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.

11 thoughts on “Unionists miscalculate in blocking devo-max

  1. ‘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’.
    This is misreading the situation. Some Labour and Tory commentators are in favour of Vote 1 : Independence Y/N. Vote 2. If No, Devo-max Y/N. Similar to the 1997 2-question referendum. This scenario is more likely after the weeks events. Alex Massie discusses here http://www.spectator.co.uk/alexmassie/7573804/the-tories-and-a-third-way-real-home-rule-for-scotland.thtml

  2. The problem with devo max is that it isn’t that easy to define as the above article seems to suggest. For some it will include all the tax revenues from oil. For others it doesn’t. The problem with even including oil revenues as Arthur Midwinter pointed out in the Scotsman last year is that these revenues are volatile and a diminishing asset. This would make it very difficult for any Scottish government to accurately produce long term budgets without some form of stabilising mechanism. If you also look at the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey it is also clear that many of those interviewed don’t really have a clear view of what devo max actually means. A majority might want all taxes to be raised by a Scottish Parliament but this isn’t surprising since a majority already assume that the Scottish Parliament already has power over tax and pensions. But then the majority also want those benefits and taxes to be the same throughout the UK. The decision of the UK government to have a straight forward yes or no referendum on independence is clearly the correct one. It allows the debate to concentate on the real issue of whether or not the majority of Scots wish to remain part of the United Kingdom. With a clear question you also have the chance of a clear debate on the issues involved. The problem at the moment is that too many nationalists both in Scotland and in Wales don’t wish to discuss the practical issues thrown up by independence. On the day when the ratings agencies have down graded France perhaps people should, for example, be asking what would be the credit rating of an independent Scotland. At the moment UK bond yields are about 2%. Some experts argue that an independent Scotland’s [bond yields] would be closer to Slovakia’s which are at 4.5%. Perhaps the SNP and their supporters need to explain what would happen to interest rates in an independent Scotland and how this would effect mortgages and loans to business. These are the sort of questions that will be asked and need to be answered before the referendum.

  3. The ICM poll in today’s Telegraph provides a timely illustration of the point I made in this post on Thursday: that not including the option of devo-max in the Scottish independence referendum will substantially increase the percentage that will vote for independence.

    Three options

    Independence … 26%

    Fiscal autonomy … 26%

    Status quo … 37%

    Don’t know … 10%

    Two options

    Independence … 40%

    Status quo … 43%

    Don’t know … 17%
    ICM, 15 January 2012

    I think it’s reasonable to assume that the 10% who are undecided when three options are presented to them will also be undecided when presented with two. So that means the vote of the 26% who would have wanted fiscal autonomy but not independence splits three ways:

    14% … would vote for independence instead

    6% … would vote for the status quo instead

    6% … would be undecided

    In other words, substantially more than half of them would vote for independence.
    It is also interesting to note that people in both England and Scotland are in favour of establishing an English Parliament with the same devolved powers as the Scottish Parliament, by a margin of more than three to one:

    In England

    In favour of an English Parliament … 49%

    Against an English Parliament … 16%

    In Scotland

    In favour of an English Parliament … 49%

    Against an English Parliament … 16%

    Yet Paul Murphy, bless him, is still thinking in terms of devolution to the regions of England rather than to England itself.

    This shows that he really has no idea about what people in England think. The previous attempt to establish elected regional assemblies in England failed primarily because it ignored the idea of England as a political entity in its own right.

  4. I think you have dismissed the possibility of the devo-max question being included. Next week, I think, a respected body representing ‘civic Scotland’ – churches, the STUC, third sector bodies – are going to present proposals to the Scottish Government of their preferred definition of devo max (so Jeff, wait for that before saying it hasn’t been defined), and Salmond will then be able to say that by ruling out this option, the will of a significant body of Scottish opinion. By refusing to sanction it, the English Government (for that is how they are seen in Scotland) will persuade waverers that full independence is a more attractive option than ‘the status quo’.

    Now the Status quo is not properly defined. Don’t forget the Scotland Act, which is unlikely to actually be adopted in Hollyrood unless it is radically beefed up – and all the unionist parties have by now accepted that further devolution is desirable. But they can’t be trusted, and a NO vote will put an immediate halt to that. Salmond will know that, and will use it when the time is right.

  5. UK Polling Report says that “the figures on how people would vote in [a Scottish] referendum are probably not very meaningful right now – that’s one thing we should learn from the AV referendum”.

    I understand the point being made by a number of bloggers and columnists, that devo-max is arguably the favoured position of the average Scottish voter, so embracing it would be the best way for unionists to recapture the political initiative. But as Jeff says, a three-option campaign would be complicated and if no option secures a majority, the end result will be confusing. Besides, if the voters reject independence in a yes-no referendum now, that surely won’t preclude a future vote on further devolution.

    A basic yes-no ballot is a high risk for both sides. Yes, it could make some Scottish voters feel that unionism isn’t responding to their constitutional aspirations. But on the other hand, the SNP must also know that a straight fight raises the stakes for the nationalist cause. A defeat on the party’s raison d’etre would surely be a huge blow; remember what happened in Quebec in the years after 1995?

  6. It can be assumed safely that a random survey of opinion on an issue that has not been much ventilated and explored will produce results largely irrelevant to the result of a vote after exposure and debate. The Scots voters have little idea of the economic costs and benefits of independence having been fed contradictory, exaggerated and largely unsubstantiated assertions by both sides. Moreover they don’t know what devo max is compared with what they have or what its consequences would be. As they hear more about these things and move to a state of vague and partial understanding as opposed to abysmal ignorance their preferences are quite capable of changing very considerably.

  7. David Cameron is said to be against giving England (rest of UK?) a vote on whether Scotland should gain independence on the grounds people would vote in favour. This raises an interesting question which no one is asking: if the rest of the people of the UK do not care whether Scotland is part of the UK or not and clearly do not see what (if anything) Scotland contributes then why bother to try and hang on to it at all?

    I for one couldn’t care less whether Scotland stays or goes. The only possible advantage in it going is that hopefully it would stop Alex Salmon’s never ending whinging and get him off TV!

    The same rationale applies to Wales. I really don’t think the average person in England gives a monkey’s about Wales (why should they?) so maybe the people to be lobbied for independence for both Scotland and Wales are the English the only people who seem to have no say in the independence debate at all.

  8. Matthew, What did the average English person think about fighting a war to retain the Falkland Islands? They seemed to like it and converted Mrs Thatcher from least to most popular politician in the country. On the evidence of history, the English would love it if Cameron sent an army to re-occupy Scotland rather than letting it go. England has spent countless millions defending the right of Ulster Unionists to stay in the UK and, talking of whingers, a more charmless bunch would be hard to find. So you are kidding yourself if you think the English would ever willingly let go of anyone. The imperialist gene is too strong.

    And in a way it does them credit. There are few precedents for any civilized state expelling its own citizens if they didn’t want to go. The Nazis did it to German jews and the Ottomans did it to Armenian citizens of Turkey. Those are not nice precedents and I do not believe the English would vote to expel the Scots or Welsh if those people did not opt to go of their own accord.

  9. If anyone really believes that the “unionists have miscalculated” in blocking devo max they can bet on a yes vote in the independence referendum with bookmakers Stan James, who are offering 11-4 against a yes vote. My advice would be to save your money.

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