Craig Dalzell – 13th January 2022
I remember the day that I became an advocate for an independent Scotland. October 15th, 2012. Prior to this I couldn’t say that I was particularly interested in politics but the talk of an independence referendum had got me thinking about it. I would have still put myself in the “middle way” camp at this point. Had the referendum been that morning and the option been on the ballot I would have likely voted for Devo-Max or for a Federal UK rather than independence. But that day the Edinburgh Agreement was signed and firmly committed the referendum to just two options. Independence or the status quo.
This had the effect of taking “my” choice away from me. I had to reconfigure my own thinking and try to decide which of the two remaining options best fit my personal goals. In my mind at the time, voting No could have mitigated against the risk of the unknown that may have been independence but didn’t offer much in the way of progress. On the other, independence would deliver all of the powers that I as a Devo-Max voter actually wanted the Scottish Parliament to control as well as going some way towards a sense of closer democracy (even then and even if I didn’t yet have the language to express it, I was an advocate of subsidiarity – the principle that political decisions should be made as locally as practicable). The choice was fairly obvious. A vote for independence would give me more of what I wanted from Devo-Max than a vote against independence likely would. Since then, I’ve grown a strong objection to the UK’s approach to policies that would have remained reserved under Devo-Max – such as defence and foreign policy – so it’s extremely unlikely that I could be tempted back into that camp. My opinions on EU membership and denuclearisation are almost certainly not going to be achieved from within a Devo-Max Scotland. I have however met several people who found themselves on the same knife-edge of a decision as I did on that day for precisely the same reasons but who slipped onto the other side of the blade and eventually voted No in 2014. I understand why they did. Sometimes it is a matter of difference of policy. Sometimes merely a difference in emphasis and priorities.
In Scotland today, the Unionist vote is split uncomfortably across three main political political parties with no real prospect of a return to the united front of Better Together and the Labour party in particular struggling to find a political niche between its pro-indy left wing and its pro-Union right wing. With this in mind it’s no real surprise that the idea of a future independence referendum containing a Devo-Max option has never really gone away and that Labour and the Lib Dems have put forward tentative calls for one to be included (tentative, because they simultaneously don’t want to be seen to be actually advocating for said referendum).
Recently in the National, SNP policy committee member Chris Hanlon echoed this call on the grounds that it could at least break the logjam of current constitutional debate and journalist David Jamieson pointed out on Twitter that many in “Civic Scotland” could well see Devo-Max as a softer, “middle way” could therefore support it in a way that they wouldn’t either independence or the status quo.
I can fully appreciate all of that from the surface level, political sphere. From that perspective Devo-Max would indeed be a middle-way between the hard options of independence or Boris Johnson’s ever-centralising One Nation Britain. Indeed, even from the legislative side of things, Devo-Max would be comparatively simple to make happen. Similar to the Scotland Act 2016, it would merely require a majority vote in the House of Commons to remove all or almost all of the reserved powers from the Scotland Act along with an optional Consent Motion in Holyrood to ratify it. As an aside, legally speaking, full independence wouldn’t require much more than this from Westminster either. Just an amendment to the 1931 Statute of Westminster to remove Westminster’s power to legislate for Scotland unless specifically requested to do so and then for Scotland to pass something analogous to the 1986 Australia Act to cut that tie completely along with a couple of other loose ends like the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court.
But what is simple for politicians to order is not going to be so simple to implement. Devolving powers over, say, Social Security to Holyrood could be done with the stroke of a pen but the infrastructure to deliver those powers will require substantial effort to build. We already have some of that capacity in Scotland now with Social Security Scotland formed after the last round of “Devo-More” in 2016 but we’ve also seen just how difficult it is to deliver those powers from within a devolved context. It’s not just the office space, the staff and the IT systems, but the data required to handle users’ cases. In an independent Scotland, such a system will be fully self-contained but in a devolved context it will (and does) require Scotland to interact with UK departments like HMRC and the DWP and those interactions have not always been cooperative. Indeed, the lack of cooperation from these departments is the primary reason that devolved Scotland cannot launch a pilot of Universal Basic Income (never mind launch a full UBI scheme). Similar points of friction apply in areas like Income Tax where the lack of power over Personal Allowance, Capital Gains Tax or over the very definition of “income” limit the ability to diverge from UK policy.
Magnify the problem substantially if devolution in the UK remains “asymmetrical” with Wales, Northern Ireland and maybe even regions of England having different powers and divergent policies within those powers. For extra spice, throw in some issues around regions being pitted against each other for pots of cash or development funding the way that many currently are in things like the City Deals.
Consider also the extreme and growing problem of the UK’s regional inequalities. An advocate of Devo-Max must be able to present a Fiscal Framework that deals with the devolved powers to each of the nations (and/or regions), adequately fixes shortcomings in areas such as the Barnett Formula and, as we’ve seen through the pandemic, allows devolved areas to actually use their powers to full effect without having to first wait and see what the UK Government does in England.
And this is just considering the complexities of “Devo-Max”. Both Labour and the Lib Dems have flirted with even more radical constitutional changes in the form of Federalisation – something I examine in detail in my Common Weal policy paper An Unequal Kingdom. Such a move would imply not just constitutional change within and towards Scotland but across the whole of the UK. I’m not necessarily an opponent of Federalism per se (it could substantially improve the balance of power across the UK) but if it is being offered solely as a means of “fixing” a “Scottish problem” then it would be undemocratic to impose it on the rest of the UK against its collective will and it will fail for precisely that reason. It would also be undemocratic to build it such that it cannot work should Scotland decide to become independent at some point afterwards or if it is built with the intent of imposing Spanish-style constitutional blocks against a democratic demand for independence.
Ultimately, these are all problems for proponents of a Devo-Max option to solve and to present to voters well ahead of any referendum if they want to earn the right to have that option on the ballot paper. After almost a decade of constitutional politics, a former Devolutionist like myself has a good understanding of how to set up a new, independent country (even as we debate the details of it) and at least as good an understanding of the constitutional setup of the UK’s status quo but Devo-Max is now the least developed, least understood of those three options. Unless it is presented to voters in at least the same level of detail as is demanded of the independence campaign then the allure of that soft “middle-way” will prove to be a false one and that while some might find it easier to vote for than either of the other two options, it will prove to be the hardest promise to actually deliver. Putting Devo-Max on the ballot paper may very well solve today’s political logjam but unless its proponents are ready to improve their game substantially, it could set Scotland and the UK up for an even greater fall to come.