You can't have devo-max

After David Cameron's rather combative statements on the Andrew Marr programme on 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. I have made the point on several occasions that 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; but 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% support independence, 35% support devo-max (or at least much more devolution than is currently included in the Scotland Bill) and maybe 25% 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% / 35% / 25% split in public opinion in Scotland and read it as 30% wanting independence but 60% being happy to remain part of the UK. I, other nationalists, and maybe only a handful of unionists read it as 25% being happy with the UK as it stands but 65% 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% 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% 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.

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Dylan said...

Terrific analysis; I agree entirely.

I admit to being amused at how ineptly the unionists are dealing with this situation. I'm not sure they really realise yet that the UK is entering its final few years.

Anyway, I wish England all the best when it gains its own independence. I have every faith that they'll find their feet and cope. They'll always have friendly independent allies to the north and west.

Gwalchmei said...

This situation appears to be unfolding in a far better form than I imagined.
When one is in a hole, the normal advice would be to stop digging. It seems that the unionist parties have been totally unaware of the preparation that has been going on in Scotland for this debate and yet they keep shooting themselves in the foot every time they choose to say anything on the matter.
Alex came across so well when he was interviewed last night on Channel 4 by John Snow. It was almost as good as when Jeremy was ‘Paxtoed’ by our Plaid’s financial spokesman... I watch that over and over....
Joking aside, the critical point is that it is now becoming clear, to those of us both in Scotland and in Wales, that those who govern us from London haven’t a clue about how we feel and how patronising they appear to us.
I believe that we are now on the road to following the Scottish model. It will probably be Wales might take a few years but I imaging it might be sooner.
We don’t have oil but we do have other assets in Wales. There is an awful lot of coal under our land.....maybe it can’t be mined any more, but, the latest technology in ‘under -ground /sea coal gasification’ will make our coal resources ours again....unless we get asset-stripped by the London bankers. A pilot project is going on right now in Swansea Bay along with 17 other pilot programmes, mostly in the NE of England.
Once developed, the production of energy from this resource will be greener, cheaper, and it will be ours. We could be a very rich little country, and the Eton crew are well aware of that, so beware.
We must go for independence for Wales and not get taken for a ride as has happened so often in the past.

Britnot said...

I hope you are correct MH as our future in Wales is inextricably linked to what happens in Scotland. One thing is for sure, Alex Salmond is head and shoulders above unionist politicians in terms of tactics and political ability. People are drawing comparisons with the situation in Quebec but I think the situations are very different.

I cannot envisage, even if there were a no vote, any situation where Scottish Devolution could to any degree be reversed. However I do not doubt the arch Unionists will try to use a no vote as a rejection of Devolution as well as Independence. We certainly live in not just interesting but in a British context revolutionary times!

Anonymous said...

You have outlined one credible scenario looked at from where we are standing in January 2011.

Incidentally, I listened to the IPSOS Mori spokesman being interviewed earlier this week, and I understood him to say that in the latest poll (early Dec) some 38% of Scots (who stated they were certain to vote) supported independence at that moment in time, with some 68% in favour of an undefined 'devo max' option, and 57% opposing separation. If one presumes that the 38% are part of the 68%, then those who would agree only to devo max but not independence is 30%.

The numbers supporting independence were up 3% on August 2011, and those against down 3%.

More details here:

If one accepts, for argument's sake that these figures are a correct reflection, then Salmond's task is far from insuperable.

Looked at one way, by autumn 2014, he has to persuade 8% of the 'No' voters to change their minds. Perhaps with the assistance of Cameron, Clegg, and Miliband et al's unionist flag-waving rhetoric he may well succeed. Two-and-a-half years of austerity kicking in won't bolster the unionist argument either.

Having said all that, I still feel somewhat uneasy. 'Events' are unpredictable.

I wouldn't put anything past the unionist camp and the dirty tricks which the British State is capable of perpetrating. Salmond definitely has to watch his back, even to the point of some 'accident' or 'misfortune' happening to him.

The media and the press in Scotland, including the BBC will pull out all the stops to prevent independence.

Already evident is the BBC's complete censorship of all comments on its Scottish blogs.. most of which had been very pro-SNP and independence. Contrast this with the still live Betsan Powys blog, where the comments are rabidly anti-Wales and anti-Welsh for the most part.

Though Moore was very measured and somewhat conciliatory in tone in the Commons, the hatred of the SNP by most of the unionist MPs (many Scottish Labour) who participated was clearly evident in some of the bile they spouted.

I wish I had a crystal ball. There is no doubt that whatever the outcome of the referendum, Wales' future will be affected for better or worse.

Efrogwr said...

Very helpful piece, MH. The SNP will be able to run the argument with the Devo Max supporters that a no vote for independence (with only yes/no on the ballot paper) will put a halt to any further devolution.
The level of misunderstanding in the London press is breathtaking. The Times leader yesterday seemed to think it was the SNP's job to clarify what is meant by DevoMax and push that option!

Aled G J said...

Good analysis. I also think the SNP can have a lot of success with this line "the unionist parties did not want to give you a devo max option." I believe this will prove to be a very potent symbol of unionism's intransigence and its complete inability to consider Scotland's needs.

Alex Salmond also needs to hold his nerve about the date, Autumn 2014, and refuse to be bounced into an earlier referendum. There's two elements to this. In the first place, it allows the SNP enough time to keep governing in Scotland's interest and fully outlining the case for independence at the same time. Secondly, and just as importantly, it gives the people of Scotland plenty of opportunity to see exactly what Conservative rule from London means: more austerity, more dogmatism, more English triumphalism. You can also bank on the media to increase it's level of bile towards Scotland during the period. Plenty there to sway enough people to vote for independence in 2014.

Owen said...

Surely if the Scottish Parliament has the power to carry out a consultative referendum (or is granted such power by Westminster), they are well within their rights to put whatever they want on the ballot?

I'm actually surprised that the Conservatives and Lib Dems in particular would oppose devo-max in principle. It would probably keep Alex Salmond & the SNP quiet for a few terms, it would likely lead to a further reduction in MP's - hurting Labour most (and the Lib Dems to an extent it must be said) - and it would keep the union together, which as you say MH, must surely be the unionist's ideal here.

I think the reason there might be opposition to devo-max is sneakier. The UK Government comes knocking on the door for a ~£2.5bn contribution to defence, to fund a foreign policy that might be against Scotland's best interests or to the running of the Westminster machine that would be so distant by then it wouldn't be worth much to Scots. Then Scots might realise they could be better off controling such things themselves. The big step to independence would be an awful lot shorter then.

BoiCymraeg said...


hurting Labour most (and the Lib Dems to an extent it must be said)

Not if the Lib voters defect to the SNP to the extent they did last year - the Libs could lose everything except Orkney/Shetland.

OCELFA said...

Scotland wants "Devo Max"and they shall have it!.

OCELFA said...

The only party in the UK that has a majority is the SNP.The people of Scotland wanted the Nationals to rule.If Scotland wants devo max then they can be persuaded to vote for independence and they shall have it!.

OCELFA said...

Since 2007 the SNP with a minority had to endure political back stabbing by every other party.Now with a majority these same parties spend their time blocking the progress of the peoples elected majority!.Now with the referendum all these parties are united against the SNP.The Nationalist have shown the UK the way to go.The people of Scotland want progress.What progress has the opposition parties provided,nothing!.Soon there will be an English National Party fighting the same fight.The Tories,Labour,Librals and the rest have had their day's,it's over, it's gone!.

Anonymous said...

Ah yes back to future for an irish nationalist.
Its like Ireland home rule from the 1880s till 1916. Driving a country that only wanted limited home rule at the time to outright independence. God bless british tories.

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