Unionists miscalculate in blocking devo-max

Michael Haggett looks back at a week when the Westminster and Scottish governments went head to head over the independence referendum

After David Cameron’s rather combative statements on the Andrew Marr programme last Sunday, I made sure that I was watching Michael Moore’s statement in the Commons on how the UK Government saw the referendum on independence for Scotland. It was notably much more woolly and much less definitive than I was expecting. In essence, all that’s happened is that they are launching a public consultation asking people for their opinions on what they should do. That document is available here.

There are many detailed points in it that could and no doubt will be discussed. I disagree with the contention that the Scottish Government cannot legally call a referendum, but acknowledge — as do the SNP themselves — that any referendum it could call under the Scotland Act would have to be phrased very carefully. The proposed wording in their 2010 paper was to ask whether:

“The [Scottish] Parliament’s powers should be extended to enable independence to be achieved.”

So if the UK Government now wants to make it easier for the Scottish Parliament to ask a more straightforward question, I don’t see why anyone should object to it. In purely pragmatic terms it lessens the chance of any legal dispute, and therefore means that the debate can concentrate on political arguments rather than procedural ones. But that said, there is every reason to object to the ‘strings’ that the UK government seem to want to add to it.

In a sense, this is all a storm in a teacup. The Scottish government will continue to believe that they have the right to call a referendum, the Westminster government will continue to believe that only they can grant permission for it, and they can both go on believing what they do provided that the referendum goes ahead. Is Westminster going to quibble about the date? No. There’ll be a few mutterings about them wanting it earlier but they’ll let it stand at Autumn 2014. Is anyone going to worry about the wording of the question? No. It would have to be agreeable to both sides anyway, and those who are against independence in Holyrood aren’t going to have a different opinion from those who are against independence in Westminster. The only real question is over who will be eligible to vote.

But the one thing that now appears not to be in doubt is that there won’t be an option for devo-max on the ballot paper. Of course, devo-max is not something that the SNP wants or is going to fight for. Their position has consistently been that they would consider including it as an option if there was broad public support for it, if it could be precisely defined, and if it was deliverable.

Whether Scotland becomes independent or not is a decision for Scotland alone irrespective of what the rest of the UK thinks. However, if Scotland was going to have a new constitutional settlement while remaining a part of the UK, this would need to be agreed with the rest of the UK. In practical terms, this means that the UK Parliament had to decide what it was and agree to implement it if that is what the Scots voted for.

The answer to the first of those three ‘ifs’ is clear. In round numbers, the opinion polls tend to show that 30 per cent support independence, 35 per cent support devo-max (or at least much more devolution than is currently included in the Scotland Bill) and maybe 25 per cent don’t want any more than is included in the current Scotland Bill. So there is clearly broad public support for devo-max or devo-plus. But the answer to the second ‘if’ is that none of the three unionist parties is prepared to define it, let alone work together to deliver the third ‘if’, namely a firm proposal that would win majority support in Westminster.

It is for these reasons that a question on devo-max is not going to be included on the ballot paper. Not because Westminster refuses to allow Holyrood the right to ask the question in a referendum, but because the three unionist parties together are unwilling to let the people of Scotland have it.

It goes without saying that they have reached this position because of the political calculations that have been made behind the scenes. But I have to question how sensible those decisions are. If we take them at their word, the primary concern of the three unionist parties should surely be to keep the United Kingdom together. So why would they refuse to countenance giving people in Scotland the greater degree of devolution they clearly want if it would keep Scotland within the UK? I think there are probably two answers.

First, that they are more concerned about denying the SNP any sort of ‘victory’. True, devo-max is not the sort of victory that the SNP want. But to use a sporting analogy it would be the equivalent of getting a draw and therefore keeps them in the contest in the hope of getting the victory they want in a later replay. It appears that scoring party political points over the SNP is more important than working out a sustainable model for the future of the UK.

But second, they probably wouldn’t do this if they took the possibility of Scottish independence seriously. For if they saw the continued existence of the UK as being under threat they would surely take whatever steps are necessary to hold it together. This is the big ‘blind spot’ for most unionists. They see the 30 per cent/35 per cent/25 per cent split in public opinion in Scotland and read it as 30 per cent wanting independence, but 60 per cent being happy to remain part of the UK. I, other nationalists, and maybe only a handful of unionists read it as 25 per cent being happy with the UK as it stands but 65 per cent who want something better.

If people are offered a three way choice between the status quo, taking one big step to independence or taking the intermediate step of full fiscal autonomy in a federal UK, there is bound to be a significant number who will take the first step and then decide if they want to take the second step later. But if that third option is taken off the table, the 35 per cent or so who wanted to take it one step at a time will be faced with a stark choice: either to stay in a UK that refuses to allow them the degree of autonomy they want, or to take full responsibility for their own future by becoming an independent country.

I’ve no doubt that some of them will decide to put up with continuing to be part of a UK in which they are drip-fed more devolution in tiny doses as and when the UK thinks it appropriate. But I’m confident that more of them will decide that they’ve finally had enough of being told what they can and can’t do.

That’s the fundamental miscalculation that the three unionist parties have now made. In the couple of years between now and the referendum in 2014, I’m sure that most of the 35 per cent or so who wanted devo-max but not independence will decide to join those who have already decided that they want Scotland to be independent.

As the polls begin to reflect this, the unionist parties will wish that they hadn’t been so dogmatic. But it was their decision to insist on a single Yes/No question in the referendum, not the SNP’s.

Michael Haggett blogs regularly about Welsh matters here.

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