Shark Jumping with Devo Max and the Politics of Amnesia

The New Year has been filled with a sort of non-story propagated by the circle of gatekeeper journalists in top positions as editors and columnists. The story springs from Chris Hanlon, a former SNP policy development convener suggesting that Devo Max should be considered as an option for a future independence referendum.

In a way writing this is pandering to their effort to re-frame and distract, but it’s worth looking at the phenomenon because ‘Devo Max’ (whatever it means) recurs on a loop. It’s the Brigadoon of Scottish politics, emerging out of the mists before disappearing again without explanation.

‘Devo Max’ is normally understood to be ‘full fiscal autonomy’ for Scotland but crucially, and this is important in post-Brexit ‘Global Britain’, Britain to retain control of foreign policy, but beyond that, it’s all a bit vague. This latest bout of Devo Max has (at least) two things going against it.

First it has emerged out of the ether. No party has been elected standing on a Devo Max platform, in fact the party currently (sort of not really) advocating it has one (that’s 1) single MP in Scotland. Yet the number of MSPs elected on manifestos supporting a referendum on independence is 72.  No doubt some hoarey old version of Devo Max will emerge from the next version of Gordon Brown’s endless stream of ‘Fantastical Constitutional Reforms that Never Happen.’ It’s telling that on the one hand we have pro-independence parties elected in historic quantities and on the other we have the tired paternalistic scribblings of a retired politician.

Secondly, did you watch Sir Keir Starmer’s speech? Wrapped up in a Union Jack he appeared to give absolutely no interest in Scotland mentioning only:

“I believe in our union of nations. I believe we are better together than any of us would be apart. I believe that each nation can speak with a progressive voice. But we need a new and durable constitutional settlement. Which is why I am delighted that Gordon Brown ’s Commission on the Future of the UK will chart a new course for our union of nations.”

As James Doleman points out: “If Labour nationally have, for all practical purposes, given up north of the Border, and will now be presenting themselves as a patriotic party who can get Brexit to work, that has serious consequences for Unionism in Scotland. Napoleon said “Paris is worth a mass”. Starmer appears to have concluded that Downing Street is worth Scotland.”

How did Starmer identify his newly defined notion of a this great Britain? He used England as the model for Britain.

Why is Devo Max so important to the commentariat?

Well it’s important because actually addressing the reality of Johnson’s kleptocracy, or the issues of sovereignty and the British state are deeply uncomfortable for them. It also makes Labour and the fantastical notions of constitutional change seem relevant again and distracts from the everyday problems of British misrule and our long-term strategic future. Secondly it attempts to re-position people advocating self-determination as an extreme. Kenny Farquharson here writes: “Footnote to devo max discussion: diehards still diehard, to nobody’s surprise. But not every current supporter of indy is a diehard. Plenty who will instead choose a more powerful and autonomous Holyrood as positive step for Scotland without the risks of a full break-up.”

This is the politics and the media of amnesia.

The promises, the Vow that never happened, the instant Cameron repositioning immediately after the referendum, the ongoing Brexit debacle … all of it just drifts away into the Memory Hole as if promises of change were held, and everyone still has trust in process.

None of the rather frantic over-excited dribbling’s about Devo Max take account of what’s actually going on, the historic failure of Britain on a world stage, the catastrophic handling of the pandemic, the elite failure being witnessed daily, the post-Brexit power grab. Instead the belief is in … a review by Gordon Brown.

It’s an almost quaint belief in a bygone era in which the awkward constitutional binary would just be magicked away and the Natural Order would be restored. Not only does it fail to witness the actual state we’re in, nor does it explore at all the contradictions and limitations of Devo Max, it also fails to recognise the actual state of the Scottish Labour party, all of this is forgotten.

The key mistake here is to assume that there are large sections of the Scottish electorate who still believe Britain is a reform-able entity, that people still ‘believe’ in Britain. I just don’t think that’s true any more.

There’s every indication that Starmer is re-branding Labour as a patriotic alternative to the Conservatives, it’s Cool Britannia without the Spice Girls, a Blair re-tread wrapped in the Union Jack. This is all very predictable but at a moment of seismic economic, social and ecological crisis we have two British parties trying to out-do each other with displays of British nationalism.

Like ‘Devo Max’ neither of these options is remotely adequate to the extraordinary threats we face. We deserve better, not just from our politicians but from our media too.

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Comments (48)

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  1. Jeel says:

    It’s Devo-Brexshit*

  2. Cathie Lloyd says:

    I’m intrigued as to where this idea has come from at this time. And the lack of clarity in the opposing comments. No permanent settlement within the U.K. is possible given that Parliament can’t be bound by previous decisions. That’s fundamental to the Alice in Wonderland constitution. Based on 18th century pre democratic ideas of gentleman’s agreement. Although it’s a significant factor, the issue of good faith doesn’t really enter in to it. More like magical thinking. Only full independence will do.

  3. Robbie says:

    They can shove Devi Max to where the sun don’t shine ,Independence is what Scotland needs and Wants. Gordon Brown is doing all he can to keep the union , hoping to get His Knighthood “ dream on man” never happen.

    1. Paul Tritschler says:

      Why do people always say “shove it where the sun don’t shine”…do they mean Glasgow?

    2. Mons Meg says:

      If ‘Independence is what Scotland needs and Wants’, why bother having a democratic process to determine what Scotland wants in the first place? Don’t confuse what ‘Scotland’ wants with what you want, Robbie; let Scotland decide what it wants.

  4. David B says:

    If a three-option paper was the necessary compromise to get Labour, the STUC and Lib Dems on board, what harm would that do? If ‘Devo Max’ is that unpopular, people are free not to vote for it. Surely having more choice is good for democracy.

    The thorny issue would be how to count the votes: FPTP (hopefully not), Supplementary Vote (bad for elections to multi member assemblies but used successfully for Mayoral elections), or 2 separate papers (like the NZ flag referendum). The problem with the latter is you can change the result based on the order in which you ask the questions.

    1. In principle no problem David, but I’m not convinced its something that is being put forward in good faith, and I’m not sure what it does, and doesn’t involve, in fact nobody knows. So effectively we’re being told “Why not have this thing that you were promised before on the ballot? This thing we can’t describe?”

      Sound good?

      1. David B says:

        All fair points, Mike. The option would need to be clearly defined and binding, with timescale. And your scepticism is completely reasonable given the previous failure to honour ‘The Vow’.

        Ideally the power to define ‘Devo Max’ would have to be placed in the hands of ordinary people, not SPADs and ex-politicians e.g. through Citizens Assemblies – as indeed would the power to define Independence.

        1. Mons Meg says:

          I think I’d rather they were defined by their respective advocates during the period of examination and cross-examination conducted in an open court prior to judgement by the entire electorate.

          But maybe a citizens’ assembly could determine the matter of the referendum and the form it took; analogous to the 2009 and 2010 National Assemblies that Icelandic citizens convened to decide the core values on which their constitutional change should proceed.

          Anyhoo: it would be good to begin the remaking of ‘Scotland’ as we meant that Scotland to go on; i.e. with a much greater degree of direct democracy. Not that it will ever happen, alas!

          (BTW Wouldn’t it be a hoot if we just had a bog-standard straight vote between the three options mentioned – Devo Max, Independence, or the Status Quo – and each of those options polled around 33% of the vote?)

          1. David B says:

            I think the potential for a 3-way split is why we’d need to look carefully at the voting system. I’d suggest the Supplementary Vote system used in London mayoral elections, where each voter can put a 1st and 2nd preference. And before anyone says that was rejected in the AV referendum, it was rejected specifically for elections to Parliament. It makes sense for referendums and directly elected mayors, where we are all effectively one constituency.

          2. Mons Meg says:

            Yep, we’d need a vote in which each member of the electorate could rank their preferences. The auld FPTP system only works in a two-horse race. Another reason, perhaps, why the Independence camp would like to keep the choice divisively dichotomous (Yes/No)? A third runner would f*ck up the race.

    2. Simon Taylor says:

      Why stop there ?
      What about Devo Mini ? Or super-duper status quo ? Or min Indy?
      The electorate made their point in May. Both in seats and % vote Independence parties outpolled Unionists. That is a mandate. We don’t need Labour or the Libdems for approval. There is absolutely nothing stopping a consultative referendum and
      the 3rd option is a sign that Unionists know they could lose a binary vote.
      In any transactional negotiations it is always best to start from a position of strength. A vote for Independence is that position. Subsequent negotiations THEN determine the nature of Independence and our relationship with rUK

      1. David B says:

        Simon – yes it’s true that there is an electoral mandate for a binary referendum. But the problem with your ‘transactional negotiation’ model is that, with a 50.1% Indy victory, Scotland would be negotiating both with half of itself and with rUK. We saw how this worked out with Brexit. I think we need to look beyond just majorities and towards a broad acceptance of the decision making process. Adding a third option seems a fairly small concession to make if it helps achieve this.

        1. Simon Taylor says:

          Agreed but your starting point cannot be a compromise. You don’t go into a car showroom and pay the price sitting atop the bonnet. Everyone’s idea of Devomax is different. Independence is clear and pure as a political ideal. A third option is a cop out and a way of diluting the demand for more substantially enhanced powers whatever they may be Btw I have a 40 year old Leyland Maestro . Yours for £25000 !

          1. David B says:

            Why does it have to be so adversarial? Selling your old Leyland is a zero sum game – the happier you are, the less happy I am. I’d see the Indy debate as more like a family deciding whether to move house, and if so where to go. Limiting it to a simple yes/no option then putting it to a show of hands in that case wouldn’t be good decision making.

            Devo Max would have to be clearly defined prior to the referendum – as would independence so far as possible.

            How many miles on that Maestro by the way? 🙂

          2. David B says:

            Anyway, maybe you’re right. As Mike’s said if it’s such a good idea why did no one put it in their last manifesto? I just have a feeling that by end of 2023 half of Scotland is going to be furious with the other half and we won’t be much closer to building a better country, so anything that looks like compromise or consensus is interesting to me.

          3. SleepingDog says:

            @Simon Taylor, “You don’t go into a car showroom and pay the price sitting atop the bonnet.” Well, not if you are Prince Andrew, anyway.

          4. Mons Meg says:

            ‘I just have a feeling…’

            At the risk of sounding racist, maybe that’s just the way we are: stereotypically ‘Rangers and Celtic’, ‘Scots and English’, ‘Independentistas and Yoons’, ‘Angels and Demons’. Maybe, as a nation, we’re not yet mature or democratic enough to engage in constructive debate with those outside of our own respective tribes.

            Dare we hope that, out of all this self-destructive fury with ourselves, we might give birth to a dancing star?

    3. Mons Meg says:

      It might be good for democracy, but it might also – horror of horrors – split the ‘Independence’ vote. At the moment, Independence (whatever that means) is in the happy position of being the only alternative to the status quo that’s on the table. Take it or leave it! Maybe that’s what Mike means when he says he suspects its not being put forward ‘in good faith’.

      1. David B says:

        Meg – I think what’s left of the Lib Dems would support DM in good faith. Labour would be conflicted as ideals of Home Rule would run up against the principle of needs-based tax transfers across the UK. The Tories would see it as a necessary evil to save being the government that broke the union, and the term ‘bad faith’ could certainly apply.

        1. Mons Meg says:

          Yes, how do nationalists feel about redistributive tax transfers across borders? How would that work in relation to the EU, which union the nationalists are currently promising we’ll rejoin. Maybe we should secure home rule first and work all that detail out after the event…

      2. Well no, as I mentioned this idea just rises out of the ether. If a party wants this so badly they could run on a ticket supporting it (and explain exactly what they mean by it).

        Alternatively if the Tories or Labour really believe this is a good idea they could just make it happen, which they won’t.

        1. Mons Meg says:

          Well, they could. But I’d still like to see a mandatory referendum to ratify any such change the government chose to make. For the sake of democracy, it really should be the electorate that has the final say in such constitutional changes. Australia, Ireland, Switzerland, Denmark, and 49 of the 50 U.S. states require such referendums.

  5. Edward Andrews says:

    It was not Napoleon who said the Parish is Worth a Mass, but Henry of Navarre who became Henry IV of France on his abandonment of Protestantism to become the Catholic King of France in 1593.
    I wonder if in the circumstances the quotation let alone the misattribution are aprpriate.

    1. Alec Lomax says:

      After he escaped the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre.

  6. Dennis Smith says:

    Pedantic nit-picking, but surely was Henry IV who said “Paris is worth a mass”. This doesn’t inspire confidence in James Doleman as a political analyst.

    1. Craig P says:

      Just think, had James VII considered England to be worth a manse, the Stuarts might be on the throne to this day.

    2. Alec Lomax says:

      Doleman may have had the same history teacher as Michael Gove?

  7. Malcolm Kerr says:

    A big problem with devomax is that it is an ill-defined concept, and it is hard to see any merit in it appearing on a ballot paper if we don’t know what is being proposed. To be fair to Chris Hanlon, he’s not an approved SNP mouthpiece, and he hasn’t said Devomax was his preferred option. The way in which committed democrats are shutting down the debate is distressing, however. Have we got to a point where we simply are not allowed to discuss strategy? Have we been forced into a position where we have to regard a (binary) referendum as the only possible route to independence? And what does it say about our confidence in the independence case (and our energy promoting it) if we imagine independence couldn’t see off devomax in a three-way STV referendum? How likely is it we will be permitted a referendum anyway?

    1. Hi Malcolm – I’m not shutting down debate – I’m simply opening up some of the contradictions and historical problems with Devo Max which traditionally has been used as a wrecking ball rather than in good faith.

      However you are right, in the event of a three way option its possible (even probable) that the indy option might win out, just as in the devolution referendum – the option of a parliament with tax raising powers was the winner. This is because while DM might split the indy vote it would also split the Unionist vote.

      1. Malcolm Kerr says:

        Mike. Apologies if you felt I was accusing you of shutting down debate. Far from it – BC is one of the few forums available. The SNP has no equivalent space, and the Party holds its members view in disdain anyway. The SNP line, now being vigorously defended by the payroll on social media, is that there is only one way to independence – a binary referendum. Everything must be the same as in 2014. All that will ensure is we get the same result. The debate is of inestimable value – in itself. In the Party, in all other parts of the Indy movement, across Scottish society. When did we agree the FM got to make all the decisions?

  8. Owen Fraser says:

    … as yet this rehash has yet to define ‘devomax’ i.e. what powers will be reserved.

  9. Willie Lawrie says:

    The way I see it is any political compromise short of full independence would hang on the question
    “Could Scotland get rid of Trident and any other nuclear weapons based in Scotland”?

  10. Mons Meg says:

    Yep, ‘Devo Max’ is just as fuzzy as ‘Independence’. Its details would need to be firmed up before it was put to a vote.

    1. Mons Meg says:

      Ever since Alex Salmond wanted Devo Max included as an option in the 2014 referendum, and David Cameron knocked it back, I’ve always thought of it as being a bit like the principle of Home Rule, which was Labour’s preferred option back in the days of Keir Hardie.
      I’ve just been informed that US law defines Home Rule as ‘The right to local self-government including the powers to regulate for the protection of the public health, safety, morals, and welfare; to license; to tax; and to incur debt… Home rule involves the authority of a local government to prevent state government intervention with its operation .

      Basically, home rule (devo max?) is independence from central government in the operation of one’s domestic affairs; internal autonomy; the sort of relationship that exists between the Faroe Islands or Greenland and Demark.

      Apparently, the concept has become popular with libertarians, survivalists, and others who would like to divorce local government from as much state and federal regulation as possible.Surely, it would also be worth consideration by the Scottish electorate as a ‘third option’ to the dichotomous choice between the status quo and ‘Independence’. Like David says, if it doesn’t like it, it could always reject it at the polls in favour of either of the remaining two options.

      But, ach…! I was forgetting: giving the electorate this third option might split the Independence vote, and we must avoid that at whatever cost.

  11. Paddy Farrington says:

    The fact that Devo Max is still so nebulous a concept after so many years suggests that this very nebulousness is the whole point of Devo Max. Provided it stays in the public imagination as a woolly, ill-defined notion, it can serve its key purpose: to undermine the case for independence, by maintaining the illusion that a third way between the status quo of devolution and Scottish independence is possible without a complete overhaul of the UK. It is noteworthy that the proposed constitutional guarantees in the Devo-Min-Max proposals published in the National are impossible to achieve within the current set up.

    Should we take Devo Max seriously? On the one hand, we should not underestimate the attractions of such ill-defined notions: like Johnson’s Brexit, Devo Max is have your cake and eat it populism. On the other, the experience of The Vow and Brexit may well have inoculated Scotland’s electorate – though evidently not its commentariat – against such magical thinking.

    1. Mons Meg says:

      That a concept is nebulous isn’t necessarily a problem; it can always be firmed up in the process of debate. I presume there will be such a debate in the run-up to any future referendum, in which nebulous concepts like Devo Max and Independence can be more clearly defined.

      1. Paddy Farrington says:

        No. Keeping Devo Max nebulous is key to its success, as its primary political purpose is to stymie independence. That’s why no serious attempt has ever been made to define it, unlike independence. Define Devo Max and you kill it. All the more reason, therefore, to demand that it be defined.

        1. Mons Meg says:

          Indeed, that’s exactly why, in the two-year debate prior to the vote in the 2014 referendum, I persisted in my demand for ‘Independence’ to be defined.

          The fact that a concept is nebulous is no good reason to deny the electorate the opportunity to pass judgement on it in a referendum. And, from the point of view of democracy, to deny the electorate the opportunity to vote for it as an option in order to give your own favoured option an electoral advantage is a very bad reason. From the point of view of democracy, it’s better that advocates for all possible options are free to make the case for their preference in public debate and to let the electorate decide between them. THAT would be national self-determination – ‘independence’ – in a democratic sense.

          1. Paddy Farrington says:

            There’s no problem about “defining” independence. It’s the state affairs in which the Scottish people can decide their future. That decision may well involve sharing sovereignty with other bodies, whether the EU or rUK, or not, but that will remain the decision of the Scottish people through a democratic process. Some choices may well turn out to be unpalatable: but that does not affect the key point, which is that it will be up to the Scottish people to make them. Clearly, achieving independence will require a transition, and there are different ways in which that might occur, and over different time scales. But that’s a very different matter from “defining” independence per se.

            Defining Devo Max, on the other hand, requires specifying what the Scottish people will not be able to decide for themselves, while accepting that what they can decide, can only be decided on Westminster’s say-so. That’s what makes it such an unattractive option that all parties advocating it have shied away from honestly engaging with it. The Vow was a case in point: kept nebulous until the vote, then rowed back on in negotiations. And subsequently shown to be as toothless as the Sewell convention.

            The only way that Devo Max could escape these internal contradictions would be if the entire UK system was replaced by a written constitution setting out clearly the remits of the national and the (new) federal parliaments, along with an independent mechanism of adjudication. This would be truly revolutionary, and would in fact be a far more extreme change to the status quo for most of the UK than Scottish independence, which would leave rUK constitutional arrangements largely as they are. It is also guaranteed to find no favour with the English electorate and the main parties in England, which would thereby find their powers curtailed.

            Which is why Devo Max will remain a nebulous have-your-cake-and-eat-it fantasy. I fully expect Gordon Brown’s next iteration on the theme to provide another compelling demonstration of this reality.

          2. Mons Meg says:

            ‘It’s the state affairs in which the Scottish people can decide their future.’

            But that’s no less vague than ‘independence from central government in the operation of one’s domestic affairs; internal autonomy; the sort of relationship that exists between the Faroe Islands or Greenland and Denmark’ is as a definition of Devo Max (or Home Rule).

            I still see why the nebulosity of a proposal would justify not allowing the Scottish electorate from interrogating it as an option in a referendum. I still don’t see why such a restriction should be placed on the Scottish people in the self-determination of their future. Restricting the independence of the Scottish people in this way is hardly a good start to remaking Scotland as an independent nation.

  12. SleepingDog says:

    What is not nebulous is that anything short of Independence can be clawed back (including Devo Max and Devo Status Quo) by any government which secures a majority on voting days in any Westminster Parliament.

    1. Mons Meg says:

      That would indeed be a reason to vote for Independence. But that’s not the issue that Mike raises in his article. The issue is whether the electorate should be allowed or denied the ‘third option’ of voting for Devo Max.

  13. Michele Gunn says:

    Nice analysis, Mike, but one detail jars! Napoleon did NOT say “Paris is worth a mass” or – “Paris vaut bien une messe” to be precise and pedantic. It was Henri IV, a Huguenot, who said it. He chose to embrace Catholicism to re-unite France and end 30 years of religious blood letting (on both sides.) Starmer’s mess of compromise is just that – a mess.

  14. Jack Collatin says:

    Ironically, it is 100 years ago this June since Ireland was plunged in to Civil War, over the Anglo Irish Agreement concluded by Devalera and the Brits in London.
    Independence, like pregnancy, does not have gradients. As you cannot be a ‘little bit’ pregnant, you are either independent, or a vanquished militarily occupied colony of a foreign power.
    The ‘|Irish Free State’ was nothing of the sort. It was England’s ‘Devo Max’ con which led to the usual Brit Empire End Game; let the natives slaughter each other, and weaken their status as an emerging rival nation to England.
    Partition; Eire and the Six Counties. Palestine, Cyprus, India Pakistan….the Brit Empire ensured that havoc would spread among the former colonial slaves when they upped sticks and headed back to England.

    Devo Max is the precursor to a Scottish Free State proposal.
    Well, we are having none of it.
    We are taking our country back. We are dissolving the Union.
    The obliging Brit Uncle Tams/Winston Smiths who still peddle this fluff and nonsense do it for money…
    There is no Memory Hole on the ethernet.
    Scot will not turn on Scot. By the ballot box, this time, we shall prevail.

    1. Mons Meg says:

      ‘Scot will not turn on Scot.’

      S/he will if the bitter divisiveness and tribalism that the last referendum both brought out and entrenched is anything to go by. The whole sorry episode was hardly our finest moment as a nation. Nats and Yoons… It was ‘Scots-and-Irish’, ‘Huns and Paips’, all over again.

    2. Alec Lomax says:

      Dev opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty, after he sent Griffiths, Collins and co over to negotiate with the UK government (with plenipotentiary status). Dev stayed behind in Dublin.

      1. Jack Collatin says:

        Devalera Max; it was neither Irish, Free, nor a State.
        I am aware of the history, Alec.
        The English Empire has form.
        The notion that we even give ‘Devo Max’ oxygen is ludicrous.

        All or nothing.
        Where ‘nothing’ is not an option.

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