So, what the hell is wrong with Devolution?


By Bob Duncan
Ever since the SNP won a majority in the Scottish parliament in May 2011, there has been a great deal of discussion in the media about the possible alternatives to independence which might be offered as part of the referendum in 2014.  I have tried to categorise the main variants below, in order to examine some of the major issues they share.

I have attempted to use the now standard “Devo” nomenclature, even though this reads like a soft drink menu.  I have also given a brief description of each option.  These are deliberately short, so I am sure many will take exception to my definitions.

Independence (Devo Ultra)

As currently proposed, this involves Scotland becoming a sovereign nation with all taxes and duties being levied by Edinburgh. Scotland would retain the pound, as well as partial ownership of the Bank of England, and the Queen would be the Head of State. Scotland would receive the full benefit of its natural resources, including oil and gas revenues. There would almost certainly be some cooperation with the rUK, for example on currency and defence matters, but sovereignty would rest with Scotland.

Devo Max

This has several variants, but is essentially full fiscal autonomy. Scotland would raise all (or most) of its taxes and pay the UK for common services. London would retain control over currency, foreign policy and defence, with everything else controlled from Edinburgh. Scotland may (or may not) get all its oil & gas revenues and may (or may not) control areas such as pensions and welfare.

Devo Plus

This has been defined by Reform Scotland and is essentially an extension of the status quo to give Scotland more control over tax collection, including (some or all) of income tax and Corporation tax. Everything else would be collected by London and spent “on Scotland’s behalf”, with responsibilities being split between the two governments in a similar way to the status quo.

Devo Lite

This is the current settlement (once the Scotland Bill has been fully enacted in 2015), and might better be described as Calman Lite as it represents a watered down version of the proposals made by the Calman Commission. Under this settlement, the Scottish government receives a block grant from London, calculated using the Barnett formula, and almost all taxes and duties are levied directly by London, including all oil and gas revenues.

Devo Zero

This may seem like an unlikely option – a reversion to the pre-devolution state where there was no Scottish parliament – but it was the norm for 292 of the last 305 years and has been recently advocated by Tam Dalyell, the original poser of the West Lothian Question. If Scotland votes NO in 2014, this may be the mechanism chosen by the UK to avoid any future referendums.

The Discussion

The current proposals for the referendum by the Scottish government would include a single question to choose between independence and Devo Lite (no change), with the possibility of a second question on Devo Max or Devo Plus, if one of these is adopted by one or more of the unionist political parties.

There are several issues which will need to be dealt with by proponents of these options, and I will attempt to look at the most important of these below.

Of each of the five options described above, only the first – Independence – is in the gift of the Scottish people or government. A YES vote in 2014 will deliver independence – it is unthinkable that the UK government would simply ignore a YES vote, and it would surely lead to UDI if it did. However, each variant of Devo would need a bill to be passed in Westminster to enact it, and this would require the assent of English MPs who may not be keen to give it.

Currently, none of the unionist parties is offering anything other than the status quo (Devo Lite) and all three are insisting that the referendum must be limited to a single question.

The Lib Dems are consulting on a federal settlement, but this will not be on offer before 2014. The Tories in England are promising a review, but only after the referendum with no detail given, and their Scottish leadership is insisting that Devo Lite is a “line in the sand”. The Labour Party in Scotland is offering a post referendum commission, while their English leadership has yet to make any proposal.

It seems unlikely that any of these positions will change sufficiently before 2014 to make one of the other options viable, but we will need to wait and see. Additionally, as we will not see the details of any of these offers before the referendum, voters would be asked to support a “pig in a poke” if they opt for a devolved settlement.

Any devolved settlement, being in the gift of the UK government, can be altered (or reversed) by that same government. As Winston Churchill famously said, “Power devolved is power retained”. So any devolution is necessarily temporary, lasting only while it suits the purposes of the UK.

Advocates of any particular form of devolution, with the exception of Devo Zero (which is not actually a form of devolution), must explain which powers are to be retained by the UK and why this is so. Each power retained limits the freedom of choice of the Scottish people, so must be justified by showing that any disadvantages caused by retention are demonstrably and significantly outweighed by more powerful advantages. And these must be advantages for Scotland, not merely for the UK or England (or Westminster).

Independence is a relatively simple concept, so only the major details need to be spelled out before the referendum. Lower level detail will need to be negotiated as part of the cessation activity, and longer term policy will depend on which party wins each post-independence election, beginning with the one in May 2016.

Augmented devolved settlements such as Devo Max or Devo Plus will need to be worked out in fine detail and included as a manifesto commitment to implement in full. Even then, unless the commitment is made by each of the UK parties, the referendum result may become meaningless if the party making the commitment is unable to form the government in May 2015, the date of the first UK general election after the referendum.

There seems to be little point in voting for a referendum option which will only be honoured following a particular result in a subsequent election which takes place in another country.

Finally, any outcome in the referendum, other than a YES vote for Independence, is likely to lead to a backlash from the next UK government, regardless of its colour. The UK state is not likely to risk a series of referendums (a neverendum), having managed to defeat the current one, and will probably take steps to ensure that no further plebiscites are possible.

This may be done through a change in the Scotland Act to outlaw referendums altogether, or by scaling back or rescinding the powers of the Scottish parliament. Anyone who watched the Lords debates on the Scotland Bill earlier this year, or the Westminster committee on the referendum for “separation for Scotland”, will know the appetite there is among the London parties to curtail the aspirations of the Scottish people.

If we do not prevail this time, we may not be forgiven soon for our hubris.

Given the above, I would conclude that it is unlikely that any of the options will be deliverable by the 2014 referendum, beyond those of Independence and the status quo. The Zero option would be clearly unacceptable to the Scottish electorate, while the Devo plus and Devo Max offerings will not be offered by any party which could guarantee to deliver it, and it is unlikely that either will be adopted in any case.

The default position of the Unionist parties, therefore, would also seem to be the most likely to occur. That is, the referendum will consist of a straight YES/NO question on Independence versus the status quo (Devo Light), with several rather vague hints about “jam tomorrow” from the unionist parties, but no concrete or developed offers beyond the Scotland bill.

If this analysis is accurate, that leaves us in a straight fight between the YES and NO camps, with the race now on to convert the 20%-30% of voters who are currently undecided. For those of us in the YES camp, we know just what we need to do. two years of reassurance, two years of dispelling fears, two years of making the positive case for self determination should bring us what we wish.

The world’s newest, shiniest independent nation.

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