Hugh Reilly: Yes ahead - all thanks to lame rival

BY denying Scots the chance to choose enhanced devolution, Labour has simply painted the electorate into a corner, writes Hugh Reilly

Johann Lamont ruled out a devo-max option on the ballot paper early on. Picture: Jane Barlow
Johann Lamont ruled out a devo-max option on the ballot paper early on. Picture: Jane Barlow

THE long-awaited event memorably referred to as “the neverendum” by a sniggering David Cameron is nigh. In 2012, the British Prime Minister poked fun at Alex Salmond, believing that the First Minister’s hesitation in deciding a date for a referendum on Scottish independence was a sign of political procrastination or, worse, feartiness. It now appears that Salmond’s timing of the referendum was somewhat astute. In horse-racing terms, the Yes campaign is a neck ahead in the final furlong, the bit between its teeth as the pre-race No favourite weakens under pressure in the last few strides. In this two-horse race, anything could still happen, but Salmond is the more likely to enter the winner’s enclosure. Should this come to pass, it’s a racing certainty that Labour will quickly unseat its rider, Johann Lamont.

The Scottish Labour leader bears much responsibility for the current abject position the Better Together stable finds itself in. At an early stage, contrary to the views of fellow Labour Party politicians, Lamont declared “devo-max” a non-runner. Labour heavyweights Henry McLeish and George Foulkes urged her to embrace the notion of more powers for Holyrood. McLeish said: “We should be less concerned about whether it’s devo-plus or devo-max. Labour has to lead the debate on the future for Scotland, which is neither independence nor the status quo.”

His wise words fell on stony ground. Lamont insisted that devo-max was a form of independence. It would have been an act of unpardonable folly to give the Scottish electorate the opportunity to vote on devo-plus, the option that enjoyed the greatest support according to every opinion poll.

Doubtless buoyed by the fact that, in January 2012, only 26 per cent of Scots polled were in favour of independence, Lamont said: “My preference is for an early, one-question referendum so the people of Scotland make this choice quickly.” In her high-stakes poker game on the future of our country, she decided to go all-in. This casino politics approach to constitutional change, in which she backed the single-question strategy of political rival Cameron, has spectacularly backfired.

To be fair to Lamont, nobody ever took the trouble to define the nature of devo-max (or devo-plus or independence lite) – the devo was in the details, if you will.

It was always unclear which powers would cross Hadrian’s Wall and become embedded into the governance of Caledonia. Granting full fiscal autonomy would have ended all talk that Scotland was a subsidy junkie whose economy was predicated on patronising English folk tossing Bank of England notes into an Edinburgh begging bowl. By granting Scotland the right to keep taxes raised within its boundaries, Scots would no longer need to fear Westminster threats of the Barnett formula being re-fiddled – sorry, reconfigured to further garrotte Holyrood.

Instead, while a few financial bones might be tossed in the direction of the cash-strapped Scottish finance secretary, the majority of taxation will still trundle its way southwards to the London treasury.

When it became abundantly clear that Scottish civic society abhorred the UK government’s so-called “bedroom tax”, it was announced that some aspects of welfare provision could be devolved to Scotland. Housing Benefit, along with certain categories of claimants receiving Attendance Allowance, might be put within the remit of a Scottish government.

A Scottish administration could be trusted with this much – yet it was considered beyond the pale that Scots could take decisions on cold weather payments, winter fuel allowance, Job Seekers Allowance, state pension provision or any of the many other benefits that assist the vulnerable in time of need.

It smacks of too little, too late. Admittedly, watching Darling, Cameron, Lamont and Miliband et al falling over themselves in the stampede to woo voters with new (unspecified, of course) powers is hugely entertaining. Ed Miliband, a man never frightened of making a forthright vacuous statement, said that extra powers would start being devolved “right after” a No vote. In a similar “sweeties for votes” move, Chancellor George Osborne stated that a “plan of action to give more powers to Scotland” would be unveiled in the next few days. Alistair Darling claims there is no panic. In my view, the decision-making ambience inside Better Together eerily resembles that of a U-boat hit by a depth-charge.

By denying the electorate the democratic right to choose devo-max, the population has been painted into a corner. Voters were forced to crystallise their thoughts as to what kind of nation Scotland should be. I think that most have come to the view that Scotland shouldn’t be part of a state that initiates wars of aggression (Iraq, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, etc). Scots value free education, free medicine and free personal care; in Scotland, at least, there remains such a thing as society. Johann Lamont, Kezia Dugdale and the rest of the Scottish outreach section of British Labour promise us that a new Labour government will reverse much of the hated policy of the present UK coalition government. Their proposition is that it’ll be all right on the night if we vote for Miliband. But why take that chance when we have the prospect of being able to ensure that people living and working in Scotland take the decisions that affect us?

The doomsayers claim we’d be economically worse off. Well, Slovakians have a slightly lower standard of living than when they were part of Czechoslovakia, but they are not exactly pining for reunification. Ireland suffered financial woes during the financial crisis, but there is no political movement to once more be a part of the United Kingdom.

Living in Spain, I don’t qualify to vote on 18 September. I sincerely hope, however, that my countrymen (and countrywomen) grasp the thistle and take their destiny into their own hands. Even a narrow win for the No campaign is, in effect, a victory of sorts for those seeking independence. The clutch of powers that would be devolved to Holyrood would embolden the population to ask for more, like an Oliver with an under-active thyroid problem. A second referendum would be a matter of when, not if.

For me, Scotland will reach the independence winning post, whether that be due to a galloping win on 18 September or at a canter a decade or so down the line.