If they don’t ask, we don’t get – the democratic devo-deficit


By Lesley Riddoch
Devo Max-what is the big problem with asking Scots if that’s the solution they currently back?  Well the question is apparently impossible to formulate. 
Strange then that the polling organisation TNS-BMRB seems to have managed it fairly easily.

By Lesley Riddoch
Devo Max-what is the big problem with asking Scots if that’s the solution they currently back?  Well the question is apparently impossible to formulate. 
Strange then that the polling organisation TNS-BMRB seems to have managed it fairly easily.

In October 2011 the pollsters first included the option to “Transfer more powers from Westminster to the Scottish Parliament, including tax and welfare but excluding defence and foreign affairs,” alongside “full independence for Scotland” and “Keep the current arrangement of a Scottish parliament with its existing powers.”

Those options gained the backing of 33%, 28% and 29% respectively.

In January 2012 those options were backed by 30%, 26% and 32%.  And in July support for devo-max had risen to 37% with independence at 23% and the status quo at 29%.  Only at this point did the big guns start to roll out against a second question even though, to my knowledge, no-one challenged TNS-BMRB about their inclusion of a “confusing” devo-max option.

The startling July poll findings question the notion that a malleable 20% of the electorate exist to be persuaded – it seems when a third option is allowed the number of don’t knows roughly halves.  The poll also suggests there is a clear majority for further constitutional change (37% plus 23% = 60%) and for staying in the union (37% plus 29% = 66%). 

A dispassionate observer might say Scots evidently want to stay in the Union with an enhanced deal.  But that’s not how the Yes or No camps view things.

Mysteriously, an option with no official support, no organised campaign, no First Minister backing, no former Chancellor endorsement, no cash and no media profile has managed to gain supporters from both the Yes and No camps – and yet every single political party in Scotland has declared devo-max to be an irrelevance and has announced the poll results are (somehow) a victory for their side.

Good stuff guys.  The option most Scots support ain’t going to be on the ballot paper.  If I get the opportunity as part of the panel on tomorrow’s  Any Questions (Radio 4 Friday 20.00 and Sat 13.10) I’ll tell Humza Yousaf, Anas Sarwar and Michael Moore it’s a democratic deficit of massive proportions. 

And I’d say that whether I personally support independence or the status quo – because it’s true.  And whether you think having cake and eating it is good for Scots or not – in the end, in a democracy, voters must be persuaded, not forced to choose options.

Nature abhors a vacuum – in physics and in politics.  So why is popular devo-max a place all parties fear to tread?

Well quite obviously the Devo Max script is one the Lib Dems or Labour should pick up – not the SNP.  The Liberals have backed Home Rule for Scotland since before the World War and since then have advocated federalism.

Now though, they prefer a rammy about the House of Lords to any mention of the coalition-boat-rocking F-word. 

Equally, Labour leaders north and south of the border did indeed deliver devolution and their blood must boil every time devo-max is proposed as the next obvious step in John Smith’s “unfinished business.”  It’s as if they want to say “we don’t need a lecture from the electorate – trust us for God’s sake.  We’ve done it before.”

Well yes – that’s the problem.  Labour did take a giant leap with devolution and much good has it done them.  Out of government for a decade and watching as the unthinkable – an independence referendum – occurs before their very eyes.

If the Labour leadership believe devolution unleashed that independence genie from its bottle, there’s no way they’ll rush to remove the cork any further.

For Labour, crossing the Rubicon to let Scots raise and spend their own taxes looks bound to result in “full fat independence” later.  Why on earth would Labour – or the Lib Dems – back another act of constitutional largesse only to get another political kicking, and break up the UK to boot?

And yet.  For modern, federal, European social democrats that’s a massively defeatist stance.  There’s no evidence that autonomy for nations within sovereign states speedily results in independence – except in binary, over-centralised Britain where long suppressed demand tends to explode when the possibility of “self government” finally arises.

In a fascinating Newsnet article Alex Robertson examines the situation in devolved Belgium;

“Flanders has its own government and parliament, located, pointedly, in Brussels, and has a lot more power than Edinburgh does. It can conduct a more or less separate foreign policy, make treaties, and manage its own economy.

It can raise some, not all, taxes and it only really relies on the Federal government for Defence and European affairs mostly.  This independentista Scot is puzzled at why Flanders doesn’t push for outright independence.  After all, it has a population of some 6 million and is self-sufficient economically.  On the other hand, this same Scot wonders why Flanders would ever want to be independent.  What would it gain?”

Surprisingly this very measured article was tweeted by the Yes campaign as a “Very interesting article on lessons Scotland could learn from Flanders in Belgium.”  But surely the main lesson is that devo-max is a popular constitutional destination in its own right, not just a staging post on the motorway to independence?

So why do devolving Labour and the federal Lib Dems prefer the prospect of limping home on a “shoehorned ” Yes/No vote instead of romping home on a two question referendum?

Better Together will of course raise the practical question – Devo Plus or Devo Max?

Fundamentally the two models operate from the same powerful premise – that Scots should be responsible for raising in tax, what they spend, and leave monetary policy, defence and foreign affairs to Westminster.  What differs is how each government gets its share of taxpayer cash.

With Devo Max the Scots Revenue would collect all taxes, undertake all state spending and send a cheque south once a year to pay for reserved/shared functions – the reverse of the current “here’s-yer-pocket-money” scenario with cash heading up from London.

With Devo Plus Scots would collect their “own” oil and gas revenues, income tax and corporation tax whilst Westminster would collect everyone’s VAT and National Insurance.  This would make each government accountable for the money it spent instead of shipping Scotland’s current “tax spending without tax raising” dilemma south.

Devo plus is the mechanism of choice across most fiscally autonomous devolved governments in Europe – but it does appear a little messy and changeable.

If London raises VAT for example, the resulting squeeze on business could reduce Scottish income from Corporation Tax.  Devo Max, on the other hand is used in two Spanish regions and has the advantage of looking simple – though the tough job of weeding out pension contributions has prompted advocates of Devo Plus to leave this part of welfare with London as well.

OK – it’s not as “simple” as “yes” or “no”.  But then PR isn’t as “simple” as first past the post.  Anyone want to go back there?

Perhaps there’s still time for civic society to step up, define, fund and back a devo-something option.  Dream on.  2014 may seem a long way off, but time is already running out for the constitutional process.  So the “inconvenient truth” of Scotland’s devomax preferring majority is set to go nowhere fast – unless imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery.

Maybe, by 2014, independence effectively will be Devo Max – as near as dammit anyway – since the SNP plans to “share” monetary, defence and foreign policy powers with the rUK by keeping the Queen, the pound, joining NATO and continuing to “feel British.”

Of course, choosing to cede powers is very different to not having them in the first place.  So independence is still a far more radical option than devo anything.

And there’s the rub.

However this process is dressed up, badged or presented, a substantial and apparently growing number of Scots want to vote for an “inbetween” solution in 2014.

This can be a people’s choice or a party political choice – genuine democracy or an elegant stitch up – an expression of genuine diversity or the unsatisfactory outcome of a single binary choice.

One option or two options?  That really is the only single question that matters.


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