Jeremy Purvis: Devo Max question just muddies the waters
Scots want clarity in the independence debate, yet we could be about to make the choices more confusing, writes Jeremy Purvis
The prospect of the Bill for an independence referendum – with continuing uncertainty over the proposed ballot wording – allows us to look further afield for some perspective.
The Parti Quebecois (PQ) in Quebec found to its detriment in 1980 that terminological machinations over the wording of a question or questions served to hinder the case for independence from Canada, rather than strengthen it. Indeed, the final wording of the question emerged for the Quebec referendum only after tortuous drafting, opinion polling and political committees within the party.
The result of this was a ballot so convoluted that the then PQ Quebec premier had to ask the Justice Minister whether the question actually constituted a question at all. These tactical gymnastics simply served to confuse voters who wanted clarity. I am pretty certain than many in Scotland are feeling the same way.
One might, therefore, be justified in being a bit puzzled by the Scottish Government stating again it is considering setting a question on Devo Max. Yet no one has explained what it entails, no one would seemingly campaign for it, there wouldn’t be an official campaign to organise it and no party has said it would want to legislate for it.
The Scottish Government said of Devo Max in its 2009 document, Your Scotland, Your Voice: A National Conversation: “Unfortunately the various proponents of this approach have yet to bring it forward in a form in which it could provide the basis for a question in a multi-option referendum, although the inclusion of the concept in the National Conversation policy papers, and in this paper, will have helped that process.”
Three years on, and with the absence of any further explanation of what Devo Max might possibly entail, it does not seem to have helped much. If in 2009 Devo Max was not in a suitably mature form to be considered as an option in the referendum, with no further explanation of what it could possibly be, why should be it be considered appropriate for a question now?
Your Scotland, Your Voice, sketched in broad terms what Dev Max might mean. The problem is that it remains a sketch, with little detail coloured in. We can surmise from that document that it entails the devolution of all powers short of defence and foreign affairs, with the retention of the currency of the UK and the head of state. A payment would be made from the revenue raised in Scotland for these services, with no detail as to how this would be worked out. Such an approach in this form exists no where else in the world.
The closest example, according to the few supporters of it, is in the Basque country. We analysed this in our first report, A Stronger Scotland in the UK. The conclusion was, firstly, that in many areas, such as social protection and justice and policing, devolution to the Basque country is even less than that from Westminster to Scotland under the 1998 Scotland Act.
Secondly, using its formula for calculating the payment to Madrid for Spanish services and inserting the equivalent Scottish data, there would be a deficit in funding UK services of over £3 billion, and a deficit of devolved Scottish services of over £7bn.
Concerning questions remain over pensions, the benefits system, transport and energy networks across the UK, and how your mortgage rate is calculated. The list is much longer of course, but these examples show how, for the vast number of important areas affecting our lives, there is a worrying lack of Devo Max detail. The Scottish Government was right in 2009 to reject it as a potential question. With no further detail, why is it considering a U turn now?
When we dismiss Devo Max, we do so with justification. Our case – the Devo Plus case – is to secure a long-term relationship between Scotland and the rest of the UK, and is much better for our future interests than independence.
We do not argue for this to be part of the referendum. Rather, we argue that the parties that oppose independence should coalesce around our proposals that are published and clear. Our research has looked into the technical, as well as principled, reasons for further devolution and thus its proposals can be implemented. In addition, while they are significant, they are also progressive and can be implemented in a measured and straightforward way during the lifetime of the next UK Parliament.
Devolving further taxes to the Scottish Parliament, other than VAT and National Insurance, provides the people of Scotland with a greater say over decisions made in their name by Holyrood. We carefully considered all taxes, including north sea oil, and for that, for example, see benefit in retaining a UK regulatory and exploratory structure, as well as ensuring that the massive fluctuations in yield are evened out at a UK level, rather then creating massive instability in the Scottish devolved budget.
That said, we seek consideration for the supplementary charge on oil to be used creatively to support investment in Scotland. The Scottish Government has a mandate to test opinion on independence. It should be a clear choice, with the consequences of each position spelled out. Months of tactical gymnastics over the wording of one, two or three questions, and the use of Devo Max as a fig leaf for independence does not serve this clarity.
Devo Plus, however, provides a clear way forward, and that is why it provides the strongest base for multi-party agreement to be made around it.
• Jeremy Purvis is a former Liberal Democrat MSP and leader of the Devo Plus Group
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