Are We Not Men? No We are Devo Max

The past week has seen a steady stream of ink spilt by a tight coterie of Scottish journos promoting the idea of Devo Max and a new constitutional settlement. The exercise was more than worthy of the absurdist New Wave punk band whose classic 1978 album sadly didn’t reference Scottish referendum options, though a case has been made for the A side tracks “Uncontrollable Urge” the epic cover “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and “Jocko Homo”.

As a nation awaits Gordon Brown with his Tablets of Stone like a post-Brexit Moses descending this time from North Queensferry not Mount Sinai, with his Book of Don’t Exodus, the press hounds have been put into active-mode to set the mood for the great event.


Caroline Wheeler and Jason Allardyce splashed at the Sunday Times (“Labour may allow pro-independence candidates to stand in Scotland“) with the strange notion that: “Labour could allow its parliamentary candidates to support Scottish independence under radical options being discussed by senior party figures as it plots a path back to power.”

“A source close to leader Sir Keir Starmer suggested it could help Labour regain votes lost to the SNP as part of a wide range of measures that will also see the party embrace “devo-max”.

This wildly incoherent strategy has been widely heralded by a pliant media for who Devo Max and Gordon Brown are a sort of salve and balm to their confusion. Why would you vote for a candidate whose party diametrically opposed their own position? Could this approach be widened to other policy fields? Socialist Tories? Unionist Nationalists? Royalist Republicans? Authoritarian Liberals? It’s so absurd but has been celebrated and un-challenged by the docile press.

Next up Alexander Brown, Scotland on Sunday’s Westminster Correspondent popped up with a front-page ‘Exclusive’ ‘Starmer: ‘status quo’ approach to Scotland cannot be defended.’

The strangely empty piece explained: “The Labour leader has asked the Prime Minister Gordon Brown to head up a Commission on the Future of the UK, which will look at where power ought to reside. Speaking exclusively with Scotland on Sunday, Sir Keir was asked about devo-max, which would see full fiscal autonomy for Scotland.”

Sir Keir said: “I will wait for Gordon to finish his piece of work to answer your question in full because obviously there are huge issues bound up with any question of fiscal devolution.”

“The general principle works, we can’t defend the status quo.”

“I believe in the union [er, that’s the status quo – Ed] and I think we need to make a stronger case for the union and I think we have been making a stronger case for the union.”

“Until Gordon finishes his piece of work I am not saying anything about it one way or another.”

So that’s the exclusive; Labour will commit to Devo Max; Gordon’s working on  a new Commission; we are committed to the Union, er, that’s it.

Next up came Iain Macwhirter at the Herald fulminating: “Hardly surprising that D*vo M*x has crept back onto the SNP agenda. After five years in which the leadership has contributed precisely nothing, thinking nationalists are looking to a third way.” The “thinking nationalists” turn out to be Kenny MacAskill, Professor Jim Mitchell, and the ex-Labour MEP David Martin. Macwhirter denounced anyone who questions this entire phenomenon as “guardians of nationalist purity”.

Masterly Inactivity

Soon after comes Alex Massie both in the Sunday Times and on Substack. As always committed to the idea of British benevolence and Scottish poverty Massie writes: “Scotland’s future may principally be a matter for the people of Scotland but the future of the UK is one not so easily reserved to those living north of the border. Others have an interest in it too. It is not so simple as saying Scotland must always get what Scotland wants. At the very least, Scotland must expect a price to be attached to its desires and there are no grounds for expecting anyone else to settle these matters at a discount. So long Barnett formula, it was lovely enjoying your largesse but colder times lie ahead.”

Massie concludes – as is always his endgame analysis – that the best thing to do is nothing at all: “Talking about the constitution revives the national question at a time it might otherwise lie moribund. From a unionist perspective the wisest course of action is to say and do as little as possible. A policy of masterly inactivity takes a certain courage but when the alternative is even worse, doing nothing is preferable to doing something silly.”


Over at Substack Massie flourishes without an editor languishing in his highly polished incoherence:

“It is not, I think, a surprise that the cults of Wallace and Bruce flowered in the second half of the nineteenth century just as, for in many ways for the first time, Westminster’s grasp reached beyond the border. The key idea, however, was that there need be no contradiction between Scotchness and Britishness; indeed the latter might be soil in which the former could flower.”

Next Massie turns to one of his favourite tropes, that there is no difference between Scotland and England. He writes: “Britain’s leathery old hands still grip more firmly than you might expect. And look, this is important too: Scotland and England have never been more alike than they are now. We do not see Britain in Scotland now because it is, in at least some important respects, the common water in which we swim.”

Displaying a wonderful state of ignorance and belying his own social and cultural class and sub-culture Massie remains in a sort of state of grace profoundly ignorant of the worlds he inhabits and projects onto others:

” … we should appreciate our ironies: it is precisely because they are so British that so many Scots wish to shed themselves of their Britishness and it is precisely because they are so Scottish that Unionists feel unthreatened by any over-arching idea of Britain.”

This a classless world with few or no problems that need addressed, with no urgency for change in which nothing really matters.

These writers and their publications seem to be acting in a co-ordinated way to promote some of this garbage, but it’s much more likely to be phone-calls and drinks and excited over-sharing rather than any conspiracy. Much of this – while it seems absurd under (any) examination – makes perfect sense to those journalists who long for a pre 2007 world.

None of this is challenged: “We can’t defend the status quo” while defending the status quo; “Candidates can be pro independence” while there’s no sign that is happening or is remotely feasible; an unelected ex-politician will hand down from on-high the answers to democracy while ignoring the elected representatives of Scotland. In this media landscape none of this is thought to be absurd or even worth questioning.

Help to support independent Scottish journalism by subscribing or donating today.


Comments (30)

Join the Discussion

Your email address will not be published.

  1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    A sense of perspective is required: these are the writings of FIVE people, all within the Edinburgh media bubble.

    There was, indeed, a piece in the National about 10 days ago, by a former SNP (almost) high heid yin suggesting a reconsideration of a third option, vaguely called ‘Devo Max’. In letters and subsequent pieces, supporters of independence, journalists like David Pratt and Ruth Wishart and senior SNP people like Michael Russell have all dismissed the argument. So, there does not appear to be great traction for the issue.

    So, what we have is a small coterie of media unionists mentally masturbating each other and all ejaculating the same piffle.

    All of the tropes of 2014 by Better Together are being re-run. and have been for the past two years.

    Regarding the ‘Devo Max’ article in The National, what could be said in its favour is that by raising an issue that was last aired about 7 years ago by the Bodger and the Daily Record in ‘The Vow’ and by ‘Lord’ Darling and Jackie Bird (“let’s call it ‘Devo Max'” ) in a pre-referendum ‘interview’ it has provided an opportunity to rehearse the arguments and context of its earlier existence.

    There is no doubt that the Bitter (sic) Together arguments are going to be run and run over the next couple of years, partly to distract from the Tory Government’s corruption and Starmer’s vacuity. So, we might as well alert people to them. In seven years, the electorate has changed and several hundred thousand young people have entered the voters’ roll , who were as young as 9 when the referendum was held.

  2. Alex M says:

    Yet again we are told that we Scots are nothing special and must submit to English rule. This does not need to be justified because we are an insignificant minority in Greater England, also known as UK.

  3. Duncan Manson says:

    It seems that the Labourtories and their flunkies in the meeja, are all world class experts in the ancient Unionist craft of Turd polishing. Devo Max is a Turd, no matter how much gloss you apply to it, in the end you are still left with a Turd.

  4. @ Mike says:

    I still think that, from a democratic perspective, Devo Max shouldn’t be excluded as an option in the national deliberation that will precede a decision at the polls, where the case for it could be made by its advocates and the case against it could be made by the advocates of Independence.

    1. Simon Taylor says:

      ” Devomax shouldn’t be excluded as an option … “.
      Why ?
      Devomax is a particular option, one of many , that should be discussed AFTER a vote for Independence. Those who argue against Independence should be able to promote an alternative as part of the No campaign’s offer. Not as an alternative to Yes. The ” vow ” was not on the ballot paper. Because if, as a Unionist , you state that the status quo is unsustainable ( Starmer) it is up to Unionists to offer Scotland change if we don’t vote for Independence ie we vote No. This is a binary question. Don’t treat voters like idiots. If Starmer et al are confident in,and have a serious and viable alternative to, the status quo then it doesn’t need to be included as part of a referendum

      1. @ Simon Taylor says:


        Why not? Why deny those Scots who want neither to chance independence nor to continue with the status quo the option to vote for something more akin to home rule in the remaking of Scotland?

        If ‘Independence: take it or leave it’ is the independentists’ exemplar of democracy or a new Scotland, many might just choose to ‘leave it’.

  5. SleepingDog says:

    I imagine that Gordon Brown has solved international debt, eradicated child poverty and saved the Union somewhere in the multiverse (just as in other lives he will have been a stand-up comedian, international playboy and boar-masked warlord of the Dark Empire of Granbretan). But if the UK quasi-constitution is (as Massie seems to imply) unimprovable… If your engineers tell you that, in spite of pressing demands for improvements, a piece of software can no longer be changed (even maintenance patches will cause dire problems, let alone new features added), that would be a sign of ‘technical debt’ or ‘software entropy’ caused by the cruft of years of building upon increasingly obsolete foundational code. Perhaps many of these technical phrases seem applicable to the UK quasi-constitution, like ‘bloat’, ‘dead code’ and ‘creep’. And maybe the last ‘see also’ link on the Wikipedia page sadly characterizes Gordon Brown, as a ‘vestigial organ’:

    1. John says:

      Love the Michael Moorcock reference….trouble is that it’s too close to the truth

  6. Paddy Farrington says:

    I genuinely look forward to seeing what Gordon Brown comes up with. Surely it can’t be yet another iteration of The Vow within the limits of UK parliamentary sovereignty – which could just be snatched away, or gradually eroded just as the current settlement is in danger of being. As Tom Devine has said, this would just prolong the agony. The alternative would be to bin the current UK system and start again from scratch, with a written constitution at its core. France changes its constitution from time to time, usually in response to a national crisis, but I just don’t see the UK following suit.

  7. Wul says:

    While these comfortably embedded chatteratti idiots spout fort, Scottish people still have zero influence on the essential and urgent matters of: Energy, Foreign Policy, Employment, Defense, Broadcasting, Immigration, Trade and Industry, Unemployment Benefits, The Constitution. (TLDR: All the important stuff)

    Are Scots to live forever impotent, hoping that one day Gordo Broon (who delivered us the Daily Record’s bog-roll “Vow”) will someday emerge from his shed with a Vow-Max 2 (“Honest this yin’s true”)? What a load of utter pish.

    1. Alex M says:

      Scots can delude themselves that Devo Max is a real possibility, but there is no appetite for it in England. English MPs have 85% of the seats in Westminster, so it is obvious to anyone with an open mind that Scotland is irrelevant in their thinking. The VOW was never deliverable, because the English majority had no interest in delivering it. The Smith Commission was watered down for the benefit of a Labour Party with a unionist agenda. I can only assume that Devo Max was raised again to be shot down.

      1. @ Alex M says:

        ‘…there is no appetite for it in England.’

        I don’t know… A few weeks ago, I heard Lisa Nandy make a (good) case for the disempowerment of central government in favour of more local communities like Stoke-on-Trent and Wigan. Andy Burnham, the mayor of Manchester, is also a strong supporter of devolving power and has criticised the London-centric focus of British politics and its detachment from life outside the ‘Westminster Bubble’.

        A nice head of steam might be working up for devolution in England too.

        1. I don’t really think the Mayoralships – which concentrate power in one individual – are comparable with devolution – which creates democracy at a sub-national or regional level. They’re not the same thing. Also, there was no democratic movement for Mayors. You are not comparing like with like.

          1. @ Bella Caledonia Editor says:

            I wasn’t making that comparison. I was just saying that there might be signs (in stuff that, for example, Lisa Nandy and Andy Burnham have recently been saying) of a growing appetite for the disempowerment of central government in favour of more local governance in England too. (Although, of course, folk like Andy Burnham and Lisa Nandy might just be being disingenuous.)

            BTW Devolution as a creation of democracy at a sub-national or regional level could be a good selling point if it’s ever allowed to get to market as an alternative constitutional choice.

          2. Fair dooze – the point stands though that devolution for Scotland came at the end of 100 years or so of a political movement. Lisa Nandy and Andy Burnham don’t equal a political movement. People in England show little or no appetite for either an English parliament or devolved government.

          3. @ Bella Caledonia Editor says:

            I might have read too much into the example of the warm reception Lisa’s remarks received from the locals in Stoke-on-Trent. And she didn’t actually use the word ‘devolution’; she was calling for the removal of decision-making (in the context of local regeneration) from the centre to the locale. Again, she didn’t actually use the word, but I read her as appealing the principle of ‘subsidiarity’ in calling for this. She may have been being disingenuous (the utterances of those seeking power must always be treated with scepticism), but she was certainly telling the Potters she was addressing what they wanted to hear.

        2. Hugh McShane says:

          But we’ll have to wait,again, till the English electorate in its occasional, infrequent, revulsion @Tories episodes, decides it really wants decentralisation? Both Nancy & The King o’ the North are no friends of an independent Scotland…

          1. @ Hugh McShane says:

            No, we won’t, Hugh. We could (if we’re allowed) vote for it, ourselves, in the next referendum on Scotland’s constitution, as an alternative to the Hobson’s choice of ‘Independence: take it or leave it.’

  8. JP58 says:

    With regard to Alex Massie he is technically wrong as an independent Scotland would be leaving United Kingdom but would still be part of British Isles. We could still be Scottish & British as a Swede is Swedish & Scandinavian.
    For Scotland living next to England is like sleeping beside an elephant. Independence only gives us more freedom and control. With attitudes at Westminster we would need backing of EU to help us deal Westminster arrogance as they have supported Ireland in dealing with Brexit fallout.
    I suspect EU would welcome us warmly as an additional member and break up of UK. They would see this as a victory for EU and further discourage any other countries wishing to leave.

  9. gavinochiltree says:

    What is Devo Max?
    Where is it?
    Who is advocating it?
    The Labour government of Wales has instigated a wide ranging, multi-party Constitutional Commission to look to the possible futures for Wales.
    The Labour party in Scotland has nothing to offer but platitudes and waffle.
    Gordon Brown is an empty tin can.
    The print and broadcast media in Scotland may be a pale shadow of their former years, but even so, they are a disgrace to their profession.

    1. Stephen Cowley says:

      Surely as a constitutional position, there is no such thing as “Devo-max”. Sovereignty cannot be divided and so either lies with the Crown in Westminster or with the Scottish people.
      The current situation from a Unionist viewpoint is that it lies with Westminster, who elected to devolve some powers to Scotland in 1999.
      The Nationalist position is that it lies with the Scottish people, who opted not to exercise it it in 2014.
      So “Devo-max” is basically unionism, with additional powers to be devolved, offered by people in no position to fulfil the offer (“the Vow”).

      1. @ Stephen Cowley says:

        This – that ‘Devo Max’ is a trojan horse for the status quo – is a point you could argue as part of the deliberation prior to any future vote on Scotland’s constitution (on whether it should be reconstituted as an independent nation-state, or reconstituted as a more or less autonomous nation-state within a union of more or less autonomous nation-states, or remain constituted as it recently is. as it is now). But it’s not an argument for denying the sovereign electorate the opportunity to democratically debate, shape, and possibly then opt for something like the second of those constitutional positions.

        1. @ Stephen Cowley says:

          ‘…or remain constituted as it presently is.’

      2. @ Stephen Cowley says:

        This – that ‘Devo Max’ is a trojan horse for the status quo – is a point you could argue as part of the deliberation prior to any future vote on Scotland’s constitution (on whether it should be reconstituted as an independent nation-state, or reconstituted as a more or less autonomous nation-state within a union of more or less autonomous nation-states, or remain constituted as it recently is. as it is now). But it’s not an argument for denying the sovereign electorate prior to that deliberation the opportunity to democratically debate, shape, and possibly then opt for something like the second of those constitutional positions.

  10. Niemand says:

    Devo’s ‘I Can’t Get No Satisfaction’ is better than the original. Not sure what this says about Devo Max though maybe their idea of de-evolution is relevant?

  11. Roland says:

    It is however true that Labour in Scotland has no future until they drop the unionist position.

    1. Niemand says:

      Do you think they’d have a real future if they did? I say that as someone who would really wants it to be true.

  12. Hugh McShane says:

    Very good piece-interesting that the assumption is no co-ordination? this guff appeared in the various Herald-Yoon brigades pieces, couched in their own styles-Leask,Smith,Mckay,et al. Correct analysis of Massie-who is particularly annoying -his prose often reeks of ersatz languid Scots-Etonian-(never could stand products of Embra privates!)

    1. Thanks Hugh. I’m sure they are co-ordinated because they are all old pals, what I meant was that it would be co-ordinated informally through chats and drinks and Old Boys networks etc

  13. Craig MSL says:

    Let’s remember Devo Max was coined by the SNP & like “once in a generation” it will be unfurled whenever Unionists find themselves in need of a diversion.
    Salmond waved it at NO in an attempt to provide an indyref hedge bet but it was ignored until the hint of a late YES tsunami provoked the VOW.

Help keep our journalism independent

We don’t take any advertising, we don’t hide behind a pay wall and we don’t keep harassing you for crowd-funding. We’re entirely dependent on our readers to support us.

Subscribe to regular bella in your inbox

Don’t miss a single article. Enter your email address on our subscribe page by clicking the button below. It is completely free and you can easily unsubscribe at any time.