Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The best of both worlds

When I first saw the title of the lead video on the Better Together website, I assumed 'the best of both worlds' must refer to the devolution settlement, ie. a halfway house between Home Rule and London rule. But it can't do, because devolution is never actually mentioned by anyone in the video, either directly or indirectly. It seems we're supposed to infer that we automatically get the best of both worlds by simply saying No to independence - regardless of whether that leaves us with pre-1999 style direct rule from London, or with the current devolved settlement, or with a degree of autonomy for the Scottish Parliament that is only just short of the powers of a sovereign state. It's essentially a long-winded repetition of Ed Miliband's "it stands to reason" suggestion that the existence of a British nation state (regardless of its form) magically makes a dual Scottish/British identity possible, while the existence of a Scottish nation state (regardless of form) would magically make such a dual identity impossible.

Well, sorry chaps, but that one ain't going to wash. From now until referendum day, the message is going to be driven home that Britishness will not only survive independence, but will flourish. A well-known journalist (I forget which one it was) suggested the other day that the SNP's comparisons with the multi-national Scandinavian identity wouldn't gain much traction, because people here just aren't familiar enough with the Nordic countries. But it doesn't really matter whether that's true or not, because other equally good comparisons are available. For several decades after independence, Australia and New Zealand were perceived, and perceived themselves, to be 'British' countries. Even now, although it may be more difficult to put a name to the common identity, it's obvious that we have cultural ties to those countries that we simply don't have with the largest English-speaking country in the world, the US.

So the No campaign are self-evidently flogging a dead horse by presenting the choice as being between a single identity and a dual one. But a much more interesting question is whether they would be capable of sustaining the 'best of both worlds' argument if they ever did attempt to apply it in a hard-headed way to the present devolution settlement. The implication would be that devolution cherry-picks what people like best about the Scottish and British dimensions, and jettisons what they like least. So to test that assumption, we'd of course first need to identify what it is that the majority of Scottish people like and dislike about the British dimension.

What people like :

The monarchy
The social union
The pound
An unspecific sense of economic 'security'

What people dislike :

Illegal wars
Trident on the Clyde
Voting left, getting right
Tory and New Labour control over domestic policy, eg. welfare and pensions
Theft and misuse of Scottish natural resources
Suppression of Scottish identity, for instance by the BOA

On that basis, the constitutional models that would take us closest to the 'best of both worlds' are the form of independence proposed by the SNP, and Devo Max. The former would tick all of the boxes with the possible exception of point 4 in the 'likes' section, while Devo Max would address the irrational concerns about a loss of economic security, but unfortunately at the cost of retaining Trident on Scottish shores, and leaving us at the mercy of more London military adventurism. However, either model would be clearly preferable to the status quo, which retains all of the things that people consider to be worst about the British 'world'.

When you look at it that way, it seems obvious that an electorate acting rationally would vote for change. Hence the need for the No campaign to use content-free emotional arguments to get people to muddle up their desire for a British identity with a desire to be ruled by a Tory government they didn't vote for. It's up to the Yes side to de-muddle those two concepts.

So it's little wonder that the Scottish Government are allowing speculation to increase about the possibility of a Devo Max question in the referendum. Such a development would force the participants in the No campaign to take a stance on a constitutional model that would preserve the UK, but give the public something much closer to what they might actually recognise as the best of both worlds. The inevitable effect is that the No side would split down the middle. Hence the panic in their voices as they try to reinvent the maximising of choice for the Scottish electorate as being somehow bad for people's health -

"So. The referendum has been reduced to a damage limitation exercise foe Eck’s ego.

What you describe may be win win win for Salmond. But it certainly is not a win for the Scottish people."

Let me see here. The polls show that Devo Max is currently the most popular option, and that people want the opportunity to vote for it. But actually getting both of those desires would be a loss for the Scottish people. Yup, this is the kind of 'reasoning' that makes perfect sense if you're the Labour councillor for Ward 8, North Coast and Cumbraes.

In truth, if a Devo Max question is all about Salmond's legacy, then clearly the needs of his legacy and the Scottish people's desires have suddenly become perfectly aligned. How inconvenient (for some).

Indeed, isn't it closer to the mark to say that unionist politicians are putting the goal of destroying Salmond's legacy ahead of the best interests of Scotland? The Lib Dems' Malcolm Bruce openly boasted of doing so in a speech not so long ago - his only justification for trying to deny the electorate a say on Devo Max was the belief that defeat in a single-question referendum would end Mr Salmond's political career. It's hard to think of a better textbook example of obsession with one party or one individual overriding the national interest.

Incidentally, a second referendum question will disappoint unionists by failing to cause the confusion they claim to expect. Everyone seemed to cope perfectly well with the two-question 1997 referendum, in spite of it being stated nowhere on the ballot paper that the second question was contingent on there being a Yes vote on the first question. This time, I'm quite sure it will be spelt out in bold print on the ballot paper that the second question ("do you want Devo Max?") is contingent on there being a No vote on the first question ("do you want independence?"). Consequently, the electorate will impress us all by being even more free of befuddlement than they were in 1997.

* * *

Before I forget, here are the results of the weekend poll -

Would Devo Max bring independence closer?

Yes 88%
No 11%


  1. I find it incredible that so many people don't understand the part devo max is playing in this, especially journalists who are supposed to be well versed in the workings of realpolitik.

    Devo Max won't appear on the ballot paper. It can't, because it would require backing from at least the coalition parties to agree the terms and to stand by them in the event of a vote in favour of it. But this isn't the point of Devo Max. Devo Max is a carrot being dangled in front of people to encourage them to think about more powers for Scotland. Without it, the debate is polarised between YES and NO, and it's easier for the No camp to make independence out to be some big, bad thing, thus stifling any debate about further powers. But throwing Devo Max in the mix gets people to think "hang on, I might not want full independence, but I DO want some powers."

    Politicians don't like it when people exercise their brains. It's dangerous, because people are unpredictable and it ruins their hegemony over the political process. A debate about what further devolution Scotland should have normalises the idea of Scotland getting powers over welfare, pensions, income tax, corporation tax etc. A Scotland with vastly enhanced powers becomes the new default position for people, and the status quo becomes as laughable as the idea of handing all devolved powers back to the Scotland Office. Then when people find out they can't vote for Devo Max, they think "well I can hardly vote for NO then, it's going backwards", and they vote YES instead. Giving the "Holy Grail" powers like defence and foreign affairs to Edinburgh becomes less of a scary prospect, and more like a compromise to get the powers people DO want in Edinburgh. That's before considering the domino effect of people thinking "well, I've already conceded Scotland should have fiscal powers - what exactly is stopping me thinking we should have defence too? It's the only way to get rid of Trident, after all..."

    This is why the unionists utterly reject the idea they should be telling us what further powers they would devolve in the case of a NO vote. Doing so encourages people to think about not only which powers should be devolved, but also why certain powers should be reserved. What exactly IS the argument for keeping defence and foreign affairs at Westminster? There isn't one, and this would become self-evident if people start considering the pros and cons of devolving or reserving each power.

    Quite simply, the only way the NO camp can win is by turning NO into the Devo Max option. The fact they refuse to do so tells us all we need to know about how serious these "devolutionists" (not unionists, apparently) are about handing powers back to Scotland.

  2. I half-agree and half-disagree, Doug. I certainly think you're right that the beauty of bringing Devo Max to the forefront of the debate is that it leads the electorate to think about what specific powers they want to see transferred to Scotland and why, as opposed to closing down all thought as the No campaign would rather people do, and make a binary choice based on content-free emotional 'arguments' about "togetherness" and "separtion".

    However, I'm not convinced that a consultative Devo Max question isn't a runner. If the Scottish Government has received advice that it would be legally watertight, it's not difficult to see the advantages. The result wouldn't be binding on the coalition, but if they did completely ignore the Scottish people's democratic will, it's hard to think of a faster track to independence than that.

  3. That's true, and this is exactly how I see things proceeding if we DO get that third option and we DO vote for it. After all, Devo Max is simply a non-starter in terms of actually implementing it, because unionist politicians simply do not want it, and it would see the rest of the UK demanding similar powers (well, Wales and Northern Ireland at least - on the whole England seems to be content with their lot). It would be somewhat of a crisis for MPs, not to mention the fact that they quite simply do not want Scotland to set its own levels of corporation tax and top-rate income tax, as well as the possible civil unrest it may cause in England if they saw Scotland repealing any cuts to welfare and pensions that were imposed by the Tories. Above all though, they just crave power.

    So a three-option referendum would almost certainly be quickly followed by a two-option one, with the NO campaign unable to use the bribe of "more powers" to try and win people over, resulting in independence with an overwhelming majority.

    But that's assuming a three-option referendum doesn't get stuck in the courts for years!