Our old chum Tom Harris (affectionately known to some as "Tom4Scotland", "Admin", "Devo Max" and "Shhh...it is I, LeClerc") has returned to a familiar theme on Twitter -
"The Tories used to be the only party in Scotland that opposed devolution. Now the SNP is the only one that does."
This notion that the SNP are currently 'opposed' to devolution, but used to be in favour, is a rather curious one. As far as I can see, the SNP's position now is entirely the same as it was two or three decades ago - namely that devolution is infinitely preferable to direct rule from London, but that independence would be better still. By definition, therefore, if Tom believes that this stance can somehow be characterised as 'anti-devolution', the SNP must also have been anti-devolution in the 1980s and 1990s - including, of course, when they campaigned alongside Labour and the Liberal Democrats for a Yes vote in the 1997 devolution referendum!
But Tom isn't entirely alone in adopting this sophisticated line of thinking. The legendarily free-thinking and non-partisan journalist Kevin Maguire has for some time now been routinely referring to the pro-independence campaign as the "anti-devo campaign". (Seriously, I'm not making this up - he actually calls it that. This is an actual thing that he does.)
So as a public service, I thought it might be interesting to compare the stances of the "pro-devo" and "anti-devo" campaigns (as defined by Harris and Maguire) in respect of a number of key policy areas, and whether or not they should be devolved from Westminster to Scotland. The results are somewhat startling.
"Pro-devo" campaign believes pensions should be...RESERVED TO WESTMINSTER.
"Anti-devo" campaign believes pensions should be...DEVOLVED TO SCOTLAND.
"Pro-devo" campaign believes broadcasting should be...RESERVED TO WESTMINSTER.
"Anti-devo" campaign believes broadcasting should be...DEVOLVED TO SCOTLAND.
Abortion law :
"Pro-devo" campaign believes abortion law should be...RESERVED TO WESTMINSTER.
"Anti-devo" campaign believes abortion law should be...DEVOLVED TO SCOTLAND.
Employment law :
"Pro-devo" campaign believes employment law should be...RESERVED TO WESTMINSTER.
"Anti-devo" campaign believes employment law should be...DEVOLVED TO SCOTLAND.
Hmmm. It may just be a coincidence, but there does seem to be a pattern emerging here - the "anti-devo" side seems to be considerably more keen on devolution than the "pro-devo" side is. And I don't know about you, but I find that life is never more thrilling than when I stumble across a new and impenetrable paradox like that.
So what's going on? It may be that we need look no further than the notoriously subtle differences between standard English and its little-known offshoot Harris-speak. I gather that in Harris-speak, the word 'devolution' has a considerably narrower meaning than the one we English-speakers attribute to it. It's instead an exclusively 'good' word, in the same way that 'honey', 'children', 'kitten', and 'unelected peer' are all good words. And just as English-speakers recognise a clear distinction between good cholesterol and bad cholesterol, and between good bacteria and bad bacteria, Harris-speakers recognise a distinction between Good Devolution and Bad Devolution, with the word 'devolution' itself applying only to the former. This reflects a widespread belief in the Harris culture that Bad Devolution represents a frightening 'going beyond', a kind of 'anti-devolution', unleashing forces that will destroy the Goodness of devolution. Therefore the Harris-speak meaning of 'devolution' categorically excludes any power devolved to Scotland that is baleful or inappropriate, such as control of our own natural resources. Instead, this type of devolution is covered by a unique term that has no English counterpart and is generally held to be untranslatable : "I Can't Believe It's Not Independence".
This is clearly problematical for native English speakers, who are used to the much simpler idea that devolution refers to any power devolved from Westminster to Scotland within the framework of the United Kingdom. It would of course be easier if there was a straightforward way of spotting the difference between powers that fall within the Harris-speak definition of 'Devolution' and those that are 'I Can't Believe It's Not Independence' - but I'm afraid I can't help you there. It's a bit like the 'three-in-one' concept of the Holy Trinity - it does of course make perfect sense that the devolution of health should be considered Good and that the devolution of broadcasting is Bad, but we mere mortals will never understand why. And it is futile to try. We must simply accept, For Thus Is It Written.