Alan Trench: ‘Devo more’ needs flesh on it for Union’s sake

WITH a Yes/No question likely, it becomes more vital that Unionists fill in the detail on a third way

WITH a Yes/No question likely, it becomes more vital that Unionists fill in the detail on a third way

The debate about Scotland’s constitutional future will soon come to another punctuation point. The UK Government’s consultation on an independence referendum will shortly result in the making of a section 30 order, giving powers to hold a referendum to the Scottish Parliament and the publication of a summary of responses to the UK consultation shows pretty clearly London intends to limit the choice before voters to a single question, not two as sought by the Scottish Government. The referendum will be a straight choice between the Union and independence, with the possibility of further powers afterward.

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This suits the Unionist parties, if not the SNP. Quite a number on the Unionist side are opposed to any extension in devolved powers. Many others support more devolution, including the Liberal Democrats and many in Labour, but are not clear what that means. Politically, the Unionist side thinks it has a better chance of winning a Yes or No referendum than one offering several options – what one might call an “excluded middle” strategy. This negative approach contrasts with the positive one of the SNP.

Although it would not be particularly easy, a multi-option referendum could be “decisive”, as John Curtice of Strathclyde University has shown. (It needs a Yes/No question about the Union, and then a second Yes/No question about more devolution.) However, there is a bigger problem with such a poll. At this point, no-one knows what the third, “enhanced devolution”, option might look like. There are two alternatives: some form of “devo-plus”, involving some extra policy functions and significant but not total fiscal responsibility, and “devo-max” involving devolution of all functions save defence, foreign affairs, monetary policy and perhaps immigration, accompanied by Holyrood setting and collecting all taxes in Scotland.

The only model for devo-max is one set out by the SNP. Four distinct initiatives are looking at models of devo-plus. There are major questions about both, and a good deal needs done to make sure they are workable. Until there is a practicable and agreed scheme, it will be impossible to make plans for a referendum that include that as a choice – but even the SNP concedes those plans need to be made soon. They cannot wait until the “third option” is finalised.

These practical problems with “devo more” are no reason to be complacent about leaving it off the ballot. Even if it is not on the ballot, it needs to be on the table. That option is clearly much closer to what Scottish voters want than either independence or the status quo. It would also give Scots a positive reason to vote for the Union. To be taken seriously, though there need to be meaningful guarantees that an adequate scheme will be implemented after a No vote. The Unionist parties and UK institutions will be under much less pressure to deliver “jam tomorrow” once the referendum is over, while a mandate from the referendum poll would be hard to resist.

The way forward may be a two-stage process. One is already under way: formulating and defining a form of “enhanced devolution” that could command broad support, and which is also workable. Such a scheme is likely to cause serious problems for the UK system.

HM Revenue & Customs will almost certainly still be involved in collecting taxes for devolved matters as well as non-devolved ones. HMRC will need to have direct accountability to the Scottish Parliament, and work with the Scottish Government, in ways that the Scotland Bill does not adequately address. If welfare benefits are to be partially devolved (something made harder by the planned Universal Credit), the Benefits Agency will have to change how it works too. There will be other changes on the cards for Whitehall and Westminster, part of the price that must be paid to maintain the Union.

The second stage will be to signal to the Scottish people that this scheme can and will be delivered. A good deal of flesh needs to be put on its bones. Those in favour of enhanced devolution – the Lib Dems, Labour and many in the Scottish Conservatives, if not the party leadership, as well as a broad swathe of civil society – will need to find a way of agreeing on a package they jointly support. This may take the form of something like the Scottish Constitutional Convention of the 1990s to agree a common model. They need to secure support from the UK level for this as well, and demonstrate to Scottish voters that they have it. If “devo more” is not on the statute book before the referendum, it must be ready for inclusion in 2015 UK election manifestos with political support at Westminster and Holyrood behind it, so it can be legislated immediately after the UK election, with a mandate from that election.

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A lot of this will strike Unionists as difficult and maybe undesirable. But they have fenced themselves into a set of difficult positions. By embarking on a referendum campaign when their position is further from the Scottish median voter than the SNP’s, they have chosen a high-risk strategy.

A single-question referendum may be justifiable in the name of clarity and practicality, but it cannot be a way of denying Scottish voters the constitutional settlement they want – more devolution within the Union.

Getting devo-more agreed and out there before the poll addresses that problem, and would also make a No vote in the referendum a positive one.

• Alan Trench is honorary fellow in the School of Social and Political Science at Edinburgh University, and author of the blog Devolution Matters.

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