The Devo Max debate can’t include another prediction of financial collapse if the system changes, writes Lesley Riddoch
Why are leading Unionists dwelling on the dangers of a “neverendum” and volatile oil prices when a much more immediate question must be settled before Christmas?
Will Labour awake from its current stupor to support Devo Max – a constitutional remedy backed by two-thirds of Scots and 42 per cent of people in England?
It’s a change that could be recommended by the Smith Commission, could be economically and psychologically game-changing for a nation accustomed to pocket money from a grudging Westminster and yet has hardly been discussed in any detail.
The shift to controlling welfare and almost all income (including oil) in Scotland would be a whopper, maybe the “best of both worlds” since independence has been ruled out, giving Scots the power and responsibility of full fiscal control with the “might” of the UK in reserve, financed by cash sent south for defence, foreign policy and reserved macro-economic policy.
Such a change in the location of power and control would be a massive change. It’s championed by the SNP but light years from all current Unionist proposals. In short – this is as big a party political divide as existed over independence – but with one crucial difference.
Most Scots this time back the SNP position that puts Labour and the Lib Dems in a tight, and fairly undemocratic-looking bind. Are they really set to veto the most popular case for change?
The Tories and Lib Dems want to devolve most income tax which does at least sound bold. But without being able to collect oil revenues, that could leave the Scots worse off. The Barnett Formula might be scrapped as soon as Scots appear to be “standing on their own feet” even if it isn’t, the larger the tax raised by Holyrood, the smaller the block grant and the Barnett effect and the larger the hole in the Scottish budget. Substantial devolution without oil revenues looks like decidedly dodgy.
Labour’s formal proposals are currently the weakest of the bunch – even Gordon Brown’s proposal to collect 54 per cent of taxes north of the border is just another stealthy fix. He scrapes over that psychological 50 per cent barrier by assigning VAT revenues to Scotland. They can’t be varied by Holyrood but help to make it look as though most income would be under Scottish control. Not so.
Broadcasters are reluctant to dive into the detail and talk in general terms of “more devolution.” But devolution is not a homogenous substance that flows evenly like cream. It’s an array of very different proposals – each with as much devil in the detail as independence.
And yet few prominent politicians or political parties are flagging up the massive choice that lies ahead. On the Unionist side it’s doubtful any party will back Devo Max since none wants Scots and their government to feel more empowered, lest that increases the likelihood of a future Yes vote.
On the Nationalist side there are problems too. The Scots who were scared or misled into voting Yes (and that’s not all No voters, I concede) were beset by a pre-existing, deep-seated anxiety upon which Better Together was able to prey. Namely that Scotland is like a life support machine which only functions when plugged into Britain’s constant and dependable source of power.
If the switch is thrown and the power disconnected, everything that relies on London for funding is in jeopardy – jobs, investment, pensions and BBC programmes.
That fear probably caused thousands of voters to swither last month and can’t be dismissed as part of a “too wee, too poor, too stupid” narrative. Jobs matter. And yet almost every Yes campaigner tended to focus on the social justice and anti-poverty arguments for independence not its job-creating potential. Employment was tackled in the White Paper but the opposition and media tended to dismiss alternative Nordic-based scenarios predicated on full employment and higher average wages and allowed no real criticism of the UK economy which is currently run to suit political dogma and the City of London.
But unless a new economic strategy becomes the number one priority for hitherto Yes-supporting parties and individuals that will happen all over again and there will not be enough public enthusiasm to win full fiscal autonomy from London this year or next.
Sure – plenty of folk in leafy suburbs will probably vote SNP at the Westminster and Holyrood elections. But constitutionally they will support the status quo or whatever weak (even damaging) change is proposed by the next Westminster Government. Even if ‘The Vow’ falls flat. Even if the timetable is breached. So the next step is vital for all political parties – at least as important as the referendum. It should edge Scots beyond the pocket money phase of our political lives into the constitutional equivalent of paying rent and sharing bills. It should because every survey of Scottish public opinion says it should.
But it won’t without active, informed, organised and near universal support. Of course, it’s probable most folk don’t know precisely what Devo Max entails and some politicians will prefer that it stays that way. It can’t. The Vow was a cunningly crafted, content-free proposition. ‘The Deal’ cannot be the same without risking the disengagement of 4.2 million voters.
Scotland needs to talk about the detail of Devo Max and other options and respected Labour figures like Henry McLeish and Jack McConnell could lead the way. Do they back full fiscal autonomy? If not why not?
And please, let’s not have a rerun of the independence campaign where unionists remain aloof from the debate only to make another 11th hour prediction of financial collapse if the current system is changed in any way. Perhaps they’ll publish ‘The Guarantee’ promising a comprehensive examination of UK-wide devolution – later.
The challenge for Labour and the Lib Dems is simple. Do they back Devo Max which appears to be the settled will of Scots – or not? The challenge for the SNP and Greens is no easier. Can they convince Scots in leafy suburbs that full control of taxes in Scotland will revitalise the Scottish economy and not just tackle poverty and social injustice?
Evidently, we still live in interesting times.