Could Devo Max help resolve Scotland's divisions on the constitution? – Ian Swanson

The status quo in Scotland cannot be defended, according to UK Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer.

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But while reaffirming his belief in the Union, he is waiting for the report of Gordon Brown's commission on the constitutional future of the UK before saying anything about the changes he wants to see.

However, any new Labour proposals are likely to involve more powers for Holyrood and that might well mean "Devo Max", an option which a former SNP policy chief has said should be included in a future referendum on independence.

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Chris Hanlon's suggestion has been rubbished by other senior SNP figures. One Scottish government minister called it "idiotic, foolish, nonsensical" while a backbench MSP branded it a "con".

Mr Hanlon made it clear Devo Max – widely understood as Scotland controlling everything apart from foreign affairs and defence – would not be his own choice but argued, quite reasonably, that “the people must have the option of choosing the path the largest percentage of them favour”.

Former First Minister Alex Salmond originally suggested Devo Max as a third option in the 2014 referendum. At the time he may have felt it was as far as voters were likely to go and could be used as a staging post on the way to independence. Or he may have made the proposal simply so it could be bargained away during the talks with David Cameron in return for the Scottish government being allowed to choose the referendum date.

More recently, East Lothian Alba MP Kenny MacAskill has argued that “home rule” or “independence in the UK” may provide a way to break the "constitutional impasse" in a deeply divided nation.

Could Devo Max appear as a third option alongside Yes and No on the ballot paper at a future independence referendum?Could Devo Max appear as a third option alongside Yes and No on the ballot paper at a future independence referendum?
Could Devo Max appear as a third option alongside Yes and No on the ballot paper at a future independence referendum?

Devo Max has previously been criticised for lack of definition or a detailed scheme, but perhaps Gordon Brown's commission will provide all that.

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If it were to be included on the ballot paper in a second independence referendum, the risk for the SNP and their allies is, of course, that it takes support away from independence, denying them their dream.

At the moment, the prospect of a second independence referendum looks some time off, with the UK government showing little sign of agreeing to one. But if it did feel pressured into changing its stance, it might well look to impose conditions on a fresh vote, perhaps including a third option.

In his interview in Scotland on Sunday at the weekend, Sir Keir Starmer said, when asked about Devo Max, that he believed “decisions about people should be made as close to them as possible”.

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And he continued: "Obviously there are huge issues bound up with any question of fiscal devolution. The general principle works, we can't defend the status quo.”

With support for independence having fallen back below 50 per cent in recent months, could Devo Max become a realistic option which those hesitant about independence but increasingly dissatisfied with the current set-up could rally to?

In the past, polls have suggested maximum devolution could be the most popular option among Scottish voters.

But it may now be too late. Polling guru Sir John Curtice says recent evidence suggests Devo Max is now less popular than the status quo or independence because it fails to address the issue which fuels much of the support for independence: opposition to Brexit.

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