite of having the “best of both worlds”, Alexander argues that Labour “should embrace further devolution of powers within the UK and within Scotland”; thus we have the best, but it could be better.

Douglas Alexander, Danny Alexander, Darling, Lamont and Carmichael all preach the dogma that we must have “certainty” in the referendum before exercising a choice. Independence is beyond us because nothing worthwhile can be achieved without “certainty”. This is a strange doctrine to promote a Union that after six years has still not emerged from the effects of the worst financial crash in eighty years; that nobody in the British government, Bank of England, Treasury, Financial Regulator (FSA), City of London, or Banking sector foresaw or prevented, in spite of claiming to be the World’s Leading Financial Centre – which means the spiritual home of the Credit Crunch: so much for ‘Better Together’. But let us indulge Douglas Alexander and look instead for “certainty” in his proposal. It starts with Alexander stating that “we must talk about the nation Scotland could be” after a ‘No’ vote. This is what we need most of all: more talk. The offer of talk is however quickly followed by a vaguely worded request for more tax raising powers, and a reference to the expected publication of Johann Lamont’s Devolution Commission Report, with a final rhetorical flourish appealing to uplifting Labour themes that the party rarely honours; solidarity, cooperation and working together. Since the Lamont Devolution Commission is already sitting and soon to report, it is not quite clear why Alexander feels obliged to make a speech exhorting Labour to “embrace” further devolution, unless of course, he is less than “certain” about the outcome.

So much for the thin content of the speech. Where is the substance? What happened to “certainty”? Whatever Lamont produces it will stand as a mere Scottish Labour Party proposal. Is it “certain” to be agreed by anyone outside Johann Lamont’s office, or left intact even by the British Labour Party? Or by the Scottish Labour MPs? Is it “certain” to be agreed by all parties in Better Together? How can the electorate be “certain” that it will ever reach the statute book? Of course absolutely nothing in Alexander’s proposal is “certain”; indeed it is not even ‘probable’ that any proposals will ever see the light of day beyond the referendum, or reach the House of Commons, still less that it would ever appear in the form of a Bill. Is it even “certain” that the Scottish electorate would approve it? How would we know? Should we assume that everything rests on a 2015 General Election; which in turn relies not just on the contingent electoral arithmetic in Scotland (and how would SNP or Green votes be interpreted with regard to devolution?), but the results across the whole of Britain; both before and after the election, which may in turn require negotiation before even the formation of either a single-party Government or Coalition?

‘Improbability’ appears to be the new Alexander-Labour definition of “certainty”. Indeed the Alexander thesis looks more like an exercise in gerrymandering than a plan for the future of devolution, or a radical reform of the Union; a form of politics that would actually serve the Scottish people’s best interests. We may describe the Alexander proposal metaphorically as asymptotic; in the case of a ‘No’ vote, we can be “certain”, but only of this: Devo-Max will never reach the statute book in this Union. How desperately Labour wants a ‘No’ vote, and for each point above 50%, how much more eagerly the Unionists will join in interpreting ‘No’ as final and forever; no going back, and no further devolution.

Unionists like Alexander, Darling or Lamont could have guaranteed the Union by the simple device of offering a second question in the referendum, which they were offered and rejected out-of-hand, but which would have ensured a landslide victory for the Union; but that would have required genuine change to the status-quo and the end of London’s unchallenged hegemony in the UK. Unquestionably the referendum battle would have been over long before the vote. The media know it, the psephologists know it, and the electorate knows it; but this is not what the quite extraordinarily close all-party coalition representing the vested interests of Westminster Unionism want, and so nothing happens. The cynical purpose behind the Unionist parties and Better Together is found in the terms of the devious offer to the Scottish electorate of more devolution after a ‘No’ vote, currently being made by all the Unionist parties; but only after the Scottish electorate has first constitutionally and politically totally disarmed itself by voting ‘No’ in the referendum. Any proposals for further devolution would thus revert to Westminster, become the gift under the sole patronage of the Unionist parties, and have to survive the claim that ‘No’ means ‘no’. This referendum is “final” is a Unionist mantra created solely to exploit a ‘No’ vote, as leverage to reject out of hand further powers. Critically, the electorate becomes once again the powerless supplicant of Unionist politicians. The old politics reasserts itself; the apparatchiks are back, safely in sole charge of the unchanging, centralised Union.

They have ‘form’; in 1979 Alec Douglas-Home promised that a ‘No’ vote would still produce genuine change to government in Scotland. Scotland’s reward turned out to be Margaret Thatcher’s government and twenty years of blight. The Lib-Dems have produced an outline proposal for further devolution, but we have already seen the worth of a Lib-Dem “pledge” to students. The Labour Party, through Alistair Darling, is only too clearly the author of Better Together’s crippling ‘Can’t Do’ Unionism, too which Alexander subscribes; almost belligerently displaying a well rehearsed, entrenched, bleak, relentless and dispiriting lack of ambition for, or basic confidence in, the Scottish people. That leaves the Conservatives, but who do the Conservatives represent in Scotland, save perhaps an elderly, minority political interest that below the surface, would on balance prefer to see the Scottish Parliament dissolved rather than expanded?

Until now Scottish public opinion has had to shift for itself: seeking someone to champion the majority’s long-established and clear preferred option of Devo+ or Devo-Max, within a vestigial Union. Better Together could have seized the moment when offered the second question (ironically by the SNP), and given Devo-Max precise shape and substance: but individually and collectively they failed to do so, almost certainly for ill-advised reasons of electoral self-interest, combined with a deep and almost reactionary commitment less to the idea of Union, than to the centralised constitutional ‘status quo’, ante. The Unionist parties in their hearts do not want material change to the Union; and if faced with the necessity of reform, intend that the content of any further devolution is firmly in their hands, rather than the in the hands of the electorate, and not radical or likely to raise spirits, so that they may fillet it of any substance at their leisure; “kippered” in the modish Churchillian expression.

Quite unexpectedly it was the SNP’s modest but pragmatic White Paper that met the challenge, devising an advance on Devo-Max, discreetly presented to the Scottish electorate as a negotiated conciliation between Devolution and Independence. This is less surprising than it may first appear; when the Edinburgh Agreement was signed it was Alex Salmond, not David Cameron who said: “We’re in the business of developing a new relationship between the peoples of these islands”, which Salmond went on to describe as a “Home Rule journey”. These remarks could have been uttered by almost any non-ideological Unionist over the last hundred years; but nobody noticed.

Refused the second referendum question the SNP had wanted, the Scottish Government White Paper has simply turned the constitutional proposal on its head; into a single answer to two questions: devolution and independence have been conflated by the Scottish Government to meet the clearly discernible, if politically ill-represented aspirations of the majority of the Scottish people. In effect the White Paper offers Devo-Super-Max (including currency union), in an equitable, compromise economic settlement with rUK, within a nominal independence. The most important feature of the White Paper however, is the implicit recognition by the SNP that the Scottish public is not interested in the constitution as a form of speculative metaphysics concerning the real nature of “independence”. Unionists continually assert that the SNP is not offering “independence” at all; but the decisive answer to the question whether the White Paper’s Devo-Super-Max is really “independence” is simple: who cares?

The reason that Douglas Alexander is fundamentally wrong is that he believes this whole issue is about Scotland: it is not. It is about the political failure of the UK, and the total surrender of British politics to the greed, folly and rapacious self-interest of London and the City of London; to the point that this has brought the Union to the edge of a financial abyss; an economic recovery that even Osborne does not believe in; that the Governor of the Bank of England believes is “unsustainable”: a financial regulatory system that remains deeply flawed; and a political system incapable of serving the interests of anyone outside the Home Counties, whether they live in Scotland, or Somerset, or the North East of England. Scotland demonstrably does not have the power or influence to change the whole UK: a fact as unshakable as the Second Law of Thermodynamics, but a fact that the Labour Party, relentlessly obtuse to the bitter end, simply cannot understand and refuses to believe, whatever the forlorn nature of the underlying politics. But Scotland can look after itself, and must do so. Meanwhile the proposition that all this will be cured miraculously by an election in 2015 that will bring in Labour or Lab-LibDem to save the day needs only to be stated to be seen to be absurd.

Scotland’s answer to Cameron’s mawkish Unionism, Osborne’s posturing, or Alexander’s spineless waffle is – “too late”; for this was never about ‘identity’, but politics. The White Paper offers Scotland a looser British confederation; a new form of ‘Union’ that embraces nominal independence (whatever that means in a Globalised world), but a Union much more on Scotland’s terms. This is the price that must be extracted for the failure of London to rise above its own greed, vanity, public relations and lavish incompetence; its preference to seduce and serve a rich mix of oligarchs, celebrities and buccaneers over the interests or aspirations of the whole British people.

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  1. JGedd says:

    Wow, this is good. An excellent rebuttal to Alexander and the rest of his waffling tribe.

  2. Tony Philpin says:

    Alexander is obviously a fan of the Hitchhikers Guide – especially the Infinite Improbability Drive. Pity he lacks the wit and intelligence of Douglas Adams

    1. flit2013 says:

      Unfortunately the Labour Party was entirely complicit with, and even enthusiastic about, the neo-liberal con of globalisation, ‘light touch’ or zero regulation, and financial market liberalisation, as well as following the false god of GDP growth,
      so its unsurprising that they still defend their very Thatcherite record in government. This ‘best of both worlds’ pseudo agenda totally ignores and/or degrades the self determination arguments for independence. But that is a centralising Labour Party for you. However, post independence, unless we think carefully about proper checks and balances to financial markets, such as a shift towards full reserve banking, and controlling the free generation of credit by banks which created the current problem we will do no better than the UK governments of the last 20 years.

  3. Even what we have can be removed on a whim of a lord in the middle of the night.Make Holyrood permanent make it law so that nothing can be taken back to Westminster.

  4. andygm1 says:

    That’s a great article there! Only point I would take issue with is your claim that the SNP wanted a second question. They palpably didn’t and only offered to have one to ensure that stupid Unionists would refuse.

  5. Iain says:

    Interesting and relevant article but, sadly, arguing against a set of views not even believed in by their author. It is pointless arguing against speeches by the likes of Alexander who is a truly amoral politician who believes in nothing and has no values apart from what will advance his career. He is like one of the second or third rank functionaries in the Soviet system who overnight embraced capitalism. This doesn’t make him evil or wicked, just vacuous and eager to conform. If Labour ever embrace socialism, I expect Alexander will be as red as a London bus. If not more so.

  6. Alex Buchan says:

    I’m not sure if I believe this. The majority of Scots would vote for devo max because they are not convinced of the possibility of full independence yet, but they want the maximum amount of power to be yielded by Holyrood. This is not possible. The British state could never grant anything remotely approximating to devo max. This is because it runs counter to the whole tradition of the Westminster system which is all about the complete supremacy of Westminster and also because such a transfer of power to Holyrood would require complete reorganisation at the centre. In such a scenario Westminster could not rule England. Either an English parliament would be required, or English MPs would have to deal with English legislation separately, meaning a UK government could only be formed on the basis of the party with the majority of seats in England, regardless of the majority across the UK. Neither an English parliament, nor dealing with English legislation separately, would work in the long term without bringing about the end of the UK. So devo max can never be granted, and neither can much more devolution than at present. Britain, unlike, say, Germany, could never become a federal state because England rightly resists regionalisation and is therefore too big to form a unit in a federal state. So there is very little room for manoeuvre. British politics is all about being pragmatic so the offer of such an unreality still has value to unionist politicians.

    Alex Salmond actually muddied the waters by suggesting this could be on the ballot, thus giving the idea more weight than it deserved. But I think you are wrong to think that Scottish voters are unconcerned about the metaphysics of independence for obvious reasons. The main concern of the Scottish voter is the balance between opportunity and risk. They saw devo max as ideal because it maximised opportunity for dynamic change in Scotland while minimising the risk inherent with that which is unknown. But because they are concerned about risk they are not likely to be fooled into thinking that you can be independent without risk so they readily get the whole issue of the currency. This is why I think the NO vote will win because the way the campaign is going the fears about risk are not going to be addressed adequately. I think you are dead right that the unionist parties are hoping to kill off Scottish aspirations through a decisive no vote, and more importantly to them as parties, they hope that it will kill off the SNP though internal splits and voter apathy after a no vote. This has been obvious from the start, and to this day I cannot fathom why Alex Salmond signed the Edinburgh Agreement which was all in Westminster’s favour.

    1. Taranaich says:

      I agree on your first point: I don’t understand why people insist that Devo-Max would win in a landslide when EVERY indication has shown that nothing remotely like Devo-Max would ever be granted even if Scots voted for it – just witness the histrionics from Labour MPs about Lamont’s plans for Air Passenger Duty being devolved. While it may be what the people of Scotland want, it’s pretty clear that the rest of the UK would insist on a voice, as was stated in the House of Lords – and can anyone honestly see the people of England, Wales & Northern Ireland voting to give the Scots more autonomy when they ALREADY see them as subsidy junkies who get a “sweet deal” from Westminster?

      I don’t, however, agree that the No vote will win, for the simple reason that while you could argue the risks regarding independence aren’t addressed adequately, how can anyone say the risks of remaining in the UK are? It is a *certainty* that we’re looking to more welfare cuts, more austerity, more weapons of mass destruction, greater immigration controls, and escalating inequality. The No campaign *cannot* alleviate those fears because they’re coming. Every major party with a chance of getting in has said that they will not be changing the Tories’ austerity measures, and in some cases claimed they will be TOUGHER. It isn’t the woolly, formless scaremongering of a *possible* independent Scotland, it’s certainty – actual certainty – and it will be coming regardless of who gets in Westminster in 2016.

      Given the choice between *possible* disaster and *certain* disaster, who in their right mind would choose the latter? What matters is that Yes MUST show that the risks and uncertainties of independence are vastly preferable to the “security” and “certainty” of the UK – and given the way the polls are going combined with the support for Yes on the grassroots level, I certainly don’t think it’s clear-cut for a No victory.

      1. John S Warren says:

        For the avoidance of doubt I do not argue that the ‘No’ vote will win. I am afraid that this interpretation is based on a mis-reading or misunderstanding of the argument. Perhaps I did not make the point with sufficient clarity. It is true that I suggest the majority of the Scottish electorate would prefer something popularly described as ‘Devo-Max’ (that to the eternal shame of the Unionist parties they have deliberately refused to work-through in detail until it is too late to guarantee): but since the SNP (alone) is effectively offering a carefully prepared version of what may best be called Devo-Super-Max, and that this proposal can be delivered, the Scottish electorate may choose that option over the ‘status quo’; which, without much room for doubt, is best described as intellectually demeaning, lazy and cynical. I have sufficient respect for the wisdom and self-interest of the Scottish people to believe that they are quite capable of ‘seeing through’ Better Together.

      2. Alex Buchan says:

        I don’t think devo max was just about blue prints. Devo max also came to be a token for the whole idea of the continued development of devolution to some maximum point. Nor do I think that devo max has not had some value. It is now accepted as an urban myth that the majority of Scots want maximum devolution. In some ways devo max has replace devolution as the “settled will” to quote John Smith. The offer of more powers by Cameron and the commissions set up by the unionists parties need all to be seen in this context, as responding to perceived desire in Scotland for more powers. Those people in the rest of the UK who take an interest have also bought into this urban myth that the Scots preferred option is devo max. Ultimately, the usefulness of devo max is primarily in setting the tone for the post referendum period.

        I did not say that the article had said the no vote will win. I said that the no vote will win. I don’t believe it will be possible to convince people that the risks of staying are greater than the risks of becoming independent. I believe this myself, but I have had this belief for over 40 years, you are not going to get people to see this in the course of six months. This article in Our Kingdom shows that, with few exceptions, the final votes in referendums are always considerable more in favour of the status quo and previous opinion polls suggested.


        My main gripe with the article is in suggesting that the public sees what Alex Salmond is proposing as a form of devo max. This seems to insult the intelligence of the voters. They were/are keen on extended powers, they are not keen on risks. The yes campaign is coming apart precisely because it is not credible to argue for a risk free independence and therefore the credibility of independence itself is called into question.

        After a no vote the issue becomes what next?

    2. muttley79 says:

      Alex, Salmond suggested a second question because he knew that the No campaign would reject it, and they would do it publically. Salmond knew they would reject it because it came from him. I also don’t know why you are arguing that Westminster got everything it wanted from the Edinburgh Agreement? Salmond got the wording of the question he wanted, the timing, and the one question referendum. In addition, you have not mentioned the risks inherent in a No vote. A No vote leaves us with no protection at all against Westminster and its austerity agenda. A No vote would see the scrapping of the Barnett formula, and Scotland being put on an austerity max spending programme. There is also a real danger of an exit from the EU if we remain in the British state. To not even mention the fact that the British state would seek revenge on Scotland for challenging its power in the aftermath of a No vote is curious. You assume that the risks are all on the Yes side.

      1. Alex Buchan says:

        Wrong. I accept everything you say and always have had that opinion. But as far as Cameron was concerned, having looked at all the possible outcomes, he was confident he would win the referendum when he signed the Edinburgh Agreement, therefore all of those things you listed were seen as irrelevant in he long run if you are confident you are going to win.

      2. muttley79 says:

        Alex, I do not know what to make of your posts. I am not sure what you are trying to say. Do you support independence? Why do you say that the Yes campaign is coming apart when polls indicate the Yes vote is increasing, and as been for the last 6 months or so (I hope you are not swallowing everything the biased MSM are saying)? In one of your posts you actually say that you cannot understand why Salmond signed the Edinburgh Agreement, but in your reply you are now saying Cameron was confident of the result? You keep on mentioning the risks of a Yes vote. There is more if we vote No, for the simple fact that the British state will inflict an awful revenge on Scotland for challenging their power.

      3. Alex Buchan says:

        Yes. I am arguing that the UK is at heart a unitary state and devolution will eventually lead to its disintegration because the English are not interested in anything other than maintaining their traditions. But for that very reason Westminster will fight Scottish independence with all its might and having fought off Scottish independence will drag its heels on further devolution hoping to wear down Scottish aspirations. They couldn’t give a fuck as far as Scotland is concerned. But unlike Quebec, Scotland is not in a continent where nothing changes. There are likely to be on-going developments in Europe that will keep the national question alive. If the SNP and the yes campaign became less scared of scaring Scots and really told them the difficult things about staying in and going it alone then this referendum could break with precedent by catching the imagination, but then they would lay themselves open to being ambushed by the fascist BBC. This referendum is a staging post in Scotland’s struggle, the important point for me is not seeing a no vote as a set back but as yet another stage on which to build and move on. The British State ultimately is brittle. It’s hidebound nature makes it more and more out of step with the modern world. Alex Salmond should have paused and asked why David Cameron was agreeing to all his demands. It was a rerun of when Salmond was flattered before to his detriment by being invited to make a TV response to the bombing of Serbia. It’s so obvious that they reminded themselves of this when going along with the Edinburgh Agreement. Salmond should never have accepted London’s right to say whether a referendum was legal or not and kept things more fluid, less tied to this referendum, but I suppose the SNP would never have forgiven him.

      4. Alex Buchan says:

        Yes. I am arguing that the UK is at heart a unitary state and devolution will eventually lead to its disintegration because the English are not interested in anything other than maintaining their traditions. But for that very reason Westminster will fight Scottish independence with all its might and having fought off Scottish independence will drag its heels on further devolution hoping to wear down Scottish aspirations. They couldn’t give a f**k as far as Scotland is concerned. But unlike Quebec, Scotland is not in a continent where nothing changes. There are likely to be on-going developments in Europe that will keep the national question alive here and elsewhere. If the SNP and the yes campaign became less scared of scaring Scots and really told them the difficult things about staying in and going it alone then this referendum could break with precedent by catching the imagination, but then they would lay themselves open to being ambushed by the hostile BBC. This referendum is a staging post in Scotland’s struggle, the important point for me is not seeing a no vote as a set back but as yet another stage on which to build and move on. The British State ultimately is brittle. It’s hidebound nature makes it more and more out of step with the modern world. Alex Salmond should have paused and asked why David Cameron was agreeing to all his demands. It was a rerun of when Salmond was flattered before to his detriment by being invited to make a TV response to the bombing of Serbia. It’s so obvious that they reminded themselves of this when going along with the Edinburgh Agreement. Salmond should never have accepted London’s right to say whether a referendum was legal or not and kept things more fluid, less tied to this referendum, but I suppose the SNP would never have forgiven him.

    3. tartanfever says:

      Alex Buchan – ‘British politics is all about being pragmatic’

      Absolute bollocks. It is solely concerned with self interest and power.

    4. Doug Daniel says:

      I wouldn’t say Salmond offering to have a second question on the ballot gave Devo Max more weight than it deserved, because I think that slightly misses the point of what he was doing. Devo Max is a classic fudge position, like a student moving out for uni but still taking their washing home at the weekend. It’s for people who, deep down, want Scotland to be independent, but don’t want to cut the apron strings completely – either through fear or sentiment. In short, it’s an unrealistic proposal, and anyone with even a basic knowledge of how Westminster works could surely see that it would never happen.

      But Salmond knew all that, and that’s why it was a safe gambit. The sole purpose of giving Devo Max a bit of life was to get people used to the idea of changing the relationship with Westminster. Once you’ve got people thinking how nice it would be to have most decisions being made in Holyrood, it’s less of a jump for them to move to wanting all decisions being made there. It allowed polls to show a majority in favour of constitutional change, rather than simply a majority in favour of the union. Perhaps most importantly, it forced unionists to concede the point that the status quo wasn’t an option, despite the most fervent unionists actually being very much in favour of retaining the status quo, as Labour’s internal struggles over devolving income tax highlight, as well as Ruthie’s infamous “line in the sand”. So what we now have is one side trying to win the referendum on a prospectus it doesn’t really agree with, which is why the unionist parties can’t agree on what a No vote should mean. That’s why for months they tried to insist that the referendum was purely about whether you wanted independence or not, with questions about further devolution to come afterwards.

      As for the Edinburgh Agreement being all in Westminster’s favour, I can’t see how. We’re getting to hold a referendum that won’t get held up in the courts, on the day of our choosing, with the question of our choosing, and all we’ve had to give up is an option that we didn’t really want anyway, since it would have presented a far bigger challenge to a vote for independence than the status quo. What part of that is in Westminster’s favour?

      1. Alex Buchan says:

        Hi Doug

        Through engaging I’ve come to see the force of the argument you’re making, which is what I hope we are all agreed is the purpose of engaging. In the period leading up to the Edinburgh Agreement even to want to assess the balance of advantages and risks of a referendum or to want to discus the merits or otherwise of devo max on Bella Caledonia was drown out by those denouncing devo max and all who wanted to discuss it. That kind of ultra nationalist rhetoric really turned me off massively, but I see that things on Bella Caledonia have thankfully moved on.

        The UK government obviously saw the Edinburgh Agreement as all in their favour, otherwise they wouldn’t have been so ready to grant everything Salmond wanted. If you grant everything your opponent wants in a referendum it can only mean that you intent to use this after a victory for the no vote to argue that having got all it’s conditions met the yes vote still couldn’t win. There are obvious advantages in this position for the UK government; it makes it easier for them to argue post referendum that they need to make changes to strengthen the UK after a decisive no vote, which no doubt they will do in the event of a no vote.

        So everything then hinges on whether the referendum is won or lost for both sides. I saw this as inherently dangerous for Scotland that was my concern all along. It still could be, but I now see that the referendum has lots of positive spin offs. On the issue of Alex Salmond’s tactics around devo max one of the things that has helped me feel more positive about the referendum and also those tactics is the article by David Greig linked in the latest post “The Yes Campaign is Out of Control” where Greig says that what led to him moving from the no camp to the yes camp was the unionist parties’ refusal to allow Devo max on the ballot. So I can see that the political situation in Scotland is very volatile and that the situation after a possible no vote will be very different from say the situation after the defeat of the 1979 referendum.

        I think that Alex Salmond and the yes campaign need to break out of the fear of telling it as it is in terms of the risks of staying in versus the risks of going it alone, but I’m less worried about the impact of a no vote than I was previously. I think there is a dynamic that is not going to be stopped by a no vote, not just in Scotland, but across the UK, where commitment to the union as an ideological blanket under which Westminster politicians can get away with whatever they want is wearing thin. I think many English people, for instance, would love to have devo max for England. in fact, I think the stress on the benefits to England of a yes vote in the referendum need to be stressed more and given more consideration. Instead of taking a bland attitude to the rUK, I think we need to see the opportunity this gives the English to question the whole way Westminster tries its hardest to eradicate England as a separate political community, conflating England and Britain.

      2. Alex Buchan says:

        I should have added that I don’t think devo max is the fudge position you describe. I think people genuinely want a compromise where we don’t need to break up but we do have control over our own country. My other comments in this thread are about the fact that only a massive change at the centre could allow such a scenario of genuine federal or confederal arrangements on these islands. Meaningful devo max could only happen if the English decided that they wanted to throw out the Westminster system and bring in a modern constitution, and even then federalism wouldn’t work unless England embraced regional government. So devo max makes us dependent on changes at the centre that we have very little control over. You hear people airily talk or write weighty papers about the changes that will come about as a result of this referendum regardless on the way the vote goes but it aint going to happen and that is an important delusion that needs to be tackled head on.

      3. Doug Daniel says:

        “The UK government obviously saw the Edinburgh Agreement as all in their favour, otherwise they wouldn’t have been so ready to grant everything Salmond wanted”

        Not necessarily. Remember the rhetoric before the agreement was drawn up – it was all about getting a “clear” decision. As far as they were concerned, the one thing they absolutely had to get off the table was the idea of a second question. Under no circumstances could Scots be allowed to vote for Devo Max, because a) they would have had to come up with a defined version of it and b) they would have had to actually go ahead with it, whereas currently a No vote allows them to set up a 10-year talking shop and discretely dilute any further devolution. Having a Devo Max option would have revealed once and for all that Scotland will never get the level of devolution it wants within the union. So they would have either had to lie about what they would devolve, or risk exposing the limits of devolution.

        Keeping Scots from being able to vote for Devo Max was far more important than the wording or the date. But it was also the only way to guarantee Scots wouldn’t vote for independence, so they’ve shot themselves in the foot somewhat.

      4. John S Warren says:

        Mr Daniel, I think your peroration is exactly right: “Keeping Scots from being able to vote for Devo Max was far more important than the wording or the date. But it was also the only way to guarantee Scots wouldn’t vote for independence, so they’ve shot themselves in the foot somewhat”. I think however that the Scottish Government has very subtly and skilfully elided independence in the White Paper, to capture some of that Devo Max vote in spite of Westminster’s crude tactics; what is actually being offered to the Scottish people by the White Paper in the referendum is what I term Devo-Super-Max (a currency union plus nominal independence).

        In response to the ingenious tactics of the White Paper we can observe that all this is perfectly well understood by Unionists.It has however inevitably had a bizarre effect on the Unionist capacity to argue a case against a purely nominal independence. Unionists have been reduced, somewaht absurdly, to arguing that the Scottish electorate is not actually being offered “independence” in the referndum at all: no, the aren’t, and so what? This immediately raises this simple question to Unionists in turn – why should Unionists care? Why do they not celebrate this as a decisive victory for the Union? We can all vote ‘Yes’ and we really have the best of both worlds; maximum devolution and no independence.

        If the Unionists actually believed that the White Paper doesn’t really offer “independence”, then the WhIte Paper (Devo-Super-Max) effectively becomes the measure of maximum devolution against which any offer of further devolution that the Unionists make must be compared. Unless of course Unionists do not intend to give the Scottish people any further substantive devolutionary power if they vote ‘no’. QED.

      5. Alex Buchan says:


        Whether they shot themselves in the foot depends entirely on the outcome of the referendum. My point has always been that they regarded that as a foregone conclusion so therefore by excluding devo max they thought they had got everything they wanted out of the Edinburgh Agreement. In fact, it goes further. Because they intended (still intend) to ensure the referendum goes their way, (and I expect a lot more to be attempted by the UK government between now and September to try to ensure this), it was vitally important for them to make it legal and final.

        Alex Salmond has accepted that if it is a no vote then independence is off the table for a generation i.e. 30 to 40 years. This was the second prize they were after. Their objectives were 1) a clear cut yes no referendum they were (still are) sure they can win 2) an acceptance by the yes camp that such a victory for the no vote rules discussion of independence out for 30/40 years. Further they will use this willingness to facilitate this referendum and the finality of the result as justification for a raft of measures to strengthen the union after the referendum. Alex Salmond they assume will be a busted flush after a no victory and all talk of removing trident or any other demand will be deflected by way of their fresh mandate through the democratic endorsement of the union that a no vote represents. What nobody on Bella Caledonia, at the time, seemed to accept was that if a yes vote is a democratic endorsement of independence then it is totally ridiculous to argue that a no vote is not a democratic endorsement of the union.

        This has always been my argument with those On Bella Caledonia who were cock a hoop about the idea of a straight yes no vote, on these terms. I was told in a scoffing way by bloggers on Bella Caledonia at the time that once the arguments for independence are made Scottish voters will start to get behind the yes vote. I now accept that, on balance, the dynamic of the campaign may act to shift Scottish politics in ways that are still unclear, but I can now see are possible. But I still wait to see evidence of the yes vote even drawing alongside the no vote. It’s not tenable to say that all the other opinion polls are wrong and only the SNPs opinion polls are right. If there was a groundswell of support then it would start showing in all the polls, none has yet shown a yes lead. Research outlined on Open Democracy’s Our Kingdom website showed that in the vast majorities of referendums in the past the yes vote needed to have a comfortable lead before the vote because people always tend to revert back to the status quo at the last minute. This was based on voting evidence so it cannot be brushed off as a hostile opinion piece.

      6. Alex Buchan says:


        Your argument is ingenious but the unionist argument against the white paper are less ineffective than you imply. In any campaign showing inconsistencies in your opponents position has always been seen to be effective. The Scottish voter may well see the irony in unionists arguing against something because it is less than independence, but their main preoccupation will be with whether the yes campaigns proposals are well thought through and the no campaign are doing a good job at chipping away at the credibility of Salmond’s scheme. More moves along these lines from the UK government may follow. Doug is right, what the unionists needed more than anything was to not lose control of the devolution process. A no vote hands control back to them in a way that they didn’t have after the election of a majority SNP government at Holyrood. The SNPs victory raised, in a new form, the old arguments about Westminster standing in Scotland’s way, blocking the national aspiration for greater autonomy. But a no vote obliterates all that by providing for the first time ever an explicit democratic endorsement of the union. This, if it happens, will change the game on a long term basis because the unionists will be able to use this democratic endorsement of the union as support for Westminster’s claim to the right to decide what is best for the whole of the united kingdom and that will mean whatever change there is to Scottish devolution will be what is deemed to strengthen the union, so it will hardly be radical if it comes at all. After a no vote Scotland loses all of its leverage for greater devolution unless we can somehow build on the referendum campaign to set up on-going initiatives pushing for change, but I suspect that is unlikely, though I would love to be proved wrong on that.

      7. John S Warren says:

        Yes, Unionism is desperate to use a ‘No’ vote to return to the political position ex-ante. This referendum however has taken place not following 1979, but 1999. Unionist optimism on this point is a forlorn hope.

        The world has moved on, and the scales of entrenched generational gullibility are at last falling from the electorate’s eyes; the Credit Crunch, MP’s Expenses, phone-hacking, Plebgate, Stephen Lawrence, Hillsborough, Iraq, Afghanistan, LIBOR, mis-selling, bank failures, pay-day loans with 4000% APR (usury), foodbanks, bedroom tax, tax evasion, “aggressive” tax avoidance, money-laundering, London taking all the resources of treasure and people from everybody, everywhere in the UK with impunity, £1.4 trillion pounds of national debt and rising (ludicrously described by Unionists as “broad shoulders”), Jimmy Saville and the gross failures of the BBC and an array of British institutions, are all there for the Scottish public to witness in astonishment at the crass, vulgar, needless incompetence of it all; the summation of thirty years of greed and folly. The deconstruction of the British State’s credibility before our eyes is taking place now, and because of modern communications technology, in public. Things really are different.

        Unionism seems to think it can treat Scotland as if it was ‘through the looking glass’, in some parallel universe to the ‘UK’; Unionism’s fantasy land stuck in a sentimental haze of British history, perhaps around 1954. Somehow Unionists appear to believe that nobody in Scotland will notice that the ‘Emperor has no clothes’; Better Together’s proposition that it represents a triumphantly successful UK, rather than the picture of obvious intellectual and financial failure and disintegration everyone can see, is frankly unsustainable. Unionism will try very hard after a ‘No’ vote, if they can salvage it, to bury devolution and dump the Barnett formula, but their touching underlying faith in the preposterous proposition that Scotland will simply return to “business as usual” is risible. Too late; no matter the referendum outcome that ship has sailed, or rather sunk.

      8. Alex Buchan says:

        Now that is an analysis I can sign up to. But, in the event of a no vote, the situation becomes much more polarised with the establishment crowing that, for the first time in over 300 years, the union now has a democratic legitimacy it never had before. This will be hammered home and arguing against that will up the ante. The situation then potentially becomes more extreme as the British State feels it now has the legitimacy to move against those who do not accept the outcome of the referendum result. The problem lies in the fact that the Westminster system no longer represents Scotland, so there is no counter balancing in the view from Westminster as the unified front against the currency union demonstrated. This poses both opportunities, as the Scottish working class starts to see Labour more clearly, but also dangers obviously.

        1. John S Warren says:

          Beneath the too often flamboyant rhetoric to which both left and right so often resort with gross exaggeration, Scotland is a cautious and even conservative (small ‘c’) country; that I believe is an incontestable fact of history. It was wittily said by Iain McLean, historian of ‘Red Clydeside’, of its largely pacifist leaders, that the only thing the Clyde would ever have “run red” with under their leadership of endless meetings, rallies and dialectical argument, was tea.

          Scotland is populated by men and women who are (and whatever they say) best termed systematic operators of an intuitively stochastic social, political, economic (or even metaphysical) model of reality. They like to test the water. They are ‘evolutionary gradualists’ in all things; consciously or unconsciously. It has ‘aye been like that’ – since before the Scottish Enlightenment. This is therefore a process, a journey we are on. It is not finished, but it has begun, and there will be no going back; the past, after all, “is a foreign country, they do things differently there”. Evolution in reverse is an interesting concept (reversed melanism in the peppered moth [Biston betularia] pre- and post-industrial revolution is one exceptional example from the natural world), but is very, very unlikely to apply here.

      9. Alex Buchan says:

        Thanks for that; fascinating stuff there about Red Clydeside. I have long despaired of the entrenched small mindedness of middle class professional Scotland. Why then do we court trouble? By comparison the Catalans seem sober. There is a great paradox here somehow. It’s because I think Scots are small c conservatives that I take most wild talk on political blogs like this with a pinch of salt. There is a kind of blindness in Scottish culture though. It’s one thing to say Scots are conservative. Yet why did they then engage in one of the most destructive reformations of any European nation. It’s as if Scots find it hard to stop and think through their options. Yes they may be conservative, but are they not just scared rather than prudent? If they are conservative what is the motor force that will bring change?

        1. John S Warren says:

          Ah, the Reformation! So much that could be said, but I’m afraid I think that is just too far “off-piste”…. ….

      10. Alex Buchan says:

        “Stochastic social science theory is similar to systems theory in that events are interactions of systems, although with a marked emphasis on unconscious processes. The event creates its own conditions of possibility, rendering it unpredictable if simply for the amount of variables involved. Stochastic social science theory can be seen as an elaboration of a kind of ‘third axis’ in which to situate human behavior alongside the traditional ‘nature vs. nurture’ opposition.”

        I should have looked up stochastic before responding.

      11. Alex Buchan says:

        I can see where the argument is going. The Scots are inherently conservative therefore the white paper on independence reflects this. But I don’t buy that, because it doesn’t really explain anything. You invoked a national character that preceded the Enlightenment and I think you are right. But national characters are moulded by historical events. Rather than being off piste the reformation is the glaring obvious defining historical event. When other nations were building nationalist identity with which to confront their imperial masters during the 19th cent Scotland instead had transposed the issue onto the realm of religion; the divide between those in favour of the union to those opposed moved onto the ground of religion. Scottish energies were diverted in the disruption. Today’s divide in Scotland between unionists and nationalists has all the fundamentalist no-quarter quality of the reformation and the disruption. If there is a reason why Scots are both rash and cautious at the same time then our history of religious disputes are far more likely to yield a diagnosis than anything else. Even the divide inside the SNP between so called gradualists and fundamentalist is yet another transposition. One of the reasons I have always supported independence is because Scotland has an awful lot historical baggage to unpack and get over. The union has preserved all of Scotland’s national character distortions in aspic.

  7. G. P. Walrus says:

    I’m increasingly impressed by the quality of writing on this site. Thank you for a stunningly good article.

  8. Abulhaq says:

    Without a major federalising re-ordering of the British state so-called DevoMax is dead. The promotors of this either knew its practical impossibility and thereby intended to kill it off or were rather naïve about the psychology of the system. Anyway, if this affair is not about Scotland and our identity, what is it about? The British state and its main element have had centuries to adjust to the principle of “Unionism”. From day one Scotland was absorbed into a greater design in which notions of partnership and equality were unique Scottish delusions. Thinking selfishly about our future is at long last no crime. Recognising that the symbols of identity promoted by our neighbor and its sympathisers are not ours is no longer deviant. The sentimental kith-and-kin Britishness vaunted by Alexander, Brown and Cameron is pure Brigadoon meets Braveheart rescripted by Scott and Buchan at their most North British; a hideous gamers’ hydra. Killing this ridiculous beast with one click of indomitable politico-cultural realism ought to be childsplay. Unless, of course, we still atavistically believe there is useful life left in the Union beastie?

    1. muttley79 says:

      Alex, thanks for the reply. I understand you better now. I agree particularly with this point: ‘If the SNP and the yes campaign became less scared of scaring Scots and really told them the difficult things about staying in’…

      I don’t agree that Salmond should have walked away from the referendum though. The referendum would not be happening if London did not have any input. It would have been challenged and ultimately delayed in the courts. That is just the way it is. I do not agree that the Yes campaign is coming apart either. Corporations/banks in Scotland have a history of opposing any kind of a constitutional change here. This was to be expected.

    2. Alex Buchan says:

      I didn’t see anything to smile about when the Edinburgh agreement was signed. If people on Bella Caledonia and others in the SNP had been less gung ho and more sober in their assessment of what had just taken place I might have been more reconciled to thinking that whatever way the referendum went everyone was clear enough to know how to proceed in the event of a no vote. But the total lack of interest in trying to see what Cameron and the British political elite were up to was striking, instead there were lots of posts on B C on how an independent Scotland should deal with the issue of sea boundaries etc, etc,. as if the referendum was a foregone conclusion. If you read Irish blogs you get a very different feel; there is more genuine debate, but not adversarial debate where people don’t take on board what the other is saying, but debate where the toing and froing leads to a better grasp of what’s really happening. Scotland has a long way to go to get to that point of greater maturity, perhaps this referendum process will help with that. I believe the British state is planning to use a no vote to close down the devolution debate. The better together campaign already stress this continually; “that we need a decisive decision so as to close down this discussion and move on”. Yes, obviously, I want the yes vote to win but I also want to know what happens if it doesn’t.

      1. Alasdair Frew-Bell says:

        In the event of a Yes, is it known what the British state would do? the system simply assumes we will all come to our senses and vote No. In British politics the golden rule is never think the unthinkable. if it happens don’t panic, just brazen it out. The British in India were busy building the grand imperial city of New Delhi 10 years before they had to quit. There were cocktails and dancing at the vice-regal lodge right until the end. why should we worry!

      2. Alex Buchan says:

        Funnily enough I was thinking that myself. Cameron entered into this convinced he would win, so who’s to say how the British political system will react if the yes vote wins.

  9. Not possible is aways a bad bet in politics. While certainly true that devo max would upset as many apple carts as independence, like independence its offer would most certainly have stirred the governance pot and elicited some version of the current social stupidity which marks the NO campaign.

    On the inclusion of DevoMax on the ballot for 18 Sept, Cameron put a choice to the Scottish government–choose it other the other question. If Scotland’s government chose devo max, the SNP could be excoriated for not keeping its word to hold indyref. If it chose, instead, independence, the likelihood of it implementation was seen to be small and thus Salmond and the SNP would be reduced to irrelevance because they threw away what is generally perceived (incorrectly) to have been the more realistic option of devo max.

    Nothing in the polls suggests Cameron/Tories misjudged the odds. The ‘no’ vote still seems the odds on favorite including by those who would have preferred the devo max option.

    Thus, at this jucture, the FORMAL break-up of Britain remains to be seen but its SUBSTANTIVE break-up is there to be seen by everyone (including Standard Life) with the wit to interpret the real economy.

    What requires discussion, therefore, is this substantive break-up and what it implies how to govern Scotland.

    One way to capture this substantive break-up is to consider Thatcher’s very first government bill –this one rarely discussed by deeply important. Her first governing act was to abolish capital controls entirely.

    The abolition of all controls allowed huge amounts of capital to flow in and out with much greater freedom than before. Thatcher, of course, had absolutely no idea what this could imply for the real economy , should her wish list of privatization/ deregulation and impoverishment of what she regarded as the idle poor. And so the break-up began–creating a regionalization of stagnation and idleness on this island not seen since the early middle of the 19th century.

    Unfortunately, from a political perspective, the substantive breakup of Britain created feasible governance units which have absolutely no historical resonance. Foe example, arguably it would make more sense for the area, inclusive of Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield and thence north through to the central belt to have a separate state, including currency. Once stated, it seems absurd and yet, Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel, North and South, has a much resonance today viz the social, economic and cultural distance between London and Manchester, as it did when published.

    Scotland, however, fills the bill for a governance unit with great resonance and suitability having a number of institutions (legal and cultural) which have allowed it to diverge in important ways from the rest of the UK.

    However Scotland’s substantive differences from London and the home counties is obscured (or not sufficietly emphasized) in part because of the influence of the central belt-especially Edinburgh on national thinking.

    The actual economy of the territory that would be affected by indyref, however, is very different to both the English north and the cosmopolitan London/Southeast. The essential differences (and what should be the focus of attention)(1)–much lower population density (the reward for undertaking something that might spook the horses– serious land reform) and thereby opportunities for new kinds of rural enterprise made possible by new technologies. (2) huge hydrocarbon resources (coal as well as oil) whose sustainable use requires more serious science than has thus far made the scene but possible given the very fine engineering schools in Scotland (3) pretty good educational system whose sustainable expansion is hugely threatened by England focussed higher education establishment –a threat too few are fully aware of and one the SNP does not spend enough time discussing.

    The cost of voting no, therefore is a certainty further industrial vanalism and wrecking of education and the NHS is in store. The only hope is a sufficiently strong YES vote to make such predation will find a ready answer.

    1. muttley79 says:

      Cameron never gave the SG the choice between a question on independence and Devo Max. The UK government’s red light was not to have a more powers question.

  10. Alex Buchan says:

    The most important thing is to give up any idea that Scotland could be like Quebec and gradually evolve to a kind of pick and mix union. The UK is not a federal country and never will be because the English by and large want Westminster to continue to be their parliament and Westminster wants to continue to be England’s parliament. Scottish Welsh and Northern Irish aspirations all have to take a back seat. The limits of what’s possible at Westminster are the limits of what’s possible for Scotland and the answer to that is not much more than is in the recent Scotland Bill.

  11. fehvepehs says:

    I was recently at a Labour for independence rally/meeting in Dundee. The case for independence was put forward by John McAllion (ex labour MP for Dundee) and Alex Bell (ex Dundee labour councillor) as well as Unite official and a self employed business woman. These people are strong labour supporters with a committed socialist ideology. They have had the courage to put their head above the parapet and are actively recommending that if you are a labour member / supporter that you have to vote YES as the way to establish a proper socialist country. They are dismayed by the stance of Lamont and cannot equate socialist ideals with the likes of Darling, Balls, Milliband and Douglas Alexander. So what am I saying here? Well that the labour ” top team” are not speaking for the rank and file, and they will find this out when a YES vote is returned on 18th September. Members of the audience are sick of the Jim Murphy’s and Lord Robertson’s of the world and their out of touch comments. We have to keep putting out a positive message about self determination. The ordinary labour supporter has been in dire need of a flag to rally round, but cannot align themselves to the SNP/Alex Salmond bandwagon because of years of animosity. I have a feeling though that Alex would be more than happy step into the background if it guaranteed success in the referendum. I have been a strong supporter of the SNP all my life.

  12. Clootie says:

    They will promise much and deliver little

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